Notable for being the first time Beyoncé showcased her onstage alter ego, Sasha Fierce, “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)” was greeted with a mixed response when it premiered on the same day as the far more melodic “If I Were A Boy” back in October 2008.
Produced by Tricky Stewart and The Dream, the female empowerment anthem may have been underpinned by an addictive percussive rhythm, but its sparse instrumentation and lack of an obvious tune ensured it was instantly overshadowed by the other half of the double A-side.
Indeed, in the same week that “If I Were A Boy” rapidly rose to No.3 on the Billboard charts, “Single Ladies” was languishing outside the Top 50. And yet just a month later, it was the latter that had given Beyonce a fifth solo number one. The reason for the sudden turnaround was undoubtedly its now iconic accompanying video.
A marked departure from the usual big-budget glossy affairs that she had previously worked with director Jake Nava on (“Crazy In Love,” “Baby Boy,” “Naughty Girl”), its black-and-white visual was the only thing it had in common with the cinematic storytelling of I Am…Sasha Fierce’s other lead single.
Set entirely in an infinity cove, featuring a distinct lack of costume changes and focusing solely on Beyonce and her two backing dancers (Ebony Williams & Ashley Everett), the highly stylized three-minute clip was the pure definition of the performance video. And yet it was this apparent simplicity which immediately struck a chord with audiences like no other promo in her decade as a superstar.
Based on an old Bob Fosse routine (“Mexican Breakfast”) first performed by his wife Gwen Verdon on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1969, and later dubbed over on the viral hit video for Unk’s US Top 10 hit, “Walk It Out,” in 2006, the dance moves were of course instrumental to its success.
Also introducing the world to the art of J-Setting, a form of lead and follow hip-hop dance pioneered first by the majorettes of Jackson State University in the 1970s and then the African-American gay scene 20 years later, Frank Gatson and JaQuel Knight’s choreography provided a masterclass in how to blend the vintage with the modern.
But everything else just worked perfectly too. From the eye-catching asymmetrical leotard and high heels combo designed by Beyonce’s mother Tina Knowles (inspired by the classic musicals A Chorus Line and All That Jazz), to the unusual titanium roboglove created by her long-time jeweller Lorraine Schwartz, to the actual song itself, which suddenly felt more like a girls’ night out karaoke classic than a tune-free mess.
Not only did the video propel the song to the top of the charts, it also quickly inspired thousands of imitations. Proud of the video’s impact on pop culture, Beyonce actually used excerpts from many of the homages performed by her biggest fans during the I Am…Sasha Fierce tour, while she actually joined Justin Timberlake and Andy Samberg to parody the song when she appeared on Saturday Night Live during the height of the track’s success.
Several other high-profile names were also keen to get in on the action including Joe Jonas, who donned a leotard for his YouTube tribute, the characters of Kurt, Tina and Brittany in the first series of Glee, and most staggeringly of all, President Barack Obama, who did the “Single Ladies” hand wave whilst meeting John Legend in 2009 and again in 2012, when speaking to a couple who had just got engaged.
Not that it needed any more assistance in becoming a phenomenon, but the video’s iconic status was truly cemented at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards when Kanye West famously interrupted Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech to declare his outrage that ‘one of the best videos of all time’ had been snubbed for the Best Female Video Award in favor of the country star’s “You Belong To Me.”
Beyonce has since reverted back to her more familiar expensive and high-concept video style, from the Amazonian warrior look of “Run The World (Girls)” to the cartoonish femme fatale treatment of Lady Gaga collaboration “Telephone.” But it’s unlikely that she will ever produce anything as effective yet utterly simple as “Single Ladies.”