A sequence of blown-up stills from two music videos for the Beyoncé song "Crazy in Love" showed up recently on Broadway. Each one is a quotation several times removed: big, black-and-white, and grainy. They were taken from YouTube by the artist Gretchen Bennett, who turned them into monochromatic sketches, basic studies of light and dark, and wheat-pasted them onto the temporary wall that blocks off the construction site for the Capitol Hill light-rail station. (The piece, called Crazy in Love, has the blessing of Sound Transit.)
There are 10 drawings in a row on this red wall, without gaps between them. Progressing south on Broadway from John Street to Denny Way—this is how you'd read them left to right if you were facing them across the street—an obscured face appears first, then a soft and homely face, then a pair of eyebrows made up so heavily they appear to be in drag. This is not Beyoncé. It is not until you are several stills into the sequence that the commanding pop star appears, her wicked eyebrows flaring, her face—thumb bitten seductively—partially obscured by the MTV logo, her arms raised and light raining down on her body, like MJ in the Pepsi commercial that set him on fire. But who was that other woman?
Beyoncé released "Crazy in Love" on the album Dangerously in Love in 2003, and it was a major hit, her first number-one solo single. It won two Grammy Awards, for best R&B song and best rap/sung collaboration (with Jay-Z, who would become her husband), and three MTV Music Video Awards. The video is high budget and high octane, with many costume and scene changes, and a whole crew of backup dancers. It includes a sequence in which Beyoncé gyrates next to Jay-Z—he does not seem to notice—while he raps, as a car bursts into flames behind them. Beyoncé, in high heels, kicks a fire hydrant open and dances in the water as it comes gushing out.
Six years later, another video was released for "Crazy in Love." This one was by British-born transgender torch singer Antony Hegarty, who performs under the name Antony and the Johnsons. The song is orchestral and much slower, the music reworked to reflect the lyrical themes. The lyrics to Beyoncé's song were written by producer Rich Harrison (according to lore, the entire song was created in a matter of hours in the studio) and are easily mined for pathos. What Beyoncé belts out, Antony moans: "When I talk to my friends so quietly/Who he think he is? Look at what you did to me... The way that you know what I thought I knew/It's the beat that my heart skips when I'm with you... Got me looking so crazy right now, your love's/Got me looking so crazy right now." Antony wears a wavy brunette wig and light, femmey makeup. He sits in a room, forlorn, with light shining around him but never quite on him. We see him beneath a canopy of leaves, in a forest or a jungle where the sun doesn't penetrate. Occasionally we see shots of a nightclub and the mask-face of the drag artist Pink Lady. The camera is shaky.
Hearing and seeing Antony's version of "Crazy in Love" brings to light a simple, peculiar fact: Beyoncé is not crazy in love and she's not even pretending to be. This isn't a weakness. Her job is to perform a pop persona that does not really change from song to song, and she does it better than almost anyone. In her version of "Crazy in Love," you don't really notice the lyrics and what they might mean. You notice the pumping pop sounds, especially the killer horn hook (sampled from a 1970 Chi-Lites song). You might listen to Jay-Z's rhymes, but you probably won't notice that he's commenting on musical styles (when he says, "The genuine article/I do not sing though," he's identifying himself as a pure hiphopper, not an artist who bends to the marketability of R&B or pop, like, say, Beyoncé). You will almost certainly not notice that Beyoncé's chant of "uh-oh, uh-oh, uh-oh, oh no no" reads like fear when it's spelled out on paper.
But Bennett's visual pairing of the two "Crazys" will lead you down these new roads. It's not just the juxtaposition of two very different versions of female (or female-identified) singers right out in the middle of the street on Broadway, it's also the fact that they are lined up like comics, to be read left to right: to be read at all. And the fact that Antony's stills appear to the left, where you start your reading, suggests a novel idea: that the cover version of this song came before the original. The idea is not that the cover version actually predated the original; it didn't. Instead, the idea is that Antony, by meaning the words, is acting as their vessel, their true author. His "Crazy in Love" is heartfelt rather than quickly produced and recorded. His version channels the traditional value of authenticity as in folk music, where the song comes from the singer's life and experience. Antony's video overtly uses visual drag but expresses musical naturalism—and it makes Beyoncé's cool, disconnected pop version come across as musical drag.
In queering Beyoncé's song, Antony takes a sort of inverted ownership of it. Antony's darker visions are the ones that illuminate, but the relationship is aching and codependent, still: While listening to Antony sing sadly, you can feel the missing rhythms and horns of the omnipresent pop version, like the sun shining far away in Antony's video. The tortured relationship between the two is what's making him crazy in love, dangerously in love.
The drawings on Broadway pick up where Bennett's previous study of light, dark, and music left off—with Kurt Cobain. Her color drawings of YouTube stills of Kurt's performances (in the Kurt exhibition at SAM, closing September 6) are attempts to salvage bits of real character from the shipwreck of Kurt's destruction, to find something real and lasting in all the glinty reflections left behind. In a recent talk at SAM, she said her greatest influence on the Kurt series was J.M.W. Turner, the early-19th-century artist who painted shipwrecks and other landscapes dissolved and reborn under what critic John Ruskin called "the living light": "the motion, the actual wave and radiation of the darted beam: not the dull universal daylight, which falls on the landscape without life, or direction, or speculation, equal on all things and dead on all things; but the breathing, animated, exulting light, which feels, and receives, and rejoices, and acts." This is the light Bennett seeks and finds on YouTube. It fights with the dark to find things.