Judging by the Internet convulsions over Beyonce’s “Countdown” video, you’d think it alchemized gold, rescued rock ‘n’ roll and spewed a quart of dopamine into every bloodstream. It’s been breathlessly praised both by critics–”one of the best pop songs of the past several years,” wrote Fluxblog, representatively–and by listeners. Already, it’s been called the best song of her career–a career of over a decade that also contains the likes of “Say My Name,” “Crazy in Love” and “Single Ladies.”
How did we get here? Let’s count down the months, after the pre-release bellyaching but before the VMAs and Beyonce’s long coronation of an afterparty. 4 arrived with a faint but detectable whiff of starch and synthesizers–not “synths” but in unfashionable full. Early single “Run the World (Girls)” was more promising in theory than chart position, and its follow-up was Babyface dribble. The task was clear: find the obvious single; save Beyonce’s dominance.
Enter “Countdown,” an overlooked deep cut looked over by everyone–including Team Beyonce; months ago, the song’s intro also introduced ads for Beyonce’s “Year of 4” documentary. “Countdown” had everything: a chopped-up Boyz II Men sample, an “ella-ella-eh-eh-eh” or “ra-ra-ah-ah-ah” syllabic counterpart in “boof boof,” a fast tempo. And the responses were swift and many: a megabyte’s worth of speculation about and adulation of “boof boof,” two megabytes of commentary just about the track and at least five more megs of pleading for its single release. “Countdown” got radio play and charted before it was even a single. This means massive popular demand; it’d have been foolish for Beyonce’s team not to release “Countdown.”
Equally sharp was its video. It’s less a music video than a collage of infinitely GIFFable quick-cut facial expressions, dance moves and gestures. Some clips are sped up in post-production, as if they just finished loading in a browser; others are backgrounded with color blocks or splintered into Brady Bunch frames, as if they’ve been woodchipped by a meme generator. In some clips, Beyonce looks plausibly pregnant, always good for instant glee or ludicrosity. Naturally, it took mere hours for “Countdown” to be splintered and rebuilt as an army of memes: the zoetrope wall, loops of every individual section, exhaustive cultural-reference catalogs and, yes, enough real GIFs to reduce the hardiest CPU to whirring hiccups.
All this makes “Countdown” the perfect video for the digital age, where five-second previews are concentrated ambrosia from the record-label gods and any song is only as good as the panache with which it can be pulverized. “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)” did the same thing: coin a lyrical meme like “you shoulda put a ring on it,” coin a visual meme (or, in “Countdown”‘s case, a thousand), and you’ve got a shortcut hit. Using this criteria, “Countdown” shines. It’s infinitely reducible, every minute or second or moment bursting with glee, every scene or sequence or shot or component of a shot or pixel plucked from that component jittering with joy. The joy’s even more contagious for being retro. “This song takes me back to a time it wasn’t even made in,” wrote one YouTube commenter; that’s the point. Just as Beyonce’s Fosse slinking in “Single Ladies” was fetching enough to draw the world’s admiration but not sexualized enough for the moral guardians to run around thrusting their hands over everyone’s eyes, “Countdown” evokes the same pastel past–Audrey Hepburn! Fame! Dreamgirls!–also pedestalized by the likes of Pan Am and Cee-Lo Green’s 2011 career.
If you don’t like “Countdown,” it’s not because Beyonce and her team missed any trends. The opposite, in fact, could be said of 4 as a whole; while the album’s often slow-paced and deliberately mature, “Countdown” is breakneck and an immediate response to everything. Every development in Beyonce’s personal life is teased and luxuriated over, and every second of the track has been engineered, buffed and glitter-doused to seize your attention until the next second jolts it away. It’s telling that the catchiest memes have either lasted for handfuls of seconds or included ever-flashier visual tableaus; the track’s almost too overwhelming to take in at once. For some listeners, this is a bonus; you can start or stop listening to “Countdown” at any point, for any duration, and have the same experience. As a song, though, this makes “Countdown” completely incoherent.
It’s almost impossible, but try listening to “Countdown” with no context. Pretend Beyonce isn’t Beyonce, that she doesn’t love or know Jay-Z and isn’t pregnant, that the video just doesn’t exist; pretend “Countdown”‘s nine writers made it on spec for a songwriting camp, not custom for a megastar. Problems appear immediately. The track lurches from section to section without much dynamic variation; the closest thing to musical development is Beyonce spitting out “lip lockin’” instead of “riding.” The “ups and downs in this love” stanza is sweet as a dedication but a throwaway as a verse. The countdown itself has some brilliant lines like “trying to make a three from the two,” but others, like “he picked me up, we ate” or “he kiss me in his six,” are shoehorned. The track’s even got that most-hated innovation of modern lyrics: hashtags (“I’m all up under him like it’s cold–wintertime / all up in the kitchen in my heels–dinnertime”) The hooks are fast and flashy enough to whoosh past these issues, of course, but that’s not a solution so much as sleight of hand. “Countdown” moves so quickly that you don’t even notice how thinly its parts are connected and in how few places.
It’s a strange criticism for Beyonce, too, because nothing on 4 is this slapdash. “Countdown” almost seems accidental, where 4 is nothing if not impeccably curated. Take “Love on Top,” a loving paean to the R&B it evokes, or the chiseled emotional buildup of “I Care” and glacial emotions of “I Miss You,” or how “1+1″ gracefully circles the Sam Cooke song it references then pulls it into another place entirely. “Countdown” almost seems accidental. The Roberta Flack reference is so off-the-cuff you wonder if any of the songwriters acknowledged it, and the Boyz II Men sample is as context-free as a WAV file dug out of the file directory of a Windows 95 program. Even the original verses are so disconnected from one another that they might as well belong to four different songs. They all sound great; they just don’t sound deliberate.
All this makes “Countdown” as poor a representation of 4 as “Run the World (Girls)” was, and more so for every time it’s pushed up above the rest of the album. The flashiest tracks always get single releases, of course, no matter which album they’re on, but “Crazy in Love” and “Single Ladies”–the last two tracks this happened with–at least stand alone as songs, even if Dangerously in Love and I Am… Sasha Fierce respectively are more complex as whole albums than either track. The most compelling thing about “Countdown” isn’t the song but how it casts Beyonce as a memetic goddess–which is more compelling, of course, than Beyonce moving into the mature but muted tones of her mid-career. “Countdown” is a good, even great song and undeniably an album standout. It deserves praise. It doesn’t deserve to reduce 4 to an endless two-second loop of boof.