Drinks Poured into the Pool: Beyonce, George Michael and Inequality

At the end of last week, there was a brief flare of outrage about a shot from Beyonce’s new video (available only on Tidal), in which she apparently pours a bottle of champagne worth thousands of dollars into a swimming pool. As someone observed on Twitter, when there are people starving and homeless, this isn’t such a great look.

It has to be said that, on the scale of ridiculous and wasteful things that celebrities do, Beyonce’s act, though particularly blatant, isn’t a huge misdemeanour. But it’s fascinating that it attracted such criticism, when you consider that Beyonce is an especially glittering celebrity, one often lauded for her stance on issues such as feminism.

It’s fascinating, too, to think about this criticism in the context of another incident of a celebrity deliberately spilling drinks into the pool. I’m thinking, of course, of the gesture that in many ways sums up the 1980s, the moment in the video for Club Tropicana when George Michael pours his cocktail into the rippling blue waters on which his lilo floats.

While I was barely sentient at the time the video came out, I don’t recall that at the time when I did finally see it, sometime in the 1990s, there was any outrage expressed, nor does a quick Google search throw up any such commentary – and nor would one expect it. At the time, such extravagance probably looked exciting, challenging, a one fingered salute to the conventionality and respectability of previous eras. It would have been legitimised, too, by the ideology sweeping the world at the time, the one that held that greed was good and that concerns about inequality either reflected a small-minded desire for conformity or were simply irrelevant.

We live in a changed world now. Most people are aware, on some level, of the dark side of George Michael’s insouciant flip of the wrist – the spiralling gap between the haves and have nots that has opened up in the last 30 years. In this light, Beyonce’s champagne spillage looks much less exciting, and much more offensive.

This is not to say that I expect anytime soon a revolt against the celebrity system and its excesses, which go far, far beyond anything one hip hop star might do in a music video. And it’s dangerous to read too much into two snapshots. But I still think that last week’s reaction is another pointer to the public’s decreasing tolerance for inequality – and that this might be a good thing.