I can understand why “Single Ladies” might be horrifying on an ideological level, but anyone who’s followed Beyoncé’s career can’t be all that surprised by it. For B, romance has always been a cold and materialistic thing, a battle of the sexes in which traditional gender roles are used as secure battlements from which to achieve victory. Love is never trusted, and needs to be constantly reaffirmed; the only way to achieve balance is for both parties to become financially independent, at which point any emotional violations become essentially meaningless. Should the partnership be dissolved, there will be no regret or remorse, only a relentless march towards retribution and renewal. It’s empowering on the surface, but underneath it seems banal and depressing.
In “Single Ladies,” men are treated as a fungible mass, their only important quality being the willingness to commit. But there’s a sense of false bravado here, too—a stiff upper lip covering over the undeniable emotional commitment of “three good years” with a kind of flippant apathy. The song’s appeal is not to our empathy, but to our self-interest—which might make it even more effective.