WHEN BEYONCÉ OFFICIALLY unveiled her aggressive onstage alter-ego Sasha Fierce — in 2008 — single ladies everywhere identified with her sassy take on a common female complaint: men’s unwillingness to commit in a relationship. One of the best-selling singles of all time, “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)” took home three Grammys and spawned countless cross-cultural, cross-generational YouTube tributes and spoofs, featuring everyone from babies and cartoon chipmunks to Justin Timberlake shaking it in heels and a black leotard on Saturday Night Live.
At the time of its release, Houston native Beyoncé Knowles was already one decade deep into the superstardom she’d achieved as a member of Destiny’s Child and later as a solo artist. She commenced work on her third studio album, I Am…Sasha Fierce, with the idea of contrasting the character of Sasha with her more reserved, introspective offstage persona. As she researched the life of bold blues goddess Etta James in preparation for her film role in Cadillac Records, Beyoncé became inspired to experiment more with her own music, from frank lyrics to acoustic guitar licks and electro-pop synths. “I was a lot more bold and fearless after I played Etta James,” she says. “Some of the music I would have been afraid to make, I wasn’t. I got more guts, more confidence as a human being.”
Beyoncé recorded over 70 songs for I Am…Sasha Fierce over the course of eight months, in studios scattered as far and wide as Atlanta, New York, Ibiza, Los Angeles, Miami Beach and Burbank, before narrowing down the final 11 tracks. She recorded “Single Ladies” in April 2008 at Burbank’s Boom Boom Room Studio. Terius “The-Dream” Nash, also famous for penning Rihanna’s Grammy-winning hit “Umbrella,” conceptualized the song in response to Beyoncé’s reticence to discuss her secret marriage to Jay-Z. According to producer Christopher “Tricky” Stewart, who crafted the song’s signature shuffle beat, the subject was one that women wanted to talk about, since so many men are terrified of long-term commitment. “It was the only public statement [Beyoncé and Jay-Z] ever made about marriage,” he explains, referring to the couple’s low-profile nuptials. (So low-profile that Beyoncé didn’t even publicly debut her $5 million designer ring until months after the fact.)
“Single Ladies” juxtaposes playful schoolyard chants and an upbeat tempo against its more serious lyrical statement. First, Beyoncé rallies the troops, so to speak, by exchanging a call-and-response refrain with her back-up singers: “All the single ladies! All the singles ladies! (Now put your hands up!)” Then she lets loose as whistles, hand claps and Morse code beeps pan in and out over a pulsing bass drum, keyboard and synthesizers. Celebrating in a club post-breakup, and bolstered by friends, the song’s heroine chides her jealous ex-lover with the chorus, “If you liked it, then you shoulda put a ring on it.” Beyoncé’s vocal delivery manages to be both gleeful and rueful as she looks back on her previous relationship — “Just cried my tears for three good years / Ya can’t be mad at me” — culminating in an exhilarating bridge, in which she roars, “What I deserve is a man that makes me, then takes me, and delivers me to a destiny, to infinity and beyond.”
Columbia Records first released the song on Oct. 13, 2008, alongside the more pensive ballad “If I Were a Boy,” drawing attention to two very different interpretations of the female experience. Where “Single Ladies” is sassy, confident and commanding, “If I Were a Boy” is sensitive and restrained, highlighting feelings of vulnerability in a relationship. While the album’s overall concept of dueling personalities failed to impress critics, the individual songs on I Am…Sasha Fierce earned high praise, particularly “Single Ladies,” which received Grammy Awards for Song of the Year, Best R&B Song and Best Female R&B Vocal Performance. The song is one of the best-selling singles of all time — it’s been certified quadruple-platinum — peaking at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Internationally, the song was a top-10 hit on singles charts in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Spain and the U.K.
Its accompanying music video, directed by Jake Nava and choreographed by Frank Gatson, Jr. and JaQuel Knight, was shot entirely in black and white against a plain studio background, featuring J-setting lead-and-follow dance moves inspired by a routine called “Mexican Breakfast” that was performed in a 1969 episode of The Ed Sullivan Show. The dance routine, originally choreographed by Tony-winning Broadway star Bob Fosse, had become a viral sensation on YouTube the previous summer. In the “Single Ladies” spin on the dance, Beyoncé and two back-up dancers wear sleek Vogue-photo-shoot-inspired high-cut leotards, tights and heels, and perform a series of eight-beat cheerleader-style moves in sequence. The moves were specifically choreographed to draw attention to the hands and fingers, all leading up to the big reveal of Beyoncé’s own wedding ring near the end. “Beyoncé doesn’t need anything but an empty room in this one,” remarked one critic. “It’s all about the dancing. It’s all about the leotard. It’s all about the fierceness. And it’s epic.”
The iconic music video, which was, ironically, also the quickest and least expensive to produce, is credited with spawning the first major dance craze of the Internet age, earning Video of the Year, Best Choreography and Best Editing at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. (It was also the song that sparked the infamous televised tantrum in which Kanye West interrupted country darling Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech for Best Female Video to declare “Single Ladies” “one of the best videos of all time.” A gracious Beyoncé invited Swift back onstage to finish her speech when she won Video of the Year for the song mere moments later.)
The call-and-response nature of both the lyrics and the dance routine made it accessible to audiences of all ages and backgrounds, who quickly took to YouTube with their own interpretations — from toddlers twirling in diapers to Barack Obama impersonator Iman Crosson’s celebration of the President’s inauguration in a video that has received more than 22 million views — cementing the 17-time Grammy winner’s place at the top of the pop charts. Good thing Jay-Z did decide to put a ring on it.