Was anyone ready for the new-look Beyoncé?
After creating a body of work that celebrated self-empowerment through sexuality, Queen Bey has released searing music that tackles themes such as black femininity, social inequality, spirituality, and marital politics. In other words, she has become culturally relevant. Striving to be culturally relevant does not always work for musicians and actors, as Sean Penn’s embarrassing attempt to inject himself into the national conversation about drugs demonstrates. But for Beyoncé, courting controversy through social commentary has made both her music and her personal brand bigger than ever.
It’s not uncommon for musicians to use their art and fame as a platform for social commentary, but it’s hard to do without coming across as preachy or without putting the message before the artistic quality of the song. And being culturally relevant by commenting on topical issues can be risky even if the artist has sincere intentions. Lady Gaga has successfully built a reputation beyond her music by being a champion of LGBTQ rights. But the Dixie Chicks nearly killed their careers by speaking out against the War in Iraq in 2003.
For years, Beyoncé’s music has focused largely on love and sexuality, while tiptoeing around social issues such as race. But her personal life has been another matter. She has publicly supported human rights issues such as same-sex marriage and women’s empowerment. She and Jay Z met with the families of Mike Brown and Freddie Gray in the aftermath of Brown’s and Gray’s controversial deaths at the hands of police officers. She has expressed sympathy for people in Baltimore protesting Gray’s death.
Now her music is catching up to her life. First came “Formation,” her potent celebration of black identity that she dropped during Super Bowl weekend this year. The song’s video sparked a controversy with its images suggestive of police brutality and insensitivity. The controversy became even more pointed when she performed the song during Super Bowl 50 with back-up singers dressed like the militant Black Panthers. Law enforcement authorities denounced her and called for boycotts of her Formation Tour, which kicks off April 27.
But the controversy created curiosity. And curiosity resulted in more eyeballs glued to the “Formation” video, which resulted in more people discovering not only how good the song is but how riveting Beyoncé is as a performer. Can anyone say they could take their eyes off her during the video? Here was Beyoncé defiant, determined, self-assured, revealing another evocative layer beyond her obvious sexual persona. In the weeks after “Formation” was released, Beyoncé was out-trending Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump on Google (as I noted in a recent CMO.com column).
Meanwhile, when tickets for the Formation tour went on sale following her Super Bowl 50 appearance, dates began selling out at multiple locations immediately amid the calls for a boycott. Billboard estimates that the Formation tour will gross as much as $250 million from just 40 concerts.
If all Beyoncé had done in 2016 was to release “Formation,” she would have created a career-defining moment. But she was not finished. As we all know, on April 23, she dropped a surprise album, Lemonade, in conjunction with an HBO musical special that expressed the album’s themes visually.
With Lemonade, Beyoncé unleashed a tour de force of music that affirms the power of her black femininity in the context of a raw narrative involving marital infidelity (to wit, Jay Z’s). The album is both personal and yet speaks to broader themes, as is evident in the HBO “visual album.” For instance, while she calls out her husband for his infidelities, you hear a voice-over from a 1962 speech by Malcolm X, “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman,” thus turning her personal struggle into an appeal to black sisterhood.
When she dismisses her cheating husband with the line “He better call Becky with the good hair,” she uses slang for a white woman, which has not only triggered a public brouhaha over the identity of the real-life Becky but also sparked speculation about the lyric’s racial meaning. For instance, journalist Bené Viera wrote on Facebook:
Let’s start here though: Beyoncé made #Lemonade for Black women first, then Black people as a whole. . . . If you didn’t know what ‘call Becky with the good hair’ meant without Googling, put your pen down. . . . Put aside the gossip for a second to dig a bit deeper. . . . This is about so much more than her working through a man cheating. It’s about black womanhood and that journey of coming into your own . . . Black women ALWAYS being given lemons but making lemonade. Don’t reduce it to a story about infidelity. Please.
And indeed, infidelity is part of the story, but certainly not the defining element — her black identity is at the core of the album. For instance, in “Freedom,” a collaboration with Kendrick Lamar, she and Lamar explore the meaning of American blackness, with Beyoncé vowing, “I break chains all by myself/Won’t let my freedom rot in hell.”
Elsewhere in the visual treatment of the album, you see images of grieving mothers holding up photos of young black men infamously killed through gun violence, including Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin.
Bené Viera is correct: reducing Lemonade to a story about infidelity misses much broader themes.
We will no doubt examine these themes with greater scrutiny and glean Beyoncé’s words and music for deeper meaning with the Formation tour kicking into high gear. And Lemonade itself, which is available online, receives wider release May 6. The album is expected to sell well (bucking a trend for albums overall) although the jury is still out as to whether streaming the album exclusively on Tidal first helps or hurts her commercially speaking. (Jay Z owns Tidal, and she is a financial partner.)
So why has Beyoncé’s recent reinvention been a success within just a few months? For me, three reasons stand out:
1. The Music Resonates
Her angst is a powerful muse inspiring uniformly strong reviews — the best of her career, so far. Her songs bristle with an energy and edge that make you not only pay attention to her message but also enjoy the music itself. The writing (for which she has received a lot of help from many collaborators) is raw and confessional without being overbearing. Beyoncé has successfully adapted the Trojan Horse approach that Public Enemy mastered: earn your way into your listener’s ears by delivering great music worth hearing — and then let your audience discover your message through the words.
2. She Has an Audience
Her clarion call to sisterhood has a receptive audience — the same one that fueled the popularity of #equalpay and #ImwithHer — and most certainly a larger one than when she was singing, “I’m-a let you be the boss of me” on the song “Blow.” She’s always ruled the music press, but with Lemonade, she’s appearing everywhere, and writers beyond the realm of music are noticing the strong shift in themes, as these headlines show:
· “Beyoncé’s Lemonade Is about Much More Than Jay Z and Infidelity” (The Guardian)
· “Beyoncé’s Lemonade Is Black Woman Magic” (Time)
· “What Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’ Means for Women Who Have Miscarried” (The Washington Post)
· “Beyoncé: The New Political Goddess” (CNN)
The Guardian article, by writer Ijeoma Oluo, shows how much Lemonade has struck a nerve. Oluo is a Seattle-based writer who does not cover music regularly; she focuses on feminism and social justice. Here’s her reaction to Lemonade:
I was not expecting to be cracked wide open by this project. I was not expecting to shed a lifetime of tears. But I did. Lemonade is about so much more than one relationship and its infidelity. Lemonade is about the love that black women have — the love that threatens to kill us, makes us crazy and makes us stronger than we should ever have to be.
Although the album focuses specifically on black sisterhood, Lemonade resonates with nonblack audiences, too, just as white suburbanites buy music made by rappers from Compton. As writer Megan Carpentier notes, Lemonade has become a pop culture phenomenon that knows no boundaries. Powerful music has a way of appealing to a wide variety of audiences by creating emotional connections that are universal. If you celebrate #equalpay and #ImwithHer, you’re probably paying close attention to Lemonade regardless of your background.
3. She Walks the Talk
As noted, the music reflects the life she leads, most notably through her support of young black men who have been victims of violence in highly publicized cases. Remember also her appearance in the “Ban Bossy” video created to raise awareness for female empowerment. It turns out when she said, “I’m the boss” in the video, she was giving a hint of what was to follow. She might not be as vocal outside of music as Lady Gaga is. But she’s been picking her moments to make her statements.
By becoming culturally relevant, Beyoncé is firing on all cylinders: achieving commercial success and critical acceptance, and broadening her audience base beyond her famously loyal Beyhive. We always knew Beyoncé was a premier performer. Now we know she is an artist with a social voice.