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Beyoncé and ‘Lemonade’: Vision and art confront media clichés

Written By | May 23, 2016

WASHINGTON, May 20, 2016 – Back in February, Beyoncé dropped the song “Formation” on an unsuspecting public. She then followed it up with a politically charged Super Bowl halftime show performance that became something of a cultural touchstone. It was known, of course, that the artist was going to perform at the Super Bowl. But it was a surprise when she released “Formation” just days before, which caused not only an advance stir among social media, but became the most talked about musical item in nearly all entertainment media outlets.

While “Formation” arrived with no formal signal that a new album would be upcoming, fans quickly determined that was the case. Even with that expectation, when Beyoncé gave the announcement just days before of an HBO special entitled “Lemonade,” no one was quite ready for what followed. This was not only the release of a new “music” album. Beyoncé’s fans would also be experiencing a visual album in the process. “Lemonade” was, in fact, a fully formed hour and five minute film combining the entirety of her album within a video format spliced with spoken word interludes.

With this release, Beyoncé once again became the most talked about musical celebrity on the planet as the buzz around this album set all media formats ablaze for the next several days. Nothing about this is new for Beyoncé, of course. She has not only become the most talked about musician on the current scene.

But considering how urgent and immediate her musical presence continues to be, she is virtually guaranteed to attract the media spotlight whenever she decides to make her that presence known. She has become so ubiquitous in 2016, that her current pop music reign has only been rivaled by the recent deaths of musical icons David Bowie and Prince.

Now that “Lemonade” is known to almost everyone even remotely aware of pop culture – in the U.S. anyway – there has been an endless parade of praise, reviews, critiques, hot takes, and dismissals ever since its release. Everyone has an opinion on Beyoncé and a fair number of those people insist that their opinions be heard, regardless of merit.

This isn’t a review or even really a discussion of “Lemonade.” Realistically, it might be far too early to break down or unpack everything that’s happening with the album both sonically and visually. This takes considerable time and reflection. Additionally, it would be easy to use the album as a springboard to opine on what Beyoncé means to music, feminism, womanhood, relationships, celebrity, motherhood, black empowerment and how all that intersects. But it doesn’t quite feel like the proper time for that, either. Beyoncé will be around long enough for that kind of analysis some time later.

As for now, to say there’s a majority opinion on Beyoncé and her current output feels a bit disingenuous. There are too many wildly varying opinions to really reach a consensus.

That said, one of the most insidious threads in the current conversation is a tendency to dismiss Beyoncé’s artistry from the start and accuse her of being purely a media and PR creation. This isn’t anything new, but it’s definitely increased in volume since “Lemonade” was released. Even if the idea isn’t a relative majority, it’s certainly a loud opinion, and, conveniently, one that requires very little in the way of critical engagement.

The premise behind it is that Beyoncé is a group-controlled pop star whose life, music and presence is being manipulated by any number of sources, including her family, producers, agents… whatever. It’s basically a groupthink phenomenon geared toward doubting her authenticity. Some of this derives from her artistic origins, starting out from her teenage years with Destiny’s Child. The notion here is that she’s never escaped the kind of control that’s often associated with being a child star.

Even if that may have been the case, most child stars eventually grow out of that mold if they continue to be successful. So it’s curious that Beyoncé is still plagued with that cookie cutter backstory label. That implies, among other things, that she hasn’t grown from those days and is somehow – assuming up front she ever was – entirely manufactured. Yet this meme only works if you leave out how often racism and misogyny intersects her life as reported in the media. Otherwise, how could she create as much as she has and create such an impact simply by being black and female?

Some basic facts to start though. “Lemonade” has 12 tracks. For these, around 72 writers are credited along with various producers. Additionally, seven directors accompany the visual segment of the album. But when you actually break down who actually put it all together, the number who directly worked on the product itself is well within the single digits, and, unsurprisingly, Beyoncé is the only one who appears everywhere on the album.

Given all that, to suggest she doesn’t have control of the album on either a musical or visual level reduces her agency to that of a puppet, an argument that becomes disingenuous due either to ignorance, obtuseness, or viciousness toward the collaborative process that dominates throughout most of the performing arts world. What’s more important is simply recognizing that Beyoncé puts her name, voice, and image on everything that has to do with “Lemonade.”

Everything that encompasses Beyoncé as a person, musician, and artist has much more value than anyone else associated with the project, and she has built herself up to the point where that value actually has meaning. That’s why whenever she releases a new product or even makes a statement so many eyes are focused directly on her. There are rewards just as there are consequences to all this. But regardless, she owns all of it and expresses herself in the best way she knows how.

In collaborative art, such as that contributing to the making of the current album, the key element is the artist’s intent. This is why it’s generally pointless to argue about who’s “behind” Beyoncé’s music, because it’s Beyoncé who’s on stage, being shot at and taking shots. When music and video is intertwined, all that matters is Beyoncé and the words and images she layers in behind her emotions and thoughts.

After watching or listening to Lemonade it’s hard to fathom how anyone could come to the conclusion this isn’t Beyoncé’s ultimate creative vision. Too much of her essence is here, often bursting at the seams, and too much of it is specific and pointed emotion that could only derive from Beyoncé’s specific, personal intent. Watching and hearing Beyoncé on this powerful album is an experience that hits the audience right between the eyes.

But that’s part of both the purpose and appeal of Beyoncé. There is artistic merit to her music. But, as we see on “Lemonade,” the full impact of her artistic vision occurs when images are put to her music. It’s a phenomenon even more relevant when she’s up on stage in person.

Again, it’s possible to compartmentalize all these aspects of Beyoncé and dissect them individually. But that misses so much about her as an artist and ultimately gives any impression that she’s simply a partially formed picture—a mischaracterization that leaves any discussion of her incomplete at best.

“Lemonade” isn’t just a piece of music or a series of videos, but art in a specific and original form and format. This isn’t a value judgment of the quality of her album. It’s simply a statement of fact. Beyoncé has been around long enough to have honed not only her craft but also her artistic and moral vision. That’s exactly what her most recent incarnation in “Lemonade” reflects and reinforces.

In turn, that’s exactly kind of engagement that should happen before anyone decides to sit down and opine on both “Lemonade” and Beyoncé as a performer and creative force.

Stephen Bradley

Stephen Bradley is an avid music listener and an occasional writer. He grew up in the Washington DC area and has been embedded in the local music scene for years. Currently he lives in Vienna, VA. He enjoys bands that have been broken up for at least a decade.