Beyonce, ‘Lemonade’ and Gossip: Do We Still Get the Wrong Impression of Expression?
"No one is reading into anything in an artful way or experiencing anything from a nonjudgmental perspective and it’s exhausting to be an artist where everything you do is judged as opposed to felt. No one is feeling anymore."
I was interviewing the soul singer and she was explaining her frustration to me regarding the public's attention span, or lack thereof, as it pertains to art. I've been reminded of that conversation through other conversations over the past week; conversations about Beyonce's latest album, Lemonade.
Beyonce delivered the ambitious project this past weekend, alongside a gripping short film comprised of several music videos. The songs deal with anger, hurt and the strength that can be found in both; and the accompanying visuals were stunning--the most fully-realized and engaging work of the superstar's career. But while fans and critics were raving about Lemonade as a creative triumph, the general public seemed to be more concerned with the state of Beyonce's marriage.
The lyrics are so pointed, so real--that listeners immediately assumed that her marriage to rapper/mogul Jay Z was, at best, experiencing some turbulence or, at worst, on the verge of collapse. Amidst all the speculation, the couple was spotted out and it was reported that Jay actually loves the album. When no evidence of marital ruin surfaced, people began to dismiss the project as "fake" or cynically praise both Jay and Bey for their "marketing genius" in getting people to buy into their "ruse" to sell an album.
But both perspectives seem to wholly miss the point of what Lemonade is: an evocative statement of pain and triumph projected onto the shared experiences of black womanhood. And the reaction to it makes me think: maybe Chrisette was right, maybe we don't "read into anything in an artful way" anymore.
I love Otis Redding, and from his songs you would think that he was constantly heartbroken. But he was a happily married man. Does being happily married negate pain and heartache? Of course not. But I never asked if he was "really" in literal emotional turmoil--because I didn't need to believe he was actually going through pain in order for me to be moved by his expression. And I didn't treat his art like it was disingenuous or inauthentic after I learned of his marital status. Because I don't know what went on behind closed doors. I didn't need some gossipy backstory in order to appreciate great work.
So the preoccupation with whether or not Beyonce and Jay Z are having marital issues feels kind of shallow if one is attempting to appraise the work itself.
I don't care if the anger/frustration is tied directly to some current friction; just because a relationship is fine now doesn't mean it was always fine. The hurt and anger in those songs is as real as any artistic release should be--and that doesn't require every single lyric to be entirely, directly literal. It never has. Knowing the stories behind albums like My Life, Jagged Little Pill and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill help you understand where those artists were coming from--but they shouldn't determine whether or not you like the work itself or whether the work is valid or sincere.
It's not impossible to consider that Beyonce's musical angst comes from a very real place--which I believe it does. But why dwell on whether it is/isn't? We're obsessing on it because Jay Z and Beyonce are a very famous couple. And in the age of social media and reality TV, we believe that being a very famous couple means your inner turmoil is part of the public domain. Kanye West raps about his sex life with Kim Kardashian (while Amber Rose tweets about his bedroom fetishes); Future disses his ex-fiancee Ciara on Twitter; Chris Brown overshares constantly on Instagram and we watch an endless parade of B-listers displaying their relationship drama on shows like Love & Hip-Hop.
We have a constant loop of ready-made drama attached to our favorite artists. We've gotten so used to artists oversharing that we now feel entitled to know everything--and we feel cheated, otherwise. That's what "real" is to us now: tabloid spectacle. And because there is no personal spectacle attached to Lemonade, the public is acting like they've been conned. Whoever told us we were entitled to more?
The other reason this kind of "critique" happens is because it's Beyonce--who some still refuse to believe is capable of any kind of depth, growth or introspection as an artist. Those people attack the fact that there are tons of songwriters on the album (Alanis, Mary and Lauryn worked with numerous songwriters on their most acclaimed albums, too--as does Kanye); they attack the fact that Jay Z isn't living in a hotel somewhere with his head in his hands; they attack the fact that she was just singing about Red Lobster on "Formation" two months ago and now she's mad as hell.
As if she can't be a whole person--let alone an important artist.
There's a mindset that some people have that implies that a celebrity has to be "the problem" once they are of a certain stature. Detractors need to be able to look at you and scream "sell out" to make them feel validated for not being a fan--and some people found Beyonce guilty a long time ago without any real evidence. She had the radio hits and the endorsements and the celebrity--everything that makes it easy to decide she was just a shill for the Evil Music Industry Machine to the more pretentious members of the earth-tones 'n incense set. They decided she "didn't care" without ever knowing of her activism. They decided she wasn't intelligent while they quoted the most vapid rappers and rockers. They decided she was a "puppet" while their favorites sold liquor and sneakers for corporations. They decided she was just a vacuous pop star.
She's disproven all of that since forever ago, but they cling to that perception of her. Some have a superficial sense of what it means to be an artist; they only appreciate topical art when it's presented by artists who subscribe to a certain aesthetic. So if a singer-songwriter, carrying an acoustic guitar and wearing an ankh, delivered a project as ambitious as Lemonade, those critics would likely be more willing to receive it. They don't hate Lemonade--they hate that it came from Beyonce.
Maybe Lemonade doesn't move you at all--not all art is going to resonate with all people. But before you rush to praise or condemn Beyonce for making an album about pain without turning her life into spectacle, ask yourself: why do we need for her to? Ask yourself what makes art "real" and determine whether or not you can truly appreciate creativity as anything more than just a vessel for celebrity gossip.
Because it's sad to think that we have to watch an artist bleed in order to believe their pain is real.