Beyoncé: many things all at once


Carol Oja in the TLS:

In the two months since Lemonade’s release, it has provoked an extraordinary cultural critique, with articles ranging from besotted fandom to probing essays about its racial and feminist politics. In fact, the visual album is simultaneously clear-as-a-bell and obscure, even at times surreal. In the “Denial” section, for example, Beyoncé falls off a very tall building, then is submerged under water. She floats like a ghost over a bed, ultimately striding forth from a building that suggests a seat of power, and she does so amid yet another surge of water. The omnipresence of water conjures up the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, which later moves to the foreground in “Formation”. The narrative ostensibly has an autobiographical thread, albeit with a celebrity tinge, with many critics claiming that it exposes Jay Z’s infidelity.

At a deeper level, Lemonade decries the history of oppression of African American women. “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman”, intones the sampled voice of Malcolm X after “Don’t Hurt Yourself”, the third song in the album.

Lemonade, then, is many things all at once: an extended feminist anthem with a Civil Rights inflection, performance art with an experimental edge, a revenue-generating media spectacle with high-flying aims. It juxtaposes the deep past with the vivid present, still photography with moving images, black-and-white with colour, African and Native American imagery with that of the American South, vandalism with tenderness. A startling twist is that Lemonade was released through Tidal, a streaming service owned by Jay Z and Beyoncé – the same Jay Z whom the work ostensibly exposes as an adulterer. As of mid-May,Lemonade had attracted 1.2 million new subscribers to Tidal.

Lemonade’s political intentions have been questioned: can ideological integrity coexist with big profits? Beyoncé “positively exploits images of black female bodies – placing them at the center, making them the norm”, asserts bell hooks, the African American feminist and social theorist. Yet, she concludes, “Ultimately Lemonade glamorizes a world of gendered cultural paradox and contradiction. It does not resolve”. “Glamour” certainly describes Lemonade, with Beyoncé singing, rapping, and dancing in magnificent gowns and artfully flowing hair. The women around her are also exquisitely turned out. “I’m so reckless when I rock my Givenchy dress (stylin’)”, Beyoncé intones in “Formation”, which has frequently been called a “Black Power Anthem” in the press. She flips the bird there, with perfectly manicured nails and wrists laden with expensive silver jewelry.

More here.