After the release of Beyoncé’s Lemonade, I noticed a handful of questions begin to circulate around the artist and her art. The first — and I have to admit that I wondered this myself even while viewing — involves near pendulous movement between doubt and certainty over the veracity of the visual album’s subject. A friend (another artist) and I watched together and would periodically turn to each other, mouths agape, at what appeared to be a bold baring of the soul, an expression of real anger and betrayal and a colossal airing of dirty laundry. It was as if I had never known Beyoncé or truly seen her before. Though she is one of the most powerfully visible women in the music business and has been for over a decade, she has never felt less like an image.
But what complicates this new, somehow more real vision, is the layer of multiple images through which it is presented. Various Beyoncés in many costumes and guises parade across the landscape of Lemonade. But all of them are hurt and angry and they all seem to be directing this anger clearly at an infidelity. And, of course, there could be only one culprit, referred to as “Big Homey” on the album, which is also a known nickname (from what I can gather) for Beyoncé’s husband, Jay Z.
The righteous anger, but also the confusion, comes from the fact that even a superstar of Beyoncé’s phenomenal proportions is apparently not immune from such mundane betrayal. Nor is she above reacting appropriately. My fellow viewer wondered when the infidelity took place and began to calculate backwards, given the time necessary to write and produce both the music and the images. She also wondered how, with so many people involved, the subject of the project could remain secret for so long. If the activity at the center of the video is real, how could it stay hidden in today’s gossip-driven media landscape?
We both agreed that the crucible of pain that was clearly on display had burned away an outer layer of the Beyoncé facade, resulting in a rawer persona unafraid to make her vulnerability visible. Then came speculation about who “Becky with the good hair” might be. Who was the other woman who’s scalp would make a nice cap? Whose sternum would become Beyoncé’s walking stick? A couple of suspects emerged, but had to quickly claim their innocence, internet ire being possibly lethal in this post-rational age.
The subject of reality is further complicated by the idea that Beyoncé could be in production for at least six to eight months on an indictment of her husband — and business partner — while still living with him, running their empire and raising their daughter. Not to mention the fact that said empire would initially be the exclusive repository for the work, thereby generating huge potential profits for both the cheater and his wife. How could the husband not be creatively involved somehow? How would this album not have his blessing? My fellow viewer suggested it was his punishment; he would have to endure the hot sting of exposure. His wife would force him into a painfully public “truth in reconciliation” moment.
There were even some “think” pieces written shortly after the video’s release wondering about female empowerment and its stubborn confinement within a domestic sphere. Yes, Beyoncé had thrown open the doors to her marriage bedroom and shown the world her anger, striding airwaves newly empowered after having come through a trial, but it was all in reaction to the activities of a man. Yes, she was standing up and standing in for all women (particularly black women) who have been similarly dawged, but this female empowerment, this new vulnerability was all in reaction to and therefore an affirmation of male power. Some would say it is an affirmation of the power of love to overcome, but then fail to ask themselves the source of the crimes love is being asked to forgive.
While we watched Lemonade, my pal and I kept wondering at this complex whirlwind of implications, but then I asked myself, what if it’s not real? What if this is just a fiction? Does it make the statement any less true? This is where the art and its reception collide. Much discussion about authorship ensued because so many writers are credited on the songs and so many directors were involved making the images. If this production is indeed a raw expression of a scorned woman, then why so many cooks in the kitchen?
But it’s not raw; it’s as varnished as anything Beyoncé has produced thus far, and it is her ability to apply varnish that separates her from the crowd. The fact that her image is so strong is what has allowed her to multiply and complicate that image. The release of “Formation” the day before the Super Bowl and her dominance of the game’s half-time show and all ensuing conversation was a statement of purpose. She demonstrated clearly that the image she created, while a shared cultural product, was hers to do with whatever she wished. She chose to explore her identity as a black woman and to crack open all the complicated layers of meaning that lay within. Lemonade is a continuation of this theme. Exploring the vulnerability of her multiplicity as a media image in a racially charged environment is what the art is about. Possibly exposing personal aspects of her life as a real wife and mother in conflict with that image while universalizing that experience is what makes the art great.
But what is behind this questioning of authorship and why does it seem to always and only come up in response to female artists? To imagine that Beyoncé wasn’t and hasn’t always been in complete control of her work and her art is absurd. She most definitely chose her collaborators and must have outlined quite clearly her vision. If she was open to collaborative input, then more power to her, for there is strength in numbers. Why do Americans insist on believing in singular genius? There is no such thing. All art is informed by the art that came before it. Living things grow from fertile ground.
One can understand, in the age of Donald Trump and the Tea Party, why it is so hard for people to believe that a powerful woman used all the resources at her disposal to advance a vision that it took hundreds to produce. But we must assume the vision and the final word were always Beyoncé’s.
The myth of the rugged individual reveals itself in this country’s stubborn disinvestment in public resources (infrastructure, education). We refuse to understand — as our recent ancestors so clearly did — how working roads literally pave the way to collective as well as individual success. We live in an age where Trump, a person who inherited a fortune, can somehow get away with calling himself a “self-made man.”
But that phrase doesn’t seem to apply to women. Why are female artists and their influences held up to a scrutiny that is seldom, if ever, applied to men?
Ultimately, Lemonade is a brilliant work of art that was made under the banner of Beyoncé. She is responsible for its success and would have been the punching bag smacked around for its folly and failure — had it been one. If it was bad art, her collaborators would not have been mentioned. This culture would have gleefully ripped her to shreds. But it is good art precisely because of its ambivalence; it brings up but fails to answer definitively a whole load of messy questions. It leaves the viewer/listener wondering how Beyoncé gained her newfound swagger. What change in her unlocked this more confrontational voice? And it doesn’t matter if the inciting incident is true or not, in the same way that it didn’t matter that Bowie wasn’t an astronaut stuck in orbit for over a decade.