Here’s something that gets proved so aggressively each day of our digital lives, it might actually be true: Artists do not decide the meaning of their work. That privilege belongs to the public. It is how art gains social value in a democracy, and it’s why having an opinion on Beyoncé has become one of America’s most vigorous online sports.
Even if this idea is lost on us, it isn’t lost on her. Keep your senses sharp all the way to the end of her dizzying hit-salvo, “Formation,” and you’ll hear a boastful purr of self-awareness: “You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation.”
Truly. But even more impressive than Beyoncé’s ability to prompt massive discussions about race, feminism, identity and pleasure is her music’s ability to keep those discussions going. It’s been two months since the release of her brash sixth album, “Lemonade,” and try as we might to strip-mine these songs for meaning, magic keeps dripping out of them.
We can extinguish the mystery that radiates from most pop music if we talk about it enough, but Beyoncé’s songs are more durable. Her music refuses to surrender its ambiguity to the conversation it generates. The better we understand her, the more there is to know.
Maybe that sounds like fortune-cookie logic, but, much like James Brown in 1968, or Prince in 1984, or Madonna in 1989, Beyoncé is hitting a peak this year by making big-audience pop from a distinct human vantage point — the kind of music that speaks to the immense complexity of society, yet remains unknowable enough to make us listen again and again. There’s an abiding, ineffable truth to be felt in the zone between totally getting it and still feeling astonished.
So when she brought her dazzling Formation tour to Baltimore earlier this month, you could either bow down to Queen Bey, or bow before the mystery.
She was as regal, celestial and super-hot as ever — but as an activist, she was artfully silent. She didn’t say a word about the American police, their endemic brutality or their call to boycott her tour. She didn’t mention Freddie Gray, who was dragged into a van less than three miles from where she currently stood. She didn’t mention Black Lives Matter, presumably because she was up there proving it. But all of these things still seemed to be suspended in the twilight breeze, alongside gigantic hits about the necessity of (black) people loving themselves in a (white) world that won’t.
Since the release of “Formation” — the video featuring its star sinking into the flood waters of Hurricane Katrina atop a police car — some have accused Beyoncé of capitalizing on the shifting American mood by pandering to the new woke left. That’s dubious if not cynical. Pop stars don’t politicize their work for commercial gain. For notoriety, maybe. But political pop always runs the risk of alienating paying customers, which is why we rarely hear significant protest coming from our biggest stages. Remember all of that post-9/11 politesse? Nobody in George W. Bush’s America was marching into the Super Bowl surrounded by a fleet of dancers dressed as Black Panthers.
And after her album’s theatrical rollout — which included Beyoncé’s Super Bowl halftime coup in February and an HBO special in April — “Lemonade” just went platinum this month. That’s far from a thud, but it does suggest that having an opinion in popland still hurts profits. Look past that unfortunate moment in “Formation” when she assures the women of the world that the “best revenge is your paper,” and Beyoncé ultimately seems to be asserting that the value of her art can no longer be measured in dollars. That’s the kind of tenet that deluded music purists like to squawk about and very few superstars live by.
Which is all to say that Beyoncé is taking real-deal risks at her highest heights. She’s been singing about black womanhood since her days in Destiny’s Child, the Houston-born group that launched her to fame at age 16. But now she’s pushing her politics outside of white America’s comfort zone. “Saturday Night Live” aced this dynamic in February with its spoof-trailer for “The Day Beyoncé Turned Black,” a dystopian horror movie in which the singer’s white fans suddenly realize their queen is not who they had thought. It was a funny twist on something brutal that Miles Davis once said: “If white people really knew what was on most black people’s minds, it would scare them to death.”
With “Lemonade,” we know more of what’s on Beyoncé’s mind than ever — or, at least enough to make her distance feel more like mystique. Before seeing the Formation tour, I had always been uncomfortable with her weird sangfroid. Outside of her most thrilling songs, she seemed so tepid, so far away. Maybe she was protecting the polarized Southern belle/around-the-way-girl stage personas she had been cultivating so carefully? Introducing her own humanity to the mix might have messed that up.
But “Lemonade” is an album so rich with symbolism, slang, humor and hurt, its personality feels undeniable. She’s singing about sexy trips to Red Lobster in a Texas drawl — but with a Mona Lisa smile, too. What a maestro maneuver. She’s putting on a performance, but the performance is the work, and the work is speaking for itself.
It’s an improvement on her previous missteps toward transparency. Back in 2013, HBO aired “Beyoncé: Life Is But a Dream,” a bio-doc thinner than Bible paper. Intended to sweeten the public’s perception of her interior life, her career and her marriage to Jay Z, it felt like a disingenuous pantomime of the hyper-exposure that’s expected of celebrities in our Kardashian culture. Even worse, it felt so literal.
Things went much better in April when she returned to HBO to premiere “Lemonade” as a visual album. If anything, this stunning sequence of music videos should vanquish the idea that music’s truth automatically gets corrupted on film. Sight has always been our ultimate confirmation of truth; we consider an eyewitness account to be unassailable. But when we hear a mysterious sound, we ask, “What was that?” Pop stars have all kinds of opportunities to make magic between those two senses, and “Lemonade” is an invitation to listen beyond our sight and look beyond our hearing.
Its most striking scenes exist in a rich space between fantasy and reality. We’re transported to the antebellum South, to post-Katrina New Orleans, to a handful of sci-fi other-places, and back again. “Lemonade” borrows much of its look from “Daughters of the Dust,” the exquisite 1991 Julie Dash film about a Gullah family in South Carolina preparing to migrate North in the early 1900s. More important, it borrows its themes: transformation within the continuum of family, and the perpetual crush of history and hope on the present. In the movie, the family’s matriarch lovingly describes her kin as “the last of the old and the first of the new.”
Accordingly, the strongest songs on “Lemonade” are the ones that step out of tradition into tomorrow. The delirious reggae of “Hold Up.” The oxidized gospel of “Freedom.” The inside-out rock-and-roll of “Don’t Hurt Yourself.” The familiarity of these songs reminds us of our membership in the greater human continuity, while the futurism urges us to imagine a more just and exciting tomorrow. The woman singing them sure sounds like the last of the old and the first of the new.
Along with her retro-futurism, Beyoncé is also doing something simultaneously precise and expansive with “Lemonade,” pressing outward from a personal space. It’s a testimony of black womanhood foremost — but it’s also a commercial product being marketed to a global public. (One way to think about who this music belongs to: It speaks for black women. It speaks to anyone willing to listen.)
If you’re up for it, here’s a chance to better understand yourself and others, whoever you are. Isn’t that pretty much true of all music? Yes, but the opportunity rarely presents itself so distinctively on this scale.
And the scale felt truly colossal back at Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium earlier this month, where even the singer’s smallest gestures proved something big: Empathy is an imaginative act.
Before launching into “Survivor,” Beyoncé dedicated the old Destiny’s Child hit to anyone who had “survived anything.” To skeptical ears, it qualified as meaningless, pat-on-the-head stage-speak. But deeper in the song, when Beyoncé raised her clenched fist toward the night sky, a possibility bloomed. Everyone had been invited into the moment with a broad gesture, then encouraged to empathize with the specific struggles that were not their own. The inclusivity didn’t cancel out the specificity, or vice versa. Maestro maneuvers.
The big gestures said big things, too. Over the martial rhythm of “Freedom,” she sang furiously about her inalienable right to exactly that while she and her dancers marched into a puddle-deep pool. Maybe the water was an allusion to Katrina. Or to the Middle Passage. Or to baptism. Or to something else.
Either way, Beyoncé appeared to be setting herself free — from history, from fear, from the laws that govern our physical existence. She was walking on water. Then she was dancing on it.