(An essay about music writing as political praxis)
You may have watched Beyoncé’s Lemonade… but have you seen Lemonade? (Megan Carpentier, The Guardian)
Questions—Whether you love her, hate her, or stay strong in your neutrality, our exchanges are kind of the point. This is what art makes us do. (Frannie Kelley, NPR)
- What is Lemonade?
- What was Lemonade?
- What is/was Lemonade about?
Beyoncé’s Lemonade was preceded by questions. We knew it was coming, we knew when and where it would occur, but we didn’t know what it was. All we knew was that it was Beyoncé’s Lemonade.
What was Lemonade? In the frantic flurry of news stories, reviews and think pieces offering an answer to this question, one common conclusion was that Lemonade was ‘a statement’. In this essay, I will argue that Lemonade was also a question. In fact, it was several questions, including those listed above. Beyoncé’s Lemonade asks: ‘What is/was Beyoncé’s Lemonade?’ and ‘What is/was Beyoncé’s Lemonade about?’
Of course, Lemonade presented its own provisional answers to these questions. Tidal described it as ‘a conceptual project based on every woman’s journey of self-knowledge and healing’. It was also described as a ‘visual album’, but even this answer raised further questions: Is Lemonade a studio album with accompanying videos, or a film with accompanying music? Or is it an hour-long multimedia text to which the audio album refers? Is ‘Formation’ even part of Lemonade?1
To ask ‘what was Lemonade about?’, as Erica Thurman does in the quote above, is to suggest that in some senses Lemonade was a singular event, consigned to the past. It was something that happened on April 23rd 2016, between 9pm and 10pm ET (2am–3am GMT). In my next essay, I plan to look at Lemonade as a ‘visual album’, but for now I’m interested in Lemonade as an event.
In his Being and Event (which I happened to be reading last year), the philosopher Alain Badiou outlines a theory of the event.2 Like everything in his ontology, an event is a ‘multiple’, composed of ‘elements’. The elements of the event are 1) those elements that compose the ‘evental site’ (i.e., the point in the world where the event occurs), and 2) the name of the event. As such, the only singular quality of the event is its own self-affirmation: the fact of its occurrence. For Badiou, it is up to those who witnessed the event to fulfil its ‘truth procedure’, by remaining ‘faithful’ to the ‘trace’ of the event.
10pm, April 23rd 2016: the one thing we can be sure of is that Lemonade has happened. Lemonade is. But what is Lemonade?
I can’t remember another instance of an artwork whose title proved so integral to the process of its reception (besides, perhaps, Beyoncé’s previous release: ‘Formation’). ‘Lemonade’ is a tool for talking about Lemonade. Throughout the uniquely rich body of music writing that flourished online in that final week of April, the title is used again and again as motif, metaphor and rhetorical frame. Lemonade was something consumed, savoured and enjoyed. Something sold, gifted, shared and withheld. Something sweet, something bitter, something delicately spiced. It was both the product of work and the occasion for leisure, for conversation and recreation. It was something made from something else, made for someone in particular, according to a recipe that was specific, secret and inherited. It was made slowly, made with purpose, and most of all, it was made by Beyoncé. It was Beyoncé’s Lemonade. She made it. To paraphrase the conclusion of nearly every review of the album, ‘Life gave Beyoncé lemons and she made Lemonade’. In this sense, Lemonade is a meta-object, which takes itself and its own creation as a topic.
But the title is also a discursive tool in another sense. Lemonade is also #Lemonade. A name that is also a conversation. A name that is also a tool for conversing. In this way, #Lemonade is a near-perfect encapsulation of Badiou’s concept of the ‘subject’ (which is rarely individual, often collective). Every subject is the subject of a ‘truth’, ‘faithful’ to the ‘trace of an event’. The buzzing, tweeting Beyhive: collective witness to the Lemonade event.
Still, none of this really answers any of those questions.
To echo Messy Mya on ‘Formation’: ‘What happened at the Lemonade?’ What is the ‘truth’ of Lemonade? What was Lemonade about? What is Lemonade?
My proposition in this essay—the truth of the event as I witnessed it—is that Lemonade is the most perfect example of political music that I know.3 If this were the case, as I believe it is, what would Lemonade teach us about music’s capacities and functions, its role in private and public systems, its imagined potential and its processes of actualisation, its position as a substitute or surrogate for other things, or its location as a site of exception? In other words, how does Lemonade help us to imagine musical strategies, or strategic musics, appropriate to a particular terrain of political struggle?
To address these questions, I will survey the online literature surrounding the immediate reception of Lemonade, which I consider a fundamental part of the album as ‘musical strategy’. This essay has five sections:
In the next section, I will make some preliminary comments about music discourse and Lemonade discourse in particular, considering what it means to talk about music, to review music, and indeed to say anything in the public sphere. The aim of this section is to establish music discourse as a terrain of political struggle: the terrain on which the Lemonade event took place.
The following three sections are themed around my tripartite model of music criticism: authority, decision and evaluation. These sections look at the way in which Lemonade reception seized control of this discursive apparatus and, in doing so, transformed it:
- The ‘Authority’ section shows how black knowledge replaced other hermeneutics as the mode of engagement appropriate to Lemonade.
- The ‘Decision’ section surveys the various modalities in which the album was represented in discourse, and the ways in which these decisions strengthened both the album’s efficacy and the writers’ authority.
- The ‘Evaluation’ section shows how Lemonade discourse appropriated universalist discourses, forcing them to transform in order to accommodate the particularities of Lemonade and Beyoncé as auteur.
Finally, the essay concludes that Lemonade reception used the event as an opening to perform an affirmation of ‘the particular’ on a series of ‘universal’ stages, thus critiquing the assumptions of universality that underpin many of our social institutions while simultaneously affirming a universal potentiality, glimpsed in the positioning of the black woman as generic human subject.
If you didn't know what "call Becky with the good hair" meant without Googling, put your pen down. We don't want to read it. (Bené Viera, Facebook post)
For non-black people, keeping our thoughts on the meaning of Lemonade to ourselves can only be a good thing. More likely to lack context and knowledge, our thoughts are simply less useful to everyone else. (Karen Gwee, Consequence of Sound)
This may seem unfair, racist even. But trust me. It is not. Ultimately, it is for your own protection. (Damon Young, Very Smart Brothas)
There’s no surer sign of the impact of a cultural event than when it makes you feel different. As a white British man, my deciding to write about Lemonade feels like a weighty decision. Every word feels heavy. My hands feel weighed down, my stomach feels weighed down: it is the feeling one gets when presented with a taboo. This isn’t a complaint; taboos are often vital tools in helping social groups cohere or coexist without violence (see, for example, ‘political correctness’). The taboo forbidding non-black people (and, in some cases, black men) from writing about Lemonade is a little different though: rather than an ethical taboo intended to protect the status quo, it is a political taboo intended to upset the status quo.4 This taboo isn’t meant to position the album or the artist as ‘sacred cows’, but rather to discomfit writing/speaking in general. And I stress the ‘in general’, because ‘in general’ is the quintessentially white-male mode of speech.
The world was wholly unprepared for Black women to say, “This is ours. We don’t want to share.” It’s something we never do… This time, we got brand new. We refused to let everybody else have any of what was selected, perfected and presented to us for our consumption, evaluation and comprehension. (LaSha, Kinfolk Kollektive)
The discomfort of white spectators remained a motif throughout the reception of Lemonade (building on the reaction to Beyoncé’s Super Bowl halftime performance two months earlier).5 And rather than taking pains to alleviate this discomfort, black writers and commentators affirmed, celebrated and perpetuated this effect. Luckily, Piers Morgan was on hand to give a high-profile performance of the generic discomfited white man as part of the ensuing media spectacle, which only served to strengthen the political dimension that he sought to denounce (see the two searing responses published the next day in The Independent, by Jamelia and Kuba Shand-Baptiste).
Discussing this white pushback a couple of days later, both Elle Hunt in The Guardian and Karen Gwee at Consequence of Sound suggest a distinction between the discomfort caused by watching the film, in which these viewers couldn’t ‘locate themselves’ (as dream hampton put it), and the discomfort caused by being told that their opinion is not important. ‘The idea that white people should just restrain themselves appears to be more hurtful to them than the rich, unapologetic blackness of the film itself’, writes Gwee, while Hunt suggests that these men ‘might not have felt moved to comment on a Beyoncé album at all, had they not been told that what they said didn’t matter’.
What seems crucial to the discourse around Lemonade, however, is the way in which these two potential sources of white discomfort are linked together, and what this linking logic suggests for music writing in general. The force of this logic, combined with the weight of the taboo, encourages the white writer to question themselves:
- What does it mean to write about art/music?
- What does it mean to judge/evaluate art/music?
- What does it mean to “have something to say” about something, especially in the public sphere (and addressed to the public in general)?
- Indeed, what does it even mean to preside over that ‘about’—i.e., to state ‘this is about that’?
As a direct consequence of the injunction by black writers and the resulting taboo, it is impossible to speak ‘generally’ about Lemonade, but it is also impossible to speak about Lemonade ‘in itself’.6 To speak about Lemonade is to speak about the politics of cultural production, as well as the politics of cultural reception. To speak about Lemonade is to speak about cultural discourse as an embattled terrain, within a contested public sphere. To talk about Lemonade is therefore also to talk about talking about Lemonade. And to talk about Lemonade is to talk about speech itself.
On the day after Lemonade landed, Damon Young at Very Smart Brothas published an article called ‘Dear White People Who Write Things: Here’s How To Write About Beyoncé’s Lemonade’ (his two main tips were 1) ‘don’t’, and 2) ‘wait’). The title is instructive, as it sums up one of the crucial tenets of Lemonade reception: there is a right and a wrong approach, correct and incorrect, appropriate and inappropriate. It is a question of knowledge: you must know how to engage with Lemonade. And, as with the recent trope of delicious, performative condescension that Young taps into with his ‘Dear White People’ articles, white people can be taught and taught again (with much sighing and tutting and rolling of eyes), but they can never ever know that they know. ‘Dear White People’—the trope, the open letter form, as invoked in Jamelia’s response to Piers Morgan—is meant to publicly humiliate and elicit self-doubt as much as it educates and instructs. It certainly isn’t meant to smooth things over or alleviate social awkwardness.
One slightly ridiculous consequence of all this is that white writers took to their platforms to agonise at length over their feelings of disorientation, guilt and inarticulacy (peruse, for example, this ‘20-minute read’ entitled ‘What happened when I wanted to write about Lemonade’, or this tortured Medium post called ‘Am I allowed to jam to “Formation”?’). Rather than risk such self-indulgence, my own white male self has heeded Young’s second tip and waited until I actually have something to say about Lemonade that I think (although I cannot know) is worthwhile.
What I will not be writing about here is what Lemonade is about. I will reference many other articles that proffer answers to this question. Read together, these articles suggest the forging of a pretty solid consensus. If by now you still don’t know what Lemonade is about, you should read some of these articles. What I intend to do is write about how that consensus was produced. I will write about the decision that directed this ‘about’ and the (collective, counter-hegemonic) voice that legislated on this decision. I will write about writing about Lemonade.
To approach this task, I have immersed myself in the immediate online discourse that shaped the reception of Lemonade. One thing I find particularly valuable about Lemonade is the volume of music writing it instantly generated that doesn’t conform to the album review format. I have read over 70 of these articles (think pieces, essays, blogposts), as well as a selection of the most prominent reviews. I began with articles written by black women commentators (academics, journalists, bloggers) and followed a trail of links and recommendations, as well as surveying early articles in the major English-language newspapers and music publications. While this is only a fraction of the pieces out there (and I haven’t looked at tweets and other social media posts beyond those quoted in other articles), I have read enough to feel comfortable writing what I want to write. I followed my feelings on this one. And having now written the disclaimer that felt necessary, I feel able to proceed with my argument…
Lemonade is… (a DECISION)
She gave you #Lemonade, stop trying to say it's tang. (Birgitta Johnson, Birgitta’s Music Box Review)
Lemonade was an act of self-defense. (Dominique Matti, Medium)
A fierce and urgent claim of her terrain. It felt like an occupation. The unequivocal occupation of herself in her life's tapestry. (Karla Holloway, Elle)
I have already mentioned decisions—not just the decision whether or not to write about Lemonade, but the decisions elicited by the two questions ‘What is Lemonade?’ and ‘What is Lemonade about?’. I’ve also talked about decisions elsewhere previously, with reference to live music and music theatre. In that essay, I argued that the staging of music (its realisation within a theatrical (or filmic) world) implies a decision concerning the 'being' of music. The same is true of writing about music. In order to ‘say something about’ music, the writer first has to decide what music is. This decision is sometimes implicit and sometimes explicit; sometimes it remains consistent and sometimes it changes during the course of the article. Yet such a decision is always necessary in order to bring music into writing, to evaluate it (and justify this evaluation) or to draw some more general conclusion from it.
The decision regarding ‘what is music?’ precedes all other decisions concerning staging or writing about music. Indeed, it is a fundamental step in the listening process, whereby music is recognised as music (i.e., not just ‘sound’ or ‘noise’). Subsequent decisions then determine genre and style identities, which dictate how the music should be listened to and assessed. The correctness of these decisions cannot be empirically proven; their appropriateness must be judged based on how well they represent or mediate the various aesthetic experiences that we have come to expect from music/art/entertainment: a feeling that truth has been expressed or communicated (recognition), a feeling of pleasure/enjoyment, a feeling of surprise/revelation, a feeling of being intensely moved (physically and emotionally), etc.
Music could be anything, but discourse requires it to be something. And if it is something, that means it is not other things. Like all art, music is a site of infinite meaningfulness; music in particular is conceived as an abundance of potential meaning springing from a profound and irreducible meaninglessness. Music is exceptionally meaningless, and not in any negative sense; it represents a kind of positive excess of meaning (or ‘jouissance’) in the world. However, when we bring music into discourse and rhetoric—when, as with all music writing, we try to do things with and through music—we bring it into a world of scarcity. Here, the decisions concerning music’s ‘being’ are contested, because they impact on more than just the sounds in one’s ears. Music writing is a terrain of struggle; in what I’m calling ‘the Lemonade reception’, this was made immediately evident through the declaration: ‘Beyoncé’s Lemonade is…’. Here are a few early article titles, in vaguely chronological order:
- Beyoncé's Lemonade is #blackgirlmagic at its most potent (Syreeta McFadden, The Guardian)
- Beyoncé's Lemonade is a revelation of spirit (Carrie Battan, The New Yorker)
- Lemonade is Beyoncé's body and blood (Clover Hope, Jezebel)
- Beyoncé's Lemonade is black woman magic (Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley, Time)
- Beyoncé's 'Lemonade' is what happens when black women control their art (Jamilah King, Mic.com)
- Beyoncé's 'Lemonade' is a revolutionary work of black feminism (Miriam Bale, Billboard)
- Beyoncé's Lemonade is an object lesson in collaboration (Dorian Lynskey, The Guardian)
Partly a symptom of social media sharing habits, this type of declaration also repositions the article title as news headline, announcing a statement of fact. I will go on to discuss why such declarative decisions were so important in the wake of Lemonade. It should already be obvious, though, that Beyoncé’s Lemonade is a lot of things. I’ve already declared that Lemonade is a) #Lemonade (Badiou’s faithful subject), b) the most perfect example of political music that I know, and c) a singular event. It is this final declaration that I want to focus on now.
Lemonade was certainly an exemplary media event in the usual sense that it punctuated a broad array of diverse timelines and synchronised them for a while to its own internal space-time. It was an event that took place in the public sphere, via public mediatised discourse (including Twitter, Facebook, etc.), and its impact was felt (its ‘eventness’ registered) within that discourse. But it was also a media event in that it simultaneously transformed that discourse. It was an event both in and of the public sphere.
Lemonade was… an EVENT
Beyoncé didn’t make the world stop so much as she made it revolve: around her, around her work, around black women. (Robin James, Sounding Out)
Beyoncé is an event. Her projects are black holes, sucking up the space and time around them at a dizzying pace. She’s become the rule and the exception. (Andre Grant, HipHopDX)
It's Saturday night. We could be anywhere in the world, but we're all here. Witness the power of Beyoncé. (MTV News Staff, MTV News)
The event: something happened.
The media event: we all know something happened.
In the 2010s, the media event’s very existence is remarkable enough. Because we’re all constantly receiving updates about what’s going on elsewhere (and by ‘we’, I mean the significant proportion of the global population with constant, uncensored access to the internet), there is now a sense that we all know things are always happening. Media events are harder and harder to stage without resorting to terrorism (cf. bell hooks).7 Thus, some of the early reactions to Lemonade were content to marvel at Beyoncé’s capacity to orchestrate an event in the current media environment, while gleefully speculating about what this might mean for the future of marketing, or for the music industry, or for streaming platforms, etc etc. For these people, ‘we all know something happened’ was enough.
However, other spectators, listeners and commentators immediately asked, ‘What happened?’. There were two groups of people for whom this question was particular urgent. The first group were black women, and particularly African-American women from the South. The Lemonade reception clearly demonstrates that a huge number of people, united by both race and gender, experienced a collective moment of recognition as they watched the broadcast:
I've been allowed to witness something very powerful that continues to resonate with me as a black-bodied woman. (Afrakaren, CBC)
I was on Twitter as LEMONADE aired, and in the hours after people wrote about feeling healed, full, and free… (Naila Keleta-Mae, The Fader)
Lemonade disrupted our inner ear, throwing us off balance as we confronted the breadth of all we have missed, ignored, and submerged by pushing black womanhood, even our own, to the margins. (Melissa Harris-Perry, Elle)
It is also clear that this was a double recognition, both personal and collective: a recognition of each other’s recognition, recognising themselves as part of a group of people separated spatially but united in this moment of recognition.
We rejoiced in [these black women’s] onscreen gathering. We cried. We smiled. We threw some middle fingers up. We tweeted and texted. We related. We were excited to see our stories. We were empowered by our sister sharing her story. (Erica Thurman, Life Behind the Veil)
The other group of people forced to ask ‘what happened?’ were those professional pundits—music critics, film and television critics, cultural commentators, authorities, experts—who weren’t included in the first group. For these people, the mode of engagement was one of identification rather than recognition. Something had happened, and they didn’t immediately know what it was. This amounted to a crisis for these pundits, because it threatened their authority. Without privileged access to advance copies or press releases, they suddenly found themselves on the same level as everyone else, in the face of what was clearly a very significant cultural event (and thus, something that they really should have seen coming). In order to restore this authority, they would have to quickly and convincingly identify what had just happened: what was Lemonade?
Interlude: What is music criticism?
In order to fully grasp these stakes, I want to look for a moment at what professional/official music criticism actually involves.
The accumulation of authority is one of the main functions of music criticism, rather than merely a prerequisite or byproduct. This is partly a symptom of the industry, as professional critics must maintain the requisite cultural capital to keep their paid positions (and thus convert this cultural capital into actual money). The voice of the authoritative pop critic is constructed through a delicate balance of the objective and the subjective. They remain individual listening subjects, with unique bodies that experience sensations and unique minds that produce associations in idiosyncratic ways. But they are also generic listeners—the Every-listener—in that they are supposedly able to play the role of the ideal listener for any given musical release (within their genre jurisdiction). Their appeal to subjective taste is rooted in ‘objective’ knowledge:
- ‘This is the type of listening appropriate to this release’;
- ‘These are the aesthetic criteria to which it submits itself’; and
- ‘Heard in this way, the release does or doesn’t satisfy these aesthetic criteria.’
But this objective knowledge (of ‘true’ value) is only permissible because the critic simultaneously affirms the subjectivity of their taste: as the generic listener, the arbitrariness of their particular taste stands in for that of all other listeners. (And thus there is a sense that, as one critic within a cohort, any partiality can be remedied through the plurality of partial voices.) As with any other listener, the critic’s judgement is a question of taste. However, their taste is good taste (read: correct taste/true taste).
The only way to maintain this contradictory critical voice is for the critic to give evidence that they can play the role of the ideal generic listener successfully. This means making authoritative statements about new releases early on, before a public consensus has formed, and for these statements to seem correct in retrospect. An individual listener might evaluate this ‘correctness’ by listening to a record, reading the review, and judging its verisimilitude. However, far more valuable (because more empirical) is when the critic’s assessment is borne out in data such as sales figures, chart positions, awards and accolades, and the opinions of other critics.
The critical process can be understood in terms of a feedback loop, flowing from decision to evaluation to authority, and back to decision. As mentioned before, the critic must identify what a release is: its format, its genre, its style, its purpose, where it’s supposed to be played, who it’s supposed to appeal to, etc. This then allows them to evaluate the release ‘on its own terms’. Particularly for record reviews that assign numerical ratings, the idea is that the appropriateness of the evaluation is exactly equivalent to the appropriateness of the decision, so that the two cancel each other out, and the result is a universally comparable rating.8 (Algorithmic sites like Metacritic demonstrate this explicitly.) Finally, the verisimilitude or empirical accuracy of the critic’s evaluation reproduces their authority to decide and evaluate. Each of the three stages in this loop combines objective empirical evidence with an appeal to pure taste, which excuses the critic from having to interrogate their value systems.
The event of Lemonade demanded the urgent engagement of these two groups of people, through two different modes of knowledge: recognition and identification. Unlike recognition, which instantly recalls something already known, identification suggests a process of coming into knowledge through research. It appeals to outside rather than inner sources of information. In pop music criticism, these outside sources of information are almost always the same. They provide the verifiable facts that justify the reviewer’s decisions as they are presented, and thus the appropriateness of their evaluation. They are the primary source of authority in pop criticism. They are
- intertextual references (samples, quotes, influences, namedrops, etc.),
- details from the creation/production process (collaborators involved, instruments and effects used, studio anecdotes, artists’ stated intentions), and
- biographical details.
These sources are privileged as the empirical basis on which critical decisions are made, because they are bodies of information that are accessible only to dedicated music writers. However, there is no reason why they should form the basis for an ideal engagement with a musical text, beyond their exclusivity within the economy of music reception.
Beyonce’s stunning visual album…is a monologue made for Black women who love being Black women. Her audience is clear. Her messages coded for our ears and hearts. (LaSha, Kinfolk Kollektive)
She wants it to be open to interpretation, she wants us to find ourselves there. She has left hidden messages specifically for black women in stories only we know, experiences only we share… (Kim Katrin Milan, CBC)
Lemonade is a true blend of bitter and sweet, skillfully mixed into a special cocktail where only a select few can decipher all the ingredients. (Treva Lindsey, Cosmopolitan)
In the wake of Lemonade’s release, the stakes for music writers were very high indeed. Everyone had heard that famous pop superstar Beyoncé had dropped a new surprise album. Those who weren’t witness to the event as it happened—casual fans, people without access to HBO or Tidal—were waiting to be told what happened: What did I miss out on? Was it good? Do I need to hear/watch it too? What do I need to know about Lemonade to avoid feeling out of the loop?
Both publications and individual writers felt the pressure to respond as quickly as possible, and the more definitive their initial judgement, the more authority they stood to accumulate. An early review that resonated might be shared extraordinarily widely, and might be perceived in retrospect as helping to shape the reception of the album. There was a lot to lose and a lot to gain.
Thankfully, Lemonade seemed to present ample opportunity for the expert music writer and pop culture pundit to demonstrate authority through identification. The album exploded with inter-textual musical references (samples, interpolations, collisions of style and genre). The musical credits seemed to invite an excavation of the album’s collaborative construction, through stratified layers of songwriting/production. And most of all, the album seemed to constitute a rare public statement concerning Beyoncé’s real life, inviting us to reconstruct the timeline of its narrative in relation to other clues about her marriage and Jay Z’s possible infidelity. (The most overt example of this, of course, was the race to identify ‘Becky with the good hair’: the real-life ‘side chick’…)
These three elements provided the meat of the early reviews: genre hopping, collaboration, and autobiography. Lemonade was an epic genre-hopping, autobiographical collaboration/media event, and should be evaluated accordingly. What wasn’t represented in this decision was what the first group of black women viewers recognised in the Lemonade event: not just enjoyment or versimilitude, but an opening, a juncture, a singular opportunity that had to be seized. The Lemonade event blew a massive hole open in global discourse that could only be filled by black women’s knowledge. It was a strategic moment and thus the stakes for this group of spectators were also very high.
While this hole clearly wasn’t visible to white audiences and critics, there is a feeling from the early reviews by white men that they could at least sense its presence, and it made them uneasy. Hence the implicit decision in many of the reviews that Lemonade is not actually a visual album but an audio album with accompanying promo videos, and thus could be authoritatively reviewed as ‘the music itself’. See also this intro to Alexis Petridis’s review in The Guardian:
[Lemonade is] dishearteningly billed as “a conceptual project based on every woman’s journey of self knowledge and healing” – a description that makes it sound like something agonisingly earnest you’d go out of your way to avoid at the Edinburgh Fringe.
Such a brazen dismissal of this official mediating description has serious implications for critics reliant on ‘the given facts’ to justify their evaluations. Petridis (who goes on to quote Richey Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers in his review) weakly concludes that the album ‘feels like a success’.
It was necessary for white reviewers to annex off and reduce certain elements of Lemonade in order to make quick, authoritative evaluations, since Lemonade—as a multimedia text—clearly resists such attempts at identification. For one thing, it demands to be interpreted. Unlike many of the music videos and art films to which it might be compared, its intertextual richness is foregrounded. It asks to be read. And while the web of musical references, collaborators and biographical intrigues form part of this, the audiovisual text suggests that these are red herrings. It addresses the viewer explicitly and repeatedly: ‘Look deeper’, ‘Listen closer’, ‘Can you really see me?’, ‘Can you really hear me?’.
We might see the ‘Hot Sauce’ baseball bat as a good example of this. Many commentators pointed out with glee that the ‘hot sauce in my bag’, referenced on ‘Formation’ back in February, was revealed during ‘Hold Up’ to be a baseball bat used to smash car windows. This is an example of a meta-sign: a sign that teaches the viewer how to read the text. It functions as a reward for listening and viewing carefully, and a promise of further rewards. It creates a community of cognoscenti among those prepared to look/listen deeper. In addition, it suggests an inextricable link between the video and the audio texts.
The inclusion of a large number of well-known people in the film—the black women and girls on the plantation—serves a similar purpose. These women are not characters; they play themselves. We are repeatedly shown their faces, some of them recurring throughout the film. They stand or sit silently and present themselves to us. They don’t tell or show us who they are, but they demand that we recognise them. This is a powerful confrontation to the white gaze, rightly censured for its tendency to reduce non-white faces to an undifferentiated mass. It asks, ‘Dare you presume to evaluate this text without recognising these faces?’
Who cares what's "real" when the music delivers a truth you can use. (Jillian Mapes, Pitchfork)
Lemonade may have presented obstacles to the white writer hungry for authority, but these certainly weren’t enough to disrupt the functioning of the critical-industrial machine. Take a look at Daniel D’Addario’s extraordinarily wrong-footed review for Time (published the day after), in which he declares that the visual album ‘places intriguing frills on classic ideas’. Here’s a telling extract:
The thread was occasionally muddled, never more so than when Beyoncé's real-life husband, the rapper Jay Z, appeared and was serenaded by Beyoncé, only to give way to his wife going solo and singing a couple more songs of empowerment. The message Beyoncé sought to send felt at once crystal-clear (she has enough power to make Jay Z show up for the taping of a song about Beyoncé's own feelings of disenchantment with love) and occluded (how bad could things be, after all, if he didn't only show up to the taping but was seen, charmingly, chasing daughter Blue Ivy Carter around during the closing credits?). The depiction of young, slain black men like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, towards the special's end, jarred like a loose tooth; it didn't sit well, and perhaps wasn't meant to.
It was up to the online collective of black female commentators and writers to intervene in the public reception of the album and capture the space in public discourse that Beyoncé had blown open for them. What began the morning after Lemonade (24th April) was an extraordinary campaign on the field of music discourse, implicating all three elements of authority, decision and evaluation, in the name of #blackgirlmagic.
The first step was to issue an injunction against hasty interpretations by white writers (and black men). As the first reviews appeared in the mainstream publications, a widely shared Facebook post by journalist Bené Viera announced the following:
There should be no think pieces about #Lemonade up yet. There is way too much to unpack. And if you're writing that it's mainly about infidelity and marital strife w/Jay you've missed the mark. Let's start here though: Beyoncé made #Lemonade for Black women first, then Black people as a whole. Sure, others can enjoy it. But it's for us. Therefore, we really should be the ones writing about and dissecting it.
Alongside Damon Young’s abovementioned article, several early think pieces by black writers (Naila Keleta-Mae in The Fader, Syreeta McFadden in The Guardian, the roundtable in Vulture) highlighted the discussions on the Twitter hashtags as the most fitting forum for the album’s reception.
By the next day, a prominent counter-discourse was under construction in the form of think pieces, blogposts and roundtables, with Time publishing Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley’s implicit rejoinder to D’Addario’s disastrous piece. The 25th was also the day of Piers Morgan’s intervention in The Daily Mail, which actually helped shift the forum of mainstream discussion away from the specialist music sections (dominated by white-male ‘objective experts’, focusing on ‘the music itself’) and into a more general space of commentary and opinion. The following day (26th) was the high point of the campaign, effectively invalidating the early consensus (tabloid prurience and musical innovation), and recentring the conversation around black women, partly by delegitimising the opinion of anyone not black and female.
These articles demonstrate a variety of tactics. Some of them offered forthright correctives, as shown in the titles of articles by Ijemoa Oluo in The Guardian (‘Beyoncé’s Lemonade is about much more than infidelity and Jay Z’), and later Treva Lindsey in Cosmopolitan (‘Beyoncé’s Lemonade isn’t just about cheating, it’s about black sisterhood’) and Ashley Ray-Harris at AV Club (‘Beyoncé’s Lemonade isn’t a breakup album, it’s a black album’). Some writers gave full exegeses of the multimedia text, retelling the narrative in terms of its deeper meanings (see Sajae Elder at Noisey, Morgan Jerkins in Elle, and Diamond Sharp in Vice). Other writers discussed the album in more personal terms, backing up the claims that the album is about/for all black women by showing how it resonated with them as individuals (see Dominique Matti on Medium, Amani Bin Shikhan at Noisey, and Flose Boursiquot at Blavity).
One of the key approaches was to present lists or indexes of the many specifically black references and influences that the viewers recognised in Lemonade. This can be seen in articles like Kamaria Roberts and Kenya Downs’s discussion with Amy Yeboah for PBS Newshour and Janell Hobson’s in Ms. Magazine, but it also became prevalent in mainstream publications, in an attempt to close the gap in knowledge between the white and black viewership. An early listicle at Vox (by Libby Nelson) collected together ‘9 articles you should read to understand Beyoncé’s Lemonade’, Fact promised to reveal the visual album's 'hidden meanings', while E! Online provided a ‘guide to all the slang in Beyoncé’s latest record’, predicated on the acknowledgement that white listeners had misunderstood the ‘Becky with the good hair’ reference.
Commentators like LaSha at Kinfolk Kollektive decried this ‘attempt at decoding Black culture for the [white] masses’, while there is a clear sense that (like the ‘Dear White People’ trope discussed above), the listing of references is intended not so much to enlighten a non-black readership as it is to demonstrate the depth of their ignorance (and, as a result, their inability to comment authoritatively). Check out the intro to the roundtable at NPR (by Frannie Kelley), published on the 26th:
A Beyoncé album release is now a communal experience. Who among us (and if you're here reading this, you're one of us) made it through this weekend without a conversation, typed or yelled, about her intent, her intonation, her read, her past, her bat, Serena, Tina, Etta, Warsan, Pipilotti, Zendaya?
The reader is warmly included in a knowing ‘us’, but nevertheless the list of first names functions as a test: Are you really one of us? On the same day, Laur M. Jackson’s piece in Complex, ‘I Can Tell You All About Lemonade’, demonstrated this aspect of Lemonade discourse with a poetic concision that I can’t effectively paraphrase. (You can read it here.)
By the 28th, both The Guardian and Vox had published an articles (by Elle Hunt and Marcus J. Moore respectively) entitled 'Beyoncé’s Lemonade album explained'. The interventions of black writers had successfully reframed Lemonade as something that had to be understood, interpreted, read correctly, translated, or even taught (i.e., it couldn’t be properly grasped without mediation). The real victory here was establishing Lemonade in public discourse as something that was about something. In our current music discourse, it has been easy to dismiss female pop artists such as Beyoncé as ‘just entertainment’, ‘just a commodity’ (i.e., impotently embodying meaningless market forces), or even ‘just music’. Yet through the combined promise of autobiographical revelation, a filmic vocabulary that connotes arthouse ‘depth’, and a profusion of overt references that frustrate the enjoyment of this aesthetic as merely ‘impressionistic’, Lemonade denies the possibility of this kind of dismissal. Doreen St. Félix affirms this quality of the film, when she writes (at MTV News),
Frame after frame of women communed — in nature, outside of quaint plantations, in New Orleans — leaving little interpretive possibility that this project was anything but a corrective to the blasphemed images of black women in America.
In one of the first Lemonade think pieces published, Naila Keleta-Mae predicted this collective interpretative endeavour and celebrated its implications:
[I’m] looking forward to reading the think pieces that will emerge in the days to come. I know that many people have think-piece fatigue. Many are frustrated by the fact that everyone has an opinion and multiple platforms on which to express it, but what gets missed in that derision is that for a long time black art in the U.S. and elsewhere was only consumed and not engaged with meaningfully. So, when so many of us seek to engage with black art in thoughtful, nuanced ways I see it as an unofficial collaborative effort to create a wide range of critical engagement that draws from our respective analytical strengths. And I really like that we’re expressing our collective analyses not only through articles and blog posts, but also with memes, gifs, tweets, and more.
As a result of the corrective declaration that ‘Lemonade actually means [this]’ or ‘Lemonade is actually about [this]’, a gap opens up between the ‘Lemonade is…’ and the ‘Lemonade is about…’. This gap is apparent in statements like the following, from Treva Lindsey:
The visual album may tell the story of an unfaithful husband, but its message is about black women healing themselves and each other.
On the one hand, there is the story, and on the other hand, there is the message. Other writers talked about Lemonade as having its own language:
Since that fateful night, I’ve been immersed in the language of Bey’s latest offering. Basically, I speak fluid Lemonade. (Erica Thurman, Life Behind the Veil)
In this powerful formulation, the Lemonade text is its own signifying system, while the signified exists somewhere beyond the text. Without a codex, Lemonade itself cannot be interpreted; you need to already know what it is saying (recognition). As I will try to demonstrate, this rhetorical gap between white knowledge (identification) and black female knowledge (recognition) will be repeatedly redeployed in the discourse around Lemonade, as a way of shoring up the authority of the black female viewer and fulfilling the promise of the Lemonade event.
Designation (Lemonade is… for black women)
Lemonade is a deeply vulnerable project that speaks directly to, for, and with black women in particular. (Hannah Giorgis, BuzzFeed)
I absolutely understand why you didn’t get the Beyoncé album - *newsflash honey* - it wasn’t made for you - and I’m going to need you to be cool with that. (Jamelia, to Piers Morgan, The Independent)
There’s a part where she points to a Nina Simone record, essentially channeling how Simone would say her music is for everyone but she’s really speaking to black women. With ‘Lemonade,’ we all can hear it, but this is for a specific audience. (Amy Yeboah, PBS Newshour)
We can already list some of the decisions made collectively by black female music commentators, as a basis for their discussion and evaluation of Lemonade:
- Lemonade is a visual album (an indivisible audio-visual text).
- Lemonade is art (and not ‘just entertainment’ or ‘just music’).
- Lemonade is a masterpiece (and therefore its value is not up for discussion).
Another crucial decision that is reaffirmed time and time again throughout the discourse is that Lemonade is for black women. A few writers specify that the album is ‘by, about and for’ black women, but it is the ‘for’ that is most important here, because the other two (‘by’ and ‘about’) are more easily justified (although by no means uncontroversial).
What does it mean for Lemonade to be ‘for’ black women? Much of the reception discourse dwelled on this very issue, both from an inside-facing perspective (‘it’s for us’) and an outside-facing perspective (‘it’s not for everyone’). While presented as an intuitive fact, it’s a deceptively radical statement to make. In bell hooks’s critique of Lemonade and its reception (a vital intervention from within black feminism, which appeared just over a fortnight after the event and reignited the conversation), the writer attacks this statement in particular:
Viewers who like to suggest Lemonade was created solely or primarily for black female audiences are missing the point. Commodities, irrespective of their subject matter, are made, produced, and marketed to entice any and all consumers. Beyoncé’s audience is the world and that world of business and money-making has no color.
By positioning Lemonade as a commodity, hooks can argue that this decision makes no sense. Yet it is a fundamental tenet of Lemonade’s strategic reception that it be regarded as art and therefore not reducible to commodity status.9 A similar argument could also be applied to Lemonade as art. Our inherited cultural discourse tends to imagine universality as essential to art status, and this too would prevent the text from being ‘for’ a particular group of people in any meaningful way.
Thus, the statement that Lemonade is art that is nevertheless for black women is a radical one, which challenges the received definition of art as such and its relation to the so-called ‘universal’. It is a statement of belief, whose validity cannot be proven; nevertheless, it is known by those witnesses to the Lemonade event. This is the kind of knowledge that is captured in Monica Gibbs’s Blavity piece through capitalisation:
[As] the visual album continued, it became pretty apparent to me that this was a much larger story than some alleged affair on Jay Z's part… [as it progressed] I KNEW, that this album also was about loss, struggle and triumph in the greater world as a woman. And, not only as a woman but specifically as a black woman…
As such, the precise sense in which Lemonade is ‘for’ black women is, itself, only fully knowable to those black women for whom it is for. Nevertheless, the reality of this secret knowledge—the truth of the ‘for’—was made manifest to those people outside of this group, because the consequences of this recognition (the collective reception of Lemonade by black women) occurred within a ‘universalist’ public sphere.
The universal and the particular
This is a good point to talk about insides and outsides. Lemonade afforded a certain type of politics that I’m not privy to: a rich, constructive politics involving black people, and black women (from the American South) in particular. Those not implicated in this politics might get a sense of it from reading articles and following discussions between engaged black women, but obviously we can never fully engage with it ourselves. This politics does, however, cut two ways; it has a dynamic ‘outside’ as well. It is fundamental to the project that it explicitly privileges the inside at the expense of this outside (a positive politics of blackness and womanism, as opposed to any kind of negative definition in opposition to whiteness or men). Nevertheless, like all effective politics, it is still an oppositional project. This is why Piers Morgan’s comments were more true to the Lemonade event than the banal early white-male reviews that denied the album’s political dimension. Black women are the most disrespected people in America because of white supremacy and patriarchy. Racialisation and gender binaries are the results of social processes that reproduce the power of the powerful. If Lemonade feels threatening to white people and men, that’s because white people and men need to be threatened. These people can feel what they stand to lose, and it is exactly these things that they must be deprived of.
I’m writing this essay from outside the space of the constructive black women’s politics that is the realisation of the Lemonade event, not to recentre the conversation from black affirmation back onto white discomfort, but to celebrate the radicalism involved in capturing and holding that ‘central’ position within public discourse. While the particular strategy of Lemonade discourse required a constructive black womanist politics to remain the focus, the value of this exclusivity, the breadth and force of this uncomfortable outside, this occupation of white-male ‘universal’ spaces was acknowledged and reaffirmed in many of these articles. Hence the decision ‘Lemonade is for black women’ was accompanied by the complementary decision ‘Lemonade ain’t for everybody/Lemonade wasn’t made for you’, etc.
With Lemonade’s reception, we saw the occupation of a ‘universal’ public terrain (music writing and cultural commentary in the mainstream media) by a minoritarian group defined by a particular intersection of oppressive systems: black women. The initial event punctuated a series of supposedly universal terrains—the mainstreams of the music, film and television industries (HBO was free to all cable subscribers that weekend), all the major news channels and publications, entertainment and lifestyle magazines, both ‘serious’ and popular music publications—and forthrightly asserted its claim to the entire world’s attention.
Through its orchestration of an archetypal media event, Lemonade reasserted the commonly held belief that the public sphere is a universalist domain: a space that is ideally universally accessible to all humans (read: all citizens), and that actively strives towards that universality. The public sphere is an idealist conception (initially theorised by Jürgen Habermas in 1962, but hugely extended and elaborated with the arrival and development of the internet), whose main function is the realisation of these ideals.10 As a concept, it relies on the idea that any person could express their opinion freely within this sphere, and that the free flow of mutual deliberation and debate (opinion and counter-opinion backed up by verifiable fact) is equally accessible to everyone, no matter their individual interests, and will inevitably arrive at a more perfect truth and thus justice for all (aka ‘the common good’). Part of this justice would supposedly involve identifying blockages in the functioning of the public sphere, whereby a certain group of individuals don’t have free access and are thus imperfectly represented. Thus, while the public sphere may never function ideally, it facilitates its own critique and should therefore continue to improve itself.
As with the related concept of democratic governance, the necessary understanding of the public sphere as universal in turn constructs the ‘universal human subject’ as someone who can participate ideally in this public sphere. Yet the model of discourse that governs the public sphere, and the notion of the common good towards which it strives, is based on Enlightenment discourses that universalise a European bourgeois white male subjectivity. Those whose truth cannot be adequately expressed through this discourse are excluded from this position of the ‘universal’ human, and thus remain unheard and unseen. Critiques of Habermas’s idealist public sphere, and related notions of universal humanity, have been a central part of feminist, post-colonialist and anti-racist thought for many decades now.11
Nevertheless, Lemonade reception doesn’t propose a straightforward rejection of the possibility of a universalist public discourse. Although these writers declared ‘Lemonade is for black women’, they made this a public declaration, i.e., within a ‘universal’ public sphere. Conversation wasn’t the preserve of the black blogosphere or the #Lemonade hashtag; it occurred in major national newspapers, magazines and websites intended for a ‘general’ readership. They didn't separate their discourse (the correct, marginal discourse) from the mainstream, ‘universal’ discourse (the incorrect, hegemonic discourse), but instead affirmed that theirs was the ‘universal’ discourse appropriate to Lemonade: that this was the correct mode in which Lemonade should exist within a universalist public sphere. The ideals underpinning the public sphere were maintained; hence, by occupying this sphere, these women declared that their truth is the universal truth, and that their voice is a universal human voice.12 They universalise the particular, seizing the position of rational, truth-seeking, freely expressive human but making very clear that this human has the face of a black woman.
Lemonade is… a GIFT
It felt like I opened a letter addressed to me directly, asking that I be part of and bear witness to something exclusively meant for 'us.' It was more than a feeling of being reflected; it was an invitation to spirit. (Afrakaren, CBC)
Beyoncé gave us Laolu Senbanjo… She gave us Yoruba and Oshun symbolism throughout… She gave us stunning imagery of young, talented African-American girls. She gave us Malcolm X quotes… (Monica Gibbs, Blavity)
What an amazing love-filled gift Beyoncé has given us all. This album will help me, and many other black women I know, get through some of the dark days to come. (Ijeoma Oluo, The Guardian)
One way that Lemonade was frequently described was in terms of a ‘gift’. It was something that was ‘given to’, ‘shared with’, ‘offered to’ or ‘provided for’ black women. It was ‘a tribute’, ‘a homage’, or ‘a love letter’. Therefore, we can think about the generic qualities of a gift and how they might characterise Lemonade. First and foremost, gifts are not commodities. Ideally, the gift exists outside of circuits of exchange, and certainly outside of processes of capital accumulation.13 Gifts are free and freely given. Gifts also have a specified recipient. Sometimes they are addressed to this person (a label on the parcel), sometimes they are merely intended for this person (selected/bought for), and sometimes they are actually made for this person (crafted to suit their needs/tastes).
Lemonade could be considered free, in that it was broadcast on a cable network that was made temporarily available to a lot of people. However, most enthusiastic viewers and listeners would have subsequently paid for Tidal subscription or purchased the album. It seems to me, then, that we might distinguish Lemonade-the-commodity (something purchased or purloined by everyone) from Lemonade-the-gift (something received by black women). Lemonade-the-gift is what was recognised by the excited spectatorship. Lemonade-the-gift was ‘for’ black women, because only they received it.
But what exactly did they receive? What was Lemonade-the-gift?
The conversation around Lemonade took the explicit form of a literature of reception, in that it focused on the experience of receiving and describing what was received. This literature is also a gift in its own right, in that it probably constitutes a unique body of music writing. For one thing, it is extraordinary in its breadth. All sorts of people took it upon themselves to describe, define and interpret the album with authority: academics, journalists, bloggers, music critics, activists, authors and artists, as well as fans inspired by others to join the conversation on social media. These writers describe the gift that they received in a huge variety of ways, thus displaying a huge range of decisions dictating the being of music as it enters into the world of discourse.
I now want to discuss some of the most recurrent modalities of musical being employed in this conversation. Moreover, since Lemonade was immediately represented as an artistic masterpiece (and since the position of these writers is one of attesting a personal truth rather than evaluating an object), each of these modalities was recognised on the basis of its success, and can thus be conceived as legitimate aesthetico-political aims of music in general. When these writers talk about Lemonade, they are talking about what music can and should do in the world.
These modalities are as follows:
The decisions of these writers are partially determined and mediated by the decisions of the artists involved in realising Lemonade as an audio-visual text. I hope to show that, through the ingenious connivance of filmmakers (situating the sonic music visually) and writers (situating the audiovisual music discursively), Lemonade-the-gift is described in each instance as existing simultaneously within and outside of the text, with this double or meta-existence demonstrating the realisation of the promise of the gift as described, and thus further cementing the authority of the black female spectatorship.14
In still and quiet formation, black women, donning white, watch us from plantation porches, returning the gaze to remind us that they are people who are feeling. … We are to be seen, they say, not just watched and consumed. (Zandria F. Robinson, Rolling Stone)
[Lemonade] says I see you, now see me. Look me in the eye, see yourself. (Dominique Matti, Medium)
It acknowledged black women. We were seen and arms were extended. (Alicia Bunyan-Sampson, CBC)
Honest, raw, and reflective, I saw myself in nearly every frame of #LEMONADE. (Sajae Elder, Noisey)
Lemonade staged the fragmentation of Beyoncé as iconic star. In a previous essay, I’ve talked about the three dimensions of the mediated body as performed by the pop icon:
- their position within a socio-cultural grid of identities (race, gender, sexuality, nationality, regionality),
- their flesh-and-blood real humanness, and
- the absolute singularity of their name.
By performing these three dimensions successfully, pop icons also embody ideal human individuals, located at the intersection of particular generality (type of body), general particularity (organic materiality of body), and transcendent uniqueness (the one-and-only, named body). Our enjoyment of stars, both onstage and offstage, and the way we relate to them as ideal humans (rather than gods), can be traced to the potent intersections between these three dimensions.
On Lemonade, Beyoncé allows these three dimensions to separate, bringing both her ‘real’, ‘personal’ self and her racialised-gendered self out from the blinding glare of her luminous name. Moreover, she positions herself as one of many black female faces (real individuals) and black female bodies (members of a group), whose iconic names are temporarily erased (without being replaced by those of fictional characters). In this way, black women came to recognise themselves in Lemonade, both as individuals and as part of a social grouping.
Only one piece that I read relied explicitly on the metaphor of the mirror: Joan Morgan’s ‘Beyoncé, Black Feminist Art, And This Oshun Bidness’ at Genius.com. Tracing some of the Yoruba imagery in Lemonade, Morgan invokes the mirror that the goddess Oshun ‘holds up to our faces when she requires us to do the difficult work of really seeing ourselves’. For Morgan, the audio album is reflected in the surface of the film, allowing viewers to really see Beyoncé and, in seeing her, recognise themselves.
Yet the language of sight and seeing, witnessing, watching, appearing, reflecting, showing and (re)presenting is absolutely integral to the discourse around Lemonade. On the level of the text itself, this is about the film making black women, their lives and their struggles visible: an important motif of black feminism (see Michele Wallace’s Invisibility Blues (London: Verso, 1990), for instance). However, for these writers, the political priority is black women being made visible to themselves, and only then to the rest of the world.
This is also the case on the ‘meta-text’ level, whereby Lemonade made black women visible (as a group and as individuals) across the terrain of online and print media. A multitude of black female bodies, faces and names materialised amid the torrent of music writing that flowed momentarily through the centre of public discourse.15 And, as such, the result was one of recognising oneself at the very centre of public discourse: the ideal listening subject is a black woman, the authoritative gaze is that of a black woman, the expert voice is that of a black woman, and so on. As Morgan Jerkins writes in Elle,
Lemonade is… a SPACELemonade accomplished two big feats: It was a supreme accomplishment of black art, in which none of the black women acknowledge the white gaze, and it was a fortifying experience that forced the world to look at black women in their rawest forms, connecting Beyoncé, her supporters, and the earth all at once. Everything was in alignment and, for once, black female representation was not unusual; it shifted black women from the margins to the center.
Lemonade compels viewers to witness the beauty and dynamism of the multigenerational spaces black women create and inhabit, spaces where #BlackGirlMagic thrives. … Beyoncé and her collaborators created a land of and for black girls. (Treva Lindsay, Cosmopolitan)
What I love is that Bey took the time to make public space for these Black mothers to grieve. (Brittney Cooper, Elle)
Beyonce is becoming a wise witch -- as we all should -- and retreats further into her haunted house in the woods, knowing that young black girls will come looking for answers, prayer and magic. (Judnick Mayard, Billboard)
Music writing tends to combine different descriptive vocabularies, sensory registers and semiotic fields in an effort to compensate for the ineffability of music. For instance, in the Jerkins quote above, the gift of the one-way mirror invoked also has a spatial dimension: representation in terms of mobilisation, rather than the perfection of a visual apparatus.
Lemonade is a gift of space. In the most literal sense, this could be the space-time dimensions of the event itself: the hour-long broadcast on HBO, a space in a mainstream channel’s programming and in the global cultural calendar allocated to black women, their stories and concerns. Writers also talked about Beyoncé giving her ‘platform’, ‘exposure’ or ‘uplift’ to the many black artists and personalities present in or behind Lemonade, a language that acknowledges the economy of attention and the relative scarcity of cultural and media space.
One of the most recurrent words in the literature was ‘celebrate’, a word that comes from the Latin celeber, meaning ‘frequented, populous, crowded’. A celebration involves the gathering of many people in honour of a particular event or person, yet Beyoncé’s celebration is a gathering in honour of itself. This is also a pretty good description of the #blackgirlmagic hashtag: a collectivity constructed through its self-appreciation.
Within the text, this celebratory space is suggested in the scenes at the Louisiana mansion, described by writers as a commune or retreat for black women and girls to congregate and heal together. As described in Judnick Mayard’s remarkable Billboard piece about Beyoncé as ‘healing witch’, this image of the fantasy commune accords closely with the notion of the ‘safe space’. This safe space is both imaginary and real. Ira Madison III describes black life in America as one in which ‘you need to live in and out of fantasies that are only tangentially connected to reality’, while other writers pointed out that many of the women and girls seen in the commune scenes had been publicly attacked or denigrated for their blackness. In her essay for Jezebel, Clover Hope extends this vocabulary to the ‘meta-text’ level, describing Lemonade as a space that Beyoncé has made for herself (as black woman and as individual in need of healing):
This is her gorgeous controlled force to make up for her chosen silence, for her exercising the Oprah clause in interviews and eventually forsaking public speaking altogether. She knows silence is as much a tactic as a necessity. And when it breaks, it’s something magical. Why not talk to us in a safe space then, of her own creation. The space is vast and others can hear us and sing along. But the language is specific.
We might also identify the space carved out in public discourse, protected by the injunction and taboo against white/male participation, as a safe space. Karen Gwee’s article in Consequence of Sound argues in favour of this injunction by invoking the scarcity of cultural space:
The Internet and well-meaning ideas of multiculturalism have led people to believe that our cultural landscape is limitless, with more than enough room for different kinds of art by different kinds of people. But racist hierarchies still control and apportion cultural space. … Why take up the cultural space that Beyoncé has cleared for black women to shine? We [non-black people] have our own spaces; we can open our own. White people: You already control most of the space.
I would also add that music provides its own kind of sonic space for voices and sonic bodies of different types, while the playing of music transforms physical space by making it more conducive to certain styles of presence and belonging. In the case of Lemonade, this is anticipated by the creation of a visual, fantasy, filmic space for the songs. However, in all these modalities of the safe space, what’s crucial is the effect that space has on expressive utterance.
Lemonade is… an UTTERANCE
In her fictive world, Beyoncé can name black female pain… In this fictive world, black female emotional pain can be exposed and revealed. It can be given voice… (bell hooks, ‘Moving Beyond Pain’)
She's the kind of artist whose voice people hear their own stories in, whatever our stories may be. (Rob Sheffield, Rolling Stone)
Lemonade is the feminist proclamation that “the personal is political” and that “black lives matter.” (Janell Hobson, Ms. Magazine)
As could be expected from an audiovisual text, being heard is as fundamental to Lemonade as being seen. Within the text, this means Beyoncé addressing an unfaithful lover (the real Jay Z, the real Matthew Knowles, or some other hypothetical addressee?) and freely expressing the truth of her feelings as they shift from disbelief, sadness and anger to forgiveness. For most of the early white reviews, this mode of address was the focus of their listening: Beyoncé was a woman scorned, spitting and fuming, calling out her no-good husband in public. Yet nearly every black writer detected a range of other modes of speech. In the MTV News roundtable, Doreen St. Félix contrasted the Warsan Shire-featuring Lemonade with the Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie-featuring ‘***Flawless’ on BEYONCÉ:
On her 2013 self-titled album, Beyoncé used Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s fairly straightforward nonfiction manifesto. That text was declarative, universal. But poetry summoning the various limbos black women and their foremothers are suspended in, sometimes fictional and other times very real? That’s specific as all hell. Lemonade is against direct address. It’s such a story.
‘Story’ and ‘narrative’ were two of the most common descriptors in the album’s reception, positioning the Beyoncé of Lemonade as retelling previously lived experiences, rather than experiencing them in real time through the course of the album. LaSha describes it as ‘a monologue’ and Priscilla Ward as ‘testimony through the ministry of song’.
But Lemonade is also ‘a proclamation’, ‘an affirmation’, ‘an exhortation’ and ‘a demand’, each suggesting a different mode of utterance that reaches through the fictional frame of the text and works on the real-world listener directly. Just as Beyoncé’s appearance as black woman can function as a visual mirror in which viewers recognise themselves, so she is described as ‘giving voice to’ (bell hooks) or ‘vocalizing’ (Jenna Wortham) a specific black female experience, and thus speaking in a voice that is simultaneously the voice of an entire group. And, as Jamelia points out, her ‘statements’ ‘reverberate around the world’.
Elsewhere, Lemonade is described as an ‘ode’ or ‘anthem’ to black womanhood; as with ‘celebration’, these are self-affirming utterances. The album is also an ‘invitation’—a form of utterance that creates its own audience and, according to Zandria F. Robinson, specifies its own function:
Beyoncé invites us to the work as a memoir, a meditation and a celebration.
My favourite quotes from the Lemonade reception brilliantly re-affirm the gap between the text and the meta-text, which is the gap between the telling and the told:
[Lemonade] demanded for the screams of black woman to be heard. (Alicia Bunyan-Sampson, CBC)
[Lemonade] says that healing will not come if we are not allowed to vocalize our aching. (Dominique Matti, Medium)
This is her saying, I’m telling my story, this is my narrative, and that’s the ultimate act of agency. (Jenna Wortham, The New York Times)
On “Lemonade,” she expresses her desire to be a kind of village griot at a time when blacks need to remember their stories. (Hilton Als, The New Yorker)
A Black woman testifying that her art, which tells her own story, was produced because she knew that other Black women would identify with and appreciate it. Lemonade makes just that kind of affirmation. (LaSha, Kinfolk Kollektive)
By positioning Beyoncé’s voice as a collective voice, these writers affirm that the collective voice is also Beyoncé’s voice, thus procuring for themselves the literal author-ity of the artist’s stated intent.16
I love the multigenerational conversation that Bey constructs on this album. (Brittney Cooper, Elle)
I felt like it was an everyday conversation that I was having with her through these videos. (Regina Bradley, NPR)
[Introducing a curated list of articles] At its core, Lemonade is a deeply vulnerable project that speaks directly to, for, and with black women in particular. Below are some of the best pieces written by black women, joining Beyoncé in the conversation she invited us into — scarf tied, edges laid, and lemonade stirred. (Hannah Giorgis, BuzzFeed)
I think the decision regarding what ‘Lemonade is…’ that best fits my own take in this essay is the one presented in the Hannah Giorgis quote above: an invitation into a conversation. The resolute silence of the other women seen in Lemonade (apart from the Super 8/'documentary' clips, we see backing singers lipsyncing in ‘Formation’, and there's a bit of miming along in 'Sorry', but that's pretty much it) might frame the album as a unified utterance by black women as a group, but the affirmation that Lemonade is also speaking to black women loops this utterance into an exchange. The image of the women conversing over dinner, along with the ‘front-porch politics’ suggested by the album’s title, becomes the defining symbol through which Lemonade is received.
According to this decision, Lemonade is not a closed text, in which the clever, talented, sexy Beyoncé speaks her own truth, but an opening into a collective process of truth telling. The discursive aspect of the #Lemonade hashtag was repeatedly emphasised, in stark contrast with some of the main ways in which trending Twitter hashtags are envisaged: a multitude of voices all speaking simultaneously into the void, or combined into a single thunderous chorus of forceful noise. Lemonade was not just something to talk about, but something to talk through. As such, it was a medium for the amplification of a conversation that already existed:
Lemonade is gorgeous; an hour-long manifestation of all the conversations you’ve eavesdropped on social media between black women. (Syreeta McFadden, The Guardian)
This is what I see on my social media timelines every day, and it makes me feel like Beyoncé is watching, and listening, and using her platform to validate concepts and identities women are learning about, working through, and/or sharing with each other as social media activism. (Anupa Mistry, The Fader)
I think collectively she’s reflecting what everyone else is already talking about and she knows there’s an audience for it. (Jenna Wortham, The New York Times)
Possibly the most concise encapsulation of this trend was actually the title used for a published extract of a New York Times roundtable podcast—‘Beyoncé’s Lemonade makes a statement. Discuss’—especially if we swap the full stop for a colon, and add some quote marks:
Beyoncé’s Lemonade makes a statement: ‘Discuss’
While this one-word command (or invitation?) might seem vague, it was nevertheless heard loud and clear by those listeners who came to define the discussion. As a result, the very fact of this discussion also became a key theme in the discussion. The conversation around Lemonade was also a meta-conversation about the importance of such conversations. This can be demonstrated by looking at the form that the ensuing discourse took: not only think pieces, reviews and essays, but also roundtables, curated lists of articles and syllabuses.
Melissa Harris-Perry introduces her roundtable in Elle in terms of ‘the call-and-response tradition’, which is ‘deeply embedded in black cultural practice’. She also deploys Beyoncé’s titles as rhetorical tools, justifying this form of discourse:
I like to think of this as MHP's lemonade stand, getting in-formation about Bey's latest contribution.
Another roundtable article, between Regina Bradley and dream hampton at NPR, is introduced with absolute meta-awareness by Frannie Kelley:
What Beyoncé's got us talking about now is what we women are really always talking about, under our breath, late night on the phone, after the kids are down, over coffee, at the bar, in tears, irrespective of anybody's album drop: our worth. … Uniting [the writers’] perspectives here is our attempt to arm each other with information and knowledge and hard-earned truths. So that when we're talking about Beyoncé, we're really saying something.
Further roundtables can be found at Vulture, CBC and The Fader. Meanwhile, the curated article lists by Hannah Giorgis at BuzzFeed, and later by Jessica Marie Johnson and Janell Hobson on the Black Perspectives blog, transformed the explosion of individual opinions into a unified conversation (in a similar manner to the #Lemonade hashtag on Twitter). Megan Carpentier’s Guardian article, ‘How Beyoncé’s Lemonade became a pop culture phenomenon’, was already narrativising this conversation three days after the album dropped. And after just a fortnight, Candice Benbow had pulled together the Lemonade Syllabus: an online text that situates Lemonade as a central node in a trans-historical, diaspora-wide conversation involving black female academics and authors, artists, musicians and filmmakers.
As an exclusive conversation that was conducted at the centre of the public sphere, the mode of engagement for many viewers and listeners became one of eavesdropping: to black women conversing, to Beyoncé’s story, to Beyoncé’s marriage (beautifully anticipated by the lyrics to ‘Pray You Catch Me’). Yet the Lemonade conversation also brought a very different mode of discourse into the ‘universal' space of the public sphere. It replaced deliberation and debate with the mutual sharing of individual truths whose total value stemmed from their very plurality. This is a form of discourse more suited to the presentation of ‘private’ concerns: a set of concerns constructed in relation to social categories like race and gender, and yet critically sidelined from public discourse.17
Lemonade is… a BLUEPRINT
Lemonade [is] a how-to for Black women navigating our way through the nearly inevitable woes of love (LaSha, Kinfolk Kollektive)
Lemonade almost seems like Beyoncé’s manifesto… Lemonade is a lesson in skill and talent. (Amani Bin Shikhan, Noisey)
The next modality of musical being that I want to discuss returns us to Tidal’s description of the project, ‘based on every woman’s journey of self-knowledge and healing’. Conceiving of the album as ‘a blueprint’ reconciles the two modalities of mirror and utterance; the album was also discussed in terms of ‘a lesson’, ‘a how-to’, ‘navigation’ (and by extension, ‘a map’ or ‘a compass’), and finally, ‘a recipe’. Within the text (and the conversation), this was received as a lesson about black love, black pain and healing. In Salon, Priscilla Ward outlines Beyoncé’s ‘blueprint for black women working through pain’, while Denise Nichole Andrews distills six ‘lessons’ from the album, in her For Harriet blogpost.18
Outside of the text, however, we have already seen that Lemonade is a lesson in how to listen to Lemonade, providing clues to help unlock its truth content. The album’s rhetorical position at the intersection of musical metaphors allows it to define its own successes:
This is what it looks like when a woman — a black woman — is given the space to acknowledge her wounds. Watch me, I’ll show you what it looks like to be whole. (Teo Bugbee, MTV News)
In [Lemonade's] moves through genre, space, place and time, it offers new tools to see black women, to listen to us, and to say our names. (Zandria F. Robinson, Rolling Stone)
By extension, Lemonade also serves as a lesson in how to engage with art in general. Monica Gibbs makes this argument in her Blavity article, ‘We are the reason there’s no creativity in music’, placing the onus on the audience to bring openness and imagination to the artwork. Amani Bin Shikhan uses the lemonade metaphor to make a similar point:
Beyoncé shares a recipe for lemonade… Pour the lemonade from pitcher to pitcher, softly intertwining its components, Beyoncé’s soft voiceover instructs. Give it time. Handle with care. Sip slow.
Yet at an even more general level, Lemonade also functions as a lesson in how to listen tout court, as a means to developing an appreciation and understanding of another person’s individual truth. In their curated list of articles, Jessica Marie Johnson and Janell Hobson group together a number of key quotes under the subtitle: ‘How To Engage When a Black Woman is Speaking’. Of all the articles I read, it was Dominique Matti’s deeply personal Medium essay that made this link most powerfully. Matti translates the lessons of Lemonade into a kind of manifesto for ‘difficult’ black women:
If I am difficult, it is my complexity showing, and I deserve the love of someone skilled. I will expand him, I will inundate him with knowing. And if he hurts me, I will make him see. I will make my own visuals, write my own poems. I will concoct an extended metaphor. I will write a novel in text message form. I will pace, I will state my point in forty phrases. I will draw parallels. I will break down the etymology of every word of my emotions. I will come equipped with quotes, articles, and statistics. I will carry on, I won’t relent. I will not tolerate anything less than understanding.
Matti’s essay demonstrates that, as well as a lesson in how to listen (turned outwards towards the eavesdroppers), Lemonade is also a lesson in how to speak. On a meta-level, Lemonade is represented as a perfect act of free, sincere and authoritative speech on the part of Beyoncé as both human subject and black woman. This puts the album in a difficult position vis-à-vis conventional notions of ‘universal truth’ as they provide the basis for aesthetic criteria and value systems. Nevertheless, rather than overthrowing these value systems, the Lemonade discourse appropriates them, turning the album into an object lesson in ‘how to be human’. The next section of this essay describes this tactic of appropriation and its function in establishing a mode of evaluation appropriate to Lemonade.
With Lemonade Beyoncé is once again controlling her own narrative, offering a nuanced and highly consumable image of both her life, and black life writ large (Diamond Sharp, Vice)
It’s a statement over which she has ultimate control. (Kuba Shand-Baptiste, The Independent)
She is performing at her own pace, to her own beats, and on her own terms. (Alondra Nelson, Elle)
Of all the decisions concerning the album’s musical ‘being’, probably the most prevalent affirmed that Lemonade is an ‘artwork’: a product, a creation, the endpoint of a process. In this modality, the text doesn't exist as a quasi-autonomous object, in which the process of production or creation is maintained as a trace; instead, the process of reception (watching/listening/writing) restages this process of production. To experience Lemonade is thus to experience Beyoncé making Lemonade.19
As a result, many of the reviews focused on the issue of control. Jamilah King’s Mic.com article is a good example, comparing Lemonade with the controversial Nina Simone biopic Nina, released the day before. King puts the successes of the former down to the creative control that Beyoncé has gradually won for herself, over the course of her career. Representing the album as a product of creative freedom helps to construct a context for the ‘speech act’ at its centre. In this reading, Beyoncé performs her control over what we see and hear, and how we should interpret it.
Here again, a distance is maintained between the ‘message’ and the ‘medium’ of Lemonade, which are sometimes mapped respectively onto the audio album and the film that contains it and ‘reads it’ for us. In this way, Lemonade is a meta-text that concerns itself with a ‘critical pragmatics’ of the musical utterance (pragmatics being the subfield of linguistics that deals with language in use, and with linguistic contexts). Beyoncé recognises that speech is an action, which exists within and interacts with the world in ways that aren’t completely determined by linguistic meaning:
Lemonade is revolutionary. Partly in that its recognition does not require that Beyoncé “say something new.” In the Black feminist cypher, we recognize our sisters simply because they have spoken. And because they choose not, or cannot, speak. And because they want their sisters to speak for them. And when they need their sisters to stand silently with them. (Erica Thurman, Life Behind the Veil)
One reading of the album in terms of ‘doing speech’ can be found in Jesmyn Ward’s ‘Rewriting Your Life: Beyoncé’s “LEMONADE” and the Art of Storytelling’ at Complex UK. Ward talks about herself as a writer, and her own attempts to ‘rewrite her parents’ story’ in her personal life. She relates this to Beyoncé’s attempts to rewrite America’s dark past, and ‘birth audacious futures’. This compelling metaphor manages to hold together a) Beyoncé’s ‘new story’ (the idyllic antebellum commune), b) the trace of history (the reality of antebellum life for black women), and most importantly, c) the process of transforming one into the other. Lemonade doesn’t present the rewritten story as historical fact; instead, it shows us how and why we might rewrite these stories. We might think back to the New York Times title—‘Beyoncé’s Lemonade makes a statement’—and underline the ‘makes’, which in turn returns us to the ‘making’ involved in the album’s titular proverb.
In this section of the essay, I want to argue that the evaluation stage of Lemonade’s strategic reception was dominated by the need to present the album in terms of this ‘critical pragmatics’, simultaneously positioning it as public statement of personal truth and as painstakingly produced artistic masterpiece. Ultimately, the Lemonade conversation disidentified with a number of ‘universalist’ categories, borrowed from discourses of liberal democracy and artistic value, to install Beyoncé in a position of ‘fully human’ personhood, while simultaneously demonstrating the enormous obstacles required for a black woman to occupy this position. For those faithful to the Lemonade event, the result of this rhetorical coup—the ambiguous, temporary identification with a number of theoretically idealistic but practically exclusive concepts and discourses—is the permanent transformation of these concepts: art, auteur, artistry, truth, criticism, value, masterpiece and genius.
Lemonade is… ARTISTRY
She is composing, situating, making art, being messy, exercising a fierce craftiness, and making it—like gumbo? like jazz? The improvisational impulse of her own artistry. (Karla Holloway, Elle)
Beyoncé accounts for the method behind black women's alchemy. (Zandria F. Robinson, Rolling Stone)
[A vital question for contemporary pop stars:] Are you the author and the subject? Beyoncé is as good as anybody if not better than everybody in balancing all of those things and using one to feed another… (Jon Caramanica, The New York Times)
On one level, the reintroduction of terms like ‘art’, ‘genius’ and ‘auteur’ could be considered purely defensive, pre-empting the racist/sexist critiques that a) Beyoncé is ‘just’ an entertainer or the product of market forces (and therefore her work is meaningless/not worthy of interpretation), and b) Beyoncé is ‘just’ the performer in a project with many different authors (and therefore we shouldn’t read the work through her as star, individual or black woman). Describing Lemonade as ‘art’ and Beyoncé as ‘auteur’ frustrates both these critiques. While there is no empirical/essential truth to any of these conceptions of artistic production, they all carry with them an implicit political intent: on the one hand, to further the emancipation of an oppressed group, and on the other hand, to discredit that emancipatory process and consolidate the power of the oppressor.
Still, to position Beyoncé as auteur of her own ‘visual album’ has significant consequences for our understanding of the project. It mashes together two very distinct ways of thinking about art-making: spontaneous expression on the one hand, and total vision on the other. We should remember that most cinematic ‘auteurs’ don’t appear in their own movies (and when they do, they rarely play filmmakers). Moreover, barely anyone seems to regard Lemonade as a film. It certainly uses elements of narrative cinema (and documentary) to disturb its own aesthetic integrity as music video, but its expressive language and relation to the performer-protagonist is still deeply rooted in the music video aesthetic.20
The word that has become synonymous with this new mode of authorship within today’s elite pop-star pantheon is ‘artistry’. In its contemporary usage, ‘artistry’ not only connotes great skill or craftsmanship, but also access to the ineffable properties of ‘high art’.21 As a result, this ‘artistry’ is neither an exclusive quality of the product nor of the producer, but it exists as a relation between the two. It represents the singular capacity of a singular artist (it is ‘their artistry’ and ‘theirs’ alone), rather than a mark of general quality. We might recognise here a mixture of two distinct modern conceptions of the artist: one that we may call ‘black’ (or African-American)—improviser, virtuoso, brimming with spontaneity and expressivity—and one that is more ‘white’ (or European): the careful and calculating intellect, using an outside eye to gradually piece together elements so that they represent the artist’s own vision. This ‘controlling’ dimension of artistry can be deployed to excuse the artist from the need to prove her authenticity or sincerity.22 If we are taught to value a carefully considered creation process, we are less likely to judge that artist by how true and real and unmediated her artistic statements are.
In the Lemonade reception, Beyoncé’s artistry was often represented in terms of ‘magic’. Judnick Mayard writes of her ‘wonderful witchcraft’ in Billboard, while Syreeta McFadden invokes the language of #blackgirlmagic. The metaphor of magic fits particular well with this notion of artistry; it suggests a unique capacity of the ‘magician’, but a capacity that materialises within and transforms the world. Rather than ‘truth’ or ‘authentic expression’, magic is artificial, it can be practised and perfected, it is deployed for a purpose and has an intended effect. The magic spell is language as pure pragmatics—the very model of a speech act—devoid of linguistic meaning and yet demonstrating a) the capacity of the speaker, b) the specificity of the addressee, and c) the intended effect:
Beyoncé acts as a conjure woman, and the natural and spirit worlds, past, present, and future coexist in her narrative. (Diamond Sharp, Vice)
To demand respect and reverence for black women is at once to work magic, and to call for a revolution of American values. (Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley, Time)
This ‘revolutionary’ dimension of the performance of artistry, which invokes free speech as a kind of magic, shouldn’t be underestimated. By equating control over one’s own utterances—the power to produce and sustain conditions within which one can speak freely—with magic, this reading of Lemonade performs the ‘critique’ in the aforementioned ‘critical pragmatics’. We are shown that, in order to be free and spontaneous and sincere and authentic—in order, in short, to be ‘naturally’ human—a black woman must develop ‘supernatural’ powers.
Truth and Value (Towards the Death of the Professional Critic)
The fact that white people feel compelled to try to make Black art poured from Black bodies accessible to non-Black people speaks clearly to the unshakable spirit of colonization that teaches them that they have no duty to respect esoteric cultural expressions. (LaSha, Kinfolk Kollektive)
In a world where art from the margins is so easily consumed and appropriated, allowing marginalized artists control over how that art is received barely seems like just recompense. (Karen Gwee, Consequence of Sound)
Where [Beyoncé’s] huge team fails to innovate is on the album’s drab middle few cuts about acceptance and forgiveness (Larry Bartleet, NME)
The decision that Lemonade is a) Beyoncé’s own narrative, b) over which she has complete control, and c) the product of great artistry effectively forecloses any conventional critical judgement of the album’s value. The categories of value that are applied by professional music critics are simply inappropriate to the album and its particular understanding of ‘truth’.
Every declaration of ‘objective’ artistic value deploys the ‘truth’ criterion in some way, just as every public statement of value is a claim to objectivity. This declaration may relate to the artwork revealing something true about the world (or not); it may relate to the artist being ‘true to themselves’ (or not); or it may rely on a comparison to some transcendent ideal—the perfect pop song, the perfect beat, the perfect album, the ‘essence’ of a particular genre—which necessarily conceals an implicit truth claim.
Central to Lemonade, however, is an explicit claim to the truth of its own truth, as something hard won. The content of Lemonade is the value of a black woman’s truth per se. We see Beyoncé speaking, we see her creating the perfect conditions for that speech, and we are shown what a superhuman achievement this is. To criticise Lemonade is thus to deny the truthfulness of a black woman’s truth. It is to declare, ‘The subaltern may think she is speaking, but I know differently.’
This foreclosure of the possibility of reviewing Lemonade from the position of professional critic bolsters the authority of the black women constructing the discourse, giving credence to all their decisions, cementing the meaning of Lemonade within the public imagination and realising its potential truth in ways that can then be demonstrated as evidence. At the same time, it deals a severe blow to the legitimacy of the professional critic and the music review as a feature of the public sphere, which must assume that all music can be judged in the same way for any of the subsequent evaluations to be valid.
We can see the implications of this in an article by Robin James, entitled ‘How not to listen to Lemonade: music criticism and epistemic violence’. Here, James critiques two early reviews by white men (Kevin Fallon in The Daily Beast and Carl Wilson in Slate) which both ask the question: ‘But what about the music?’ James calls this a ‘power move’ that ‘decenters features prioritized in black women’s performance traditions, and in Lemonade itself’, in order to ‘recenter men as authorities and experts’.23 James is suggesting that there is a mode of criticism that is ethically appropriate when engaging with Lemonade, to avoid committing what she calls ‘epistemic violence’. If this is the case though, there cannot also be a single mode of engagement appropriate to all music, which would be necessary to underpin an ‘objective’ and ‘coherent’ practice of music criticism. The whole enterprise of expert music criticism is (rightly) placed in jeopardy.
Yet Lemonade isn’t merely a postmodern claim for the particularity of the particular, or the relativity of all truth, albeit on a grand scale. Beyoncé isn’t just speaking freely and sincerely as a black woman, she is speaking as a generic human. Here, the universalist language of ‘art’, ‘masterpiece’ and ‘genius’ becomes all-important.
Lemonade is… ART
Beyoncé’s vision of crisis in our patriarchy is framed within a dramatic and elaborate album of musical theatre, but we must remember that this story is hers — not ours — to overanalyze. (Kyra Gaunt, TED Fellows Blog)
Beyoncé’s expression of the goddess-like wrath of a black woman betrayed is not about her—Lemonade is art, not autobiography, and continues the protest tradition of women blues artists. In black women’s music, trifling men have long been metonyms for a patriarchy that never affords black women the love and life they deserve. (Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley, Time)
While these ideas are universal and able to be felt and understood by anyone, it’s clear there’s an intended recipient of this ode. (Sajae Elder, Noisey)
As well as inviting a more sensitive level of critical engagement and helping to construct Beyoncé as auteur, the decision that ‘Lemonade is art’ raises the stakes of the discursive struggle to the categories of the universal and the human. There is no reason why Lemonade has to be art in order to be good or valuable; nevertheless, the pre-existent Western discourse of art (and the ideals that underpin it) present an opening for Lemonade’s discursive strategists.
As I mentioned earlier, one of the underlying assumptions about art in our culture is that it is universal.24 People may fail to recognise it as art—or interpret/evaluate it differently—but theoretically, as art, it should be ‘accessible’ to all. Denying an artwork’s universality means denying its status as art.
Once again: ‘Lemonade is art, but it is not for everyone’. We might explain this assertion in a number of ways, but if we preserve its paradoxical status, we might now hear it as a challenge to art’s supposed universality (or perhaps to the universality of the stated ‘everyone’). Like Habermas’s myth of the universally accessible public sphere, we might understand a universally accessible ‘art’ as a utopian horizon, useful as a way of measuring the limits of really existing conditions.25 Any gaps in our relative access to an artwork’s store of meanings should speak to inequalities that need to be addressed (in empathy, in understanding). It might make sense that a gap in access emerging along the fault lines of racial and gender inequality might demand that the situation be redressed (as in Dominique Matti’s ‘I will not tolerate anything less than understanding’). An art that is not for everyone tells us that art is not yet art, it is not yet universal, but we can orient our politics towards a horizon whereby it becomes universal (which would involve the abolition of race and gender).
One particular difficulty with the concept of art as a political tool is that it is also imagined to be unknowable: an infinite source of excessive meaning. Thus, relative access to an artwork’s ‘true’ value or meaning cannot be measured if the art is to remain art. The assertion ‘Lemonade is art, but it is not for everyone’ forces us to ask questions: How do we know which things are art? Who gets to decide which things are art? How does the knowledge of art’s art-ness relate to control over its meaning (and use) in the world?
In actual fact, the people in charge of which things are art (white men) are the same ones who decided that art is universal, and who therefore get to decide which things are universal. The black female knowledge that recognises Lemonade’s truth and its value also recognises its status as art. This is not a ‘universal’ (white-male) knowledge; it is a particular knowledge that nevertheless recognises the artwork’s universality. It takes the same approach as those white men who decide what art is and then proceed to deride those unable to appreciate its supposedly universal import. The Lemonade conversation affirms that, in a world of inequality and oppression, universality is not yet universally recognisable.
This strategy also teaches us something about the economy of artistic interpretation. It is true that an artwork is conceived as an abundant source of meaning. Anyone can legitimately take anything from it. However, when an interpretation is redeployed in public discourse, it has shifted from a field of abundance to a field of scarcity. The artwork stands in the corner of the museum, minding its own business. It could give anything to anyone, and as long as it remains art, it could keep on giving. But as soon as it is talked about, it enters a series of finite discourses: cultural history, art history, the art market, the present/zeitgeist, the national character, canons of greatness, etc. Artworks are available to be publicly used—to be transformed into symbolic/cultural/rhetorical capital—but as soon as they are, they must give up their infinite depth and become finite.
The authority to accumulate symbolic capital from this ‘worlding’ of artworks corresponds closely with other types of social and political power: something that black women are comparatively lacking as a social group. In the course of Lemonade reception, we saw the shrewd seizure of the Lemonade event as an opportunity to accumulate symbolic capital, using authority to announce the art status of Lemonade before immediately privatising its meaning and safeguarding it as capital to be deployed in discourse, both now and in the future.
Lemonade is… a MASTERPIECE
That's what makes this project a masterpiece. Because all of them [Beyoncé, Warsan Shire, Kahlil Joseph] are playing their parts. (dream hampton, NPR)
What’s most revolutionary and cathartic about Lemonade…is that it dares to make a new canon, finding references in the unphotographed past and future simultaneously, a land of no men. (Miriam Bale, Billboard)
It was clear that it was a masterpiece, but in reaction I underestimated the music. (Carl Wilson, Slate)
Lemonade was further safeguarded against inappropriate, ‘epistemically violent’ criticism by being immediately labelled not just a work of art, but an artistic ‘masterpiece’. Again, I would argue that this constitutes a strategic disidentification with a certain discourse of universal value, effectively prying this discourse apart. Thus, Lemonade’s reception presents an opportunity to think about the function of certain declarations of value within the public sphere: how they are used to accumulate and consolidate authority.
Like ‘art’ and ‘genius’, ‘masterpiece’ rhetorically dismisses the ‘democratic’ or ‘popular’ forum of evaluation that begins and ends with the public sphere: sales, views, charts, awards, Metacritic averages, etc. In this forum, individual taste snowballs into popular taste, and value is inferred from interpretations of these trends, producing narratives of collective desire. There is a language appropriate to this; if lots of people like an album, we can say for sure that it is popular and surmise that it is probably good (at least, the album is good at being popular/making people like it). Even saying that an album is good (‘it is a good album’ = an example of the ideal type ‘good album’, or a good example of the ideal type ‘album’) can easily be heard as ‘I like this album’, because we like albums that we think are good. Eventually, ‘good albums’ ossify into ‘great albums’ and finally ‘classic albums’, just as trends in popular taste are frozen into cultural narratives and popular canons.
It is true that ‘goodness’ carries with it some semblance of the universal: just because we like an album doesn’t mean we expect anyone else to like it, but a good album should be liked by everyone invested in the category of ‘album’. However, while it is the raison d’être of most criticism to close this gap between subjective ‘I like it’ and objective ‘it is good’, criticism also relies on the fluidity of ‘goodness’ to exist as a public discourse that theoretically includes everyone. All judgements of cultural value are, in the end, couched in the subjective and the entire discourse is excused by this basis in subjective taste. Critics’ performances of authority would appear to deny such a basis; in reality though, it tends to distance the critic from potential influences (album sales, awards, the opinions of other critics), rooting it even deeper in the purely subjective.
Unlike ‘classic’ status, ‘masterpiece’ status is not something that can develop over time. It relates not to reception and the artwork’s place in the world, but to a set of supposedly timeless ideals that precede and determine the very possibility of an artwork’s existence as such. As with the ‘classic’ label, the critic is rhetorically ‘outsourcing’ their evaluation to an exterior judge; however, rather than general consensus/public opinion/posterity, this judge is idealist aesthetics itself. The public cannot decide if a masterpiece is a masterpiece, or if geniuses are geniuses; quite the opposite, the indisputability of geniuses and masterpieces actually underpins capital-C ‘Culture’ as a domain of the universalist public sphere. It is a constitutive feature of the very possibility of art that geniuses are geniuses and masterpieces are masterpieces.
This means that a critic cannot subjectively decide if an album is a masterpiece; they can only correctly or incorrectly identify (or recognise) its masterpiece status. Declaring that an album is a masterpiece therefore constitutes a wager; the critic’s authority is at stake. If one critic says that an album is a masterpiece and another one says that it isn’t, one of them must be wrong (and therefore less authoritative). Declaring Lemonade a masterpiece therefore puts potential critics on the back foot, because if they make any kind of criticism, they are not only presenting a brave new opinion (which is admired in a critic), they are risking objective wrongness (supposing they still buy into the validity of ‘masterpieces’, which nearly all critics do). If there is the possibility that Lemonade is indeed a masterpiece, critics are forced to look for the signs of the masterpiece in the text, and thus not be on the wrong side of history when they make their snap assessment and claim on authority.
And it just so happens that Lemonade is bursting with the conspicuous signs of the masterpiece, from the indisputable perfection of its execution, to its scale and grandeur, its army of collaborators (many of whom are recognised ‘masters’ in their own diverse fields), and its accessible ‘arthouse’ aesthetic, flaunting its own profundity on every level. Most of all, with Beyoncé as auteur, the project seems to position itself in the tradition of the Gesamtkunstwerk as transcendent artistic achievement, tapping into the historically revenant notion that the perfect integration of different artistic media constitutes more than the sum of these parts:
We in the West…have precedents for this sort of Gesamtkunstwerky (the total artwork combining music, visuals, and lyrics) thing going back to Wagner and the Florentine Camerata (the collective attributed with inventing opera in the 17th century). (Robin James, Sounding Out)
Lemonade — categorically a visual album like 2013’s Beyoncé, but run through with the sensibilities of literature, poetry, and painting (Doreen St. Félix, MTV News)
Viewing Lemonade as a work of literature, I agree, is appropriate. (Jamil Smith, MTV News)
What is particularly fascinating about Lemonade as Gesamtkunstwerk, though, is the extent to which it actually rejects the ideal of an integrated totality. The various elements (music, fashion, cinema, poetry, dance) are held together, but they remain separable. What we experience is a ‘meta-artwork’, which cannot be reduced to the creative statement of a single person. Each interwoven strand displays a mastery of its own medium, without abandoning its disciplinary identity in the service of a chimerical ‘integration’.
The fragmentation of the Gesamtkunstwerk that Lemonade enacts is crucial to its deployment in the reception discourse. Even when viewed as part of a black tradition of sampling and signifyin’, Lemonade is still a remarkably transparent text. Just as it can be conversed through, so can it also be read through. We look through Lemonade and see influences and inspirations—Julie Dash, Kasi Lemmons—and their presence must be affirmed in its wholeness (unlike that of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker in the ‘Countdown’ video, for instance). Beyoncé isn’t stealing, imitating or referencing but showing us these influences. We look through Lemonade and see collaborators—Warsan Shire, Laolu Senbanjo—and, again, their presence must be affirmed. Almost every writer discussed the spoken monologues as ‘Shire’s words’, even though—within the fictional convention of the text—they are (like the lyrics) Beyoncé’s voice. We listen through Lemonade (with Brittany Spanos in Rolling Stone and Emily J. Lordi in The Fader) and hear Big Mama Thornton and Dionne Warwick.
As Joan Morgan writes, ‘Perhaps Beyoncé's greatest achievement is that she's wrestled enough control over her art to allow other black artists to tell their stories’. This is what’s implied by talking about Lemonade as a platform, a space, a showcase. By keeping these other artists and influences visible, and not allowing them to dissolve into a single integrated entity called ‘Beyoncé’, the Lemonade discourse can make good on Beyoncé’s ‘generous invitation’ and flood the space she blew open with other black artists, stories and histories.26 In doing so, however, these writers put significant pressure on the conventional boundaries of ‘the masterpiece’ and ‘the genius’ as categories.
I think it's important for us to realize when we're talking about Beyoncé, we're talking about dozens, maybe hundreds of people… (Mankaprr Conteh, Elle)
The creative genius of Beyoncé lies in what singer/songwriter Sia describes as her “very Frankenstein” approach to taking bits and pieces of songs and mixing them together. (Janell Hobson, Ms. Magazine)
She’s the centripetal force that turns a potential hot mess into an exquisite pop song. (Dorian Lynskey, The Guardian)
The witch can only heal by first bearing witness. (Judnick Mayard, Billboard)
It was pure chance that Lemonade dropped less than a week after the death of Prince, which—compounded by the protracted mourning of David Bowie—had brought the category of ‘artistic genius’ back to the heart of public discourse. This was the climate in which Lemonade was received, and Prince’s legacy provided a useful framework for many of the early reviews and think pieces. Commentators were both keen to position Beyoncé as a natural successor and, in some cases, demonstrate her inferior status on the basis of her reliance on collaborators (for examples of this, see Kelsey McKinney’s Fusion article).
One of the missions of Lemonade reception was to rehabilitate the masculinist genius myth in a way that would intuitively accommodate Beyoncé. The most thorough example of this came from Birgitta Johnson, who critiques the sexist assumptions separating Beyoncé from Prince, Michael Jackson, James Brown and other ‘bona fide’ geniuses of black music. Johnson is not interested in abolishing the category of genius, even as she suggests that many of its fundamental criteria (originality, authenticity, solitude) are essentially chimerical in the pop world. Instead, she seems to want to reconcile the concept with the true conditions of pop creation (collaboration, borrowing, artificiality) and see it applied evenly to black artists of all genders.
On the same day that Johnson’s article appeared, Kelsey McKinney published her take, ‘Beyoncé’s “Lemonade”: How the writing credits reveal her genius’, which would be echoed three days later in Dorian Lynskey’s Guardian piece: ‘Beyoncé’s Lemonade is an object lesson in collaboration’. Unlike Johnson’s piece, these articles don’t dismantle the double standards for male and female artists so much as make the argument that Beyoncé is a genius because of those very aspects that are so often used to exclude (black) women from the category (Lynskey doesn’t explicitly rehabilitate the word ‘genius’ but the effect is the same). For these writers, Beyoncé is the visionary who can take disparate elements and combine them into a coherent whole. In doing this, the disparateness of these elements is not erased; they are not fully absorbed into this vision. Rather, Beyoncé’s genius is made apparent in their holding-together. Lynskey describes her as a ‘centripetal force’ and McKinney as ‘a conductor’ or ‘curator’. Both liken Lemonade’s creation process to that of other artworks made by well-respected artists (from Kanye and Bowie, to Michelangelo and the Bauhaus), as if to say: If these guys are ‘geniuses’ then Beyoncé is a genius too.
One way of understanding all this is in terms of symbolic equality. As with the Grammy debacle (and the #oscarssowhite furore), this argument runs that Beyoncé (as a black woman outstanding in her field) should have the same access to all accolades and value categories relating to that field. This would seem to require the demolition of racist and sexist double standards. However, the struggle for equality in the highest echelons of society (CEOs, presidents, celebrities) can give the illusion of a ‘post-racial’ society, even as this equality is withheld from the majority. At the most, the model of the ‘black Bill Gates in the making’ is one of ‘trickle-down equality’, whereby young people are inspired to strive harder and dream bigger, thereby being held personally responsible for their own failings. Beyond such symbolic gestures, why is it important for Beyoncé to be recognised as an artistic genius?27
As with the Gesamtkunstwerk, Lemonade retains the ‘genius’ category but transforms it. The unique expressive framework of the visual album and the strategic campaign of reception literature place Beyoncé in a very particular position vis-à-vis the artwork. Unlike all the non-pop artists referenced in these articles, Beyoncé is at the heart of her own creation: she is the genius creator of herself. Unlike all the other pop artists referenced, Beyoncé is playing herself—performing autobiography—and doing so in a bid to disappear (to become Everywoman). Michael Jackson, Prince, James Brown, David Bowie: these were not everymen. They played aliens, supernatural forces, monsters, love symbols, sex machines. For the first time in her career, Beyoncé is playing an everywoman, not through playing the role of the jealous wife (which can only lead to tabloid sensationalism), but through playing herself as artist, making the project.
As I see it, Beyoncé is less ‘force’, ‘glue’ or ‘conductor’ than she is the container for collaboration. Clover Hope describes her as ‘the vision and the vessel’—the vessel of her own vision, a vessel designed by and belonging to herself. Lemonade is contained (bottled?) within her genius iconic body—black woman, individual, star—but Lemonade also contains Beyoncé. Beyoncé contains Lemonade contains Beyoncé, who contains herself and her stardom and every black woman in her three-dimensional iconicity. This is a particular affordance of the pop icon: the fiction of their songs, their videos, their shows, their careers all takes place within a ‘space’ that is ‘within them’ (their emotions, their sexuality, their stories, their outlook, their performance of what a human can be).
In rehabilitating ‘genius’ with Beyoncé as model, we might look back at the word’s genealogy. In ancient Rome, a ‘genius’ was a kind of guiding spirit that would attend every person throughout their lives and dictate their unique personality. Thus, particular talents could be ascribed to a person’s genius. Eventually it came to refer directly to ‘a person’s characteristic disposition’, then ‘a person’s natural ability’, and only later did it designate exceptional ability. Nevertheless, as with ‘artistry’ and ‘masterpiece’, it speaks to a specifically human register—not godlike, not supernatural, but naturally exceptional. The Roman genii may have been spirits, but every fully human person had one.
Like the pop icon, the genius is therefore the very image of the human. Even at their most outlandish and ‘post-human’, the pop star’s performance says, ‘You can be me too. You can live like me. You can look like me. You can love like me. You can fuck like me. You can feel like me.’ Likewise, to celebrate genius is to celebrate human capacity. This is why it has historically been the preserve of the white and the male: those individuals who were granted (and indeed invented) ‘fully human’ personhood within Western modernity.
This brings me finally to my conclusion—what seems to me to be the truth of the Lemonade event…
Beyoncé isn’t the only one being unapologetically loud and proud of her blackness. There are many of us…, but you didn’t see us or notice the wave. That is why Beyoncé had to do this. (Jamelia, The Independent)
Being the vision and vessel for these grand ideas (an hour-long visual album takes a village) is a heavy weight, but Beyoncé had to do it. (Clover Hope, Jezebel)
One of Beyoncé’s biggest strengths is that she is able to lead and also fall into formation herself. (Morgan Jerkins, Elle)
Beyoncé had to do it. No one else could have done this. She had to do it.
But why did Beyoncé have to do it?
Beyoncé is at once human and Leviathan. Everything about the Lemonade text—and the way in which this text has been birthed, christened and fixed in the world by its black female spectatorship—works to bring these two dimensions together. ‘The personal is political is Beyoncé’: she is the genius of her own creation, but her genius is also a collective genius. It is inextricable from the genius of black women as a whole. Her own control over the huge Lemonade project (which is her own personal speech act) is directly reflected in the control wrested by the black female collective of writers and commentators over the reception of Lemonade (which is their own personal speech act).
Beyoncé is one of the biggest stars on the planet. The sheer size of her stardom is such that she can fit hundreds of other people within it. She irrupts at the centre of global discourse, and the crater that she leaves is so huge that it can immediately be filled with hundreds of thousands of stories, testimonies and interpretations. She is ‘huge’ in a very real sense in that she takes up physical and cultural space (column inches, gigabytes, stadiums, billboards, time, effort), but she is also human-sized. She deconstructs her iconicity in Lemonade, into its three constitutive parts, but her iconicity is reconstructed through Lemonade’s reception into the colossal figure of the genius auteur. In the ‘gap’ maintained between Lemonade and meta-Lemonade, between performing subject Beyoncé and auteur Beyoncé, we get a sense of that vastness of space, and what it might be filled with.
So Beyoncé is at once a black woman, a human individual and every black woman. But she is also the universal human. She simultaneously occupies a number of positions that are reserved for (and constructed in relation to) a generic notion of ‘full’ humanity, as developed through a racist/sexist Eurocentric Enlightenment project. These include the pop icon, the genius, the master creator of universal art, and also the possessor of a free, sincere and authoritative public voice. This category of the fully human subject is a category that black women are still excluded from; indeed, it has been constructed via colonial discourses in explicit opposition to the black woman as Other. As a pop icon, Beyoncé has been granted human status however, which is why her simultaneous assertion of her blackness was so disturbing to so many white fans.28
The radical project of Lemonade was to ‘disidentify’ with this fully human subject, which means inhabiting it in a way that forces it to change. The ‘universal’ pretensions of this category are maintained, rather than dissolved into a postmodern puddle of absolute, irreconcilable difference. Universality is reasserted as a kind of utopian ideal, but the face of the universal human is shown to be black and femme.29 This is what I hear in this quote from Melissa Harris-Perry:
What would happen if we took the hopes, dreams, pain, joy, loss, bodies, voices, stories, expressions, styles, families, histories, futures of black girls and women and put them in the center and started from there?
That ‘center’ from which we ‘start’: this is the place of universal personhood, somewhere that very few black women have access to. Erica Thurman writes about Beyoncé ‘stepping into the black feminist cypher and promptly dropping the mic’. This beautifully captures the dynamic of the event: the opening up of space and the influx of voices, the feedback, the reverberation. But we might also talk of the black feminist cypher stepping into Beyoncé, if we recognise Beyoncé as ‘universal human cypher’. As such, Beyoncé the megastar functions as a kind of ‘Trojan human’, transporting an army of black women into the heart of ‘universal’ discourse. The occupation of the ‘universal human cypher’ that Lemonade stages has the critical function of declaring that ‘personhood is political’. It demonstrates the colossal lengths to which a black woman must go in order to satisfy what should be the sine qua non of personhood: a struggle that is beautifully represented by the sprawling credits which function as the visuals for ‘Formation’. The project also denaturalises this notion of humanity (or dehumanises nature?), even as it affirms the value of this notion as a horizon for struggle: the destiny of emancipation, the image of real equality and justice.
In a critical roundtable published a few weeks after Lemonade, feminist scholars Patricia Leavy and Donna Y. Ford discussed their ‘concerns’ about ‘pop stars like Beyoncé leading the conversation about feminism’. This raises questions around the appropriate approach to ‘leading a conversation’ and what Beyoncé’s ‘leadership’ actually looks like in this case. Clearly, the Beyhive and their fellow travellers had taken the Super Bowl call to ‘get in formation’ very seriously, and they were ready to receive Lemonade and run with it. And ‘formation’ certainly implies some sort of leadership. But can we not separate the campaign from the conversation? What, after all, is the appropriate ‘formation’ for a conversation? Does a conversation really require a leader?
These scholars, along with hooks, are concerned that both campaign and conversation risk becoming about Beyoncé: that Beyoncé will only lead her followers to Beyoncé (as commodity, as goddess, as something to consume and enjoy, as someone to aspire to become). Yet the function of Lemonade strategy was to reconstruct the iconic Beyoncé as something demystified but still powerful: the incarnation of #blackgirlmagic and its equation with universal human genius. The lesson of Lemonade, we are told by those who recognised it, is not that some people are just amazingly talented and some of those talented people are black women. It’s not about gods and heroes. It’s not ‘bow down bitches and kiss Beyoncé’s ankles’.
Hilton Als, sensing that ‘Octavia Butler is the dominant artistic force in the movie version of “Lemonade”’, claims that ‘it’s the black female body, Butler’s great subject, that struggles against and sometimes breaks free of Beyoncé’s pop perfection’. Lemonade is excessive, bursting with black girl magic and human genius. This magical genius uses Beyoncé’s stardom, just as she uses it, as a vessel and vehicle. Yet it cannot be fully contained, pouring and fizzing and bubbling into the gaps and spaces she opens up, bursting them apart. Most white male critics looked at Lemonade and saw only dazzling superstar Beyoncé: flawless and peerless and unimpeachable. For the faithful, as Dominique Matti wrote, ‘We must say: I see us’.
1 Lemonade’s lead single, ‘Formation’, is the final track on the audio album. As a audiovisual text, Lemonade exists in two versions: a 57-minute film, broadcast on HBO, and a 65-minute film, streamed on Tidal. The longer version includes the ‘Formation’ video after the credits, while the shorter version only includes it as an instrumental, played over the credits sequence. When I first watched Lemonade (on Tidal), it included the ‘Formation’ video.↩
2 I’m aware of the potential inappropriateness of launching into an essay about Beyoncé reception with a reference to Alain Badiou. I will talk more about inappropriateness later. Suffice it to say that, while reading Badiou is not necessary to understand Lemonade as an event (on the contrary, the discourse around Lemonade—led by black female critics, journalists and academics—certainly helped me understand Being and Event), his insistence on the status of the name of the event seems particularly useful in this case.↩
3 By ‘perfect example of political music’, I mean that Lemonade embodies a strategy ideally suited to be maximally effective on a particular terrain. Unlike a generic protest song for instance, Lemonade couldn’t be exchanged for another similar text and maintain its efficacy. As a strategic model, then, it can’t be replicated for any situation, but instead it exemplifies the careful composition of a particular approach to engage with a particular site of struggle. It demonstrates not just a desire to make ‘political music’, but the recognition and engagement with a terrain on which music can be the ideal tool for effective political transformation.↩
4 In an article entitled ‘Writing and Identity’, Sam Kriss makes an argument against the Lemonade think piece taboo as an ethical taboo, which I find convincing. Nevertheless, I think he seriously undersells the political dimension of all public writing, and fails to appreciate the particular political strategy behind this taboo.↩
5 A note on ‘Formation’ and the Lemonade event: Many of the strategies I discuss in this essay were already well established by the time Lemonade arrived. In particular, the media controversy around the ‘Formation’ video and live performance (particularly in the USA) was the occasion for plenty of discussion around black art and the white gaze. Nevertheless, I’m focusing on Lemonade as the ‘event’ because I consider it more of a ‘break’ with a more traditional lineage of political music (in which we might place Kendrick Lamar or Solange), made possible by Lemonade’s uniquely vast scale—epic, mainstream, primetime, chart-topping, a phenomenon—combined with its very personal orientation. While awesome and very successful on its own terms, ‘Formation’ looked very much like political music, and was identified as such by those same white critics who went on to decry the lack of politics on Lemonade.
Certainly ‘Formation’ was an important precedent to the Lemonade event, and remains one of its constitutive elements. Clearly, Lemonade didn’t come from nowhere, but required a huge number of other factors to align, including but not limited to the arc of Beyoncé’s career, her star persona, her mainstream success, the infrastructure of black/feminist new media, woke Twitter, the heightened public debate around racism in America, contemporary black activism, fourth-wave feminism, the state of the music/PR industry, the death of rock, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the Obamas, Kanye and Kendrick, Solange and Jay Z.↩
6 I acknowledge the slippages here between ‘speaking’/‘talking’ and ‘writing’, which Sam Kriss decries in his essay. However, I reject his romanticisation of all writing as potential literature; the public sphere and democracy are both constructed on the basis of debate and deliberation, speech and voices, and for better or for worse, public writing must identify with this metaphor to perform effectively in this sphere. As we shall see, Lemonade embraces the modality of public speech and private conversation, and this is borne out in the self-presentation of its reception discourse, for expressly political reasons.↩
7 bell hooks called Beyoncé a terrorist in a roundtable discussion in 2014 (with respect to her impact on the self-image of young black girls). Strangely though, in this new context, the terrorist act as media event does suggest some interesting analogies to the way in which Lemonade broke in the media. As I will go on to discuss, early news reports appeared along the lines of ‘what we know so far’. There was a strong realisation among commentators that early interpretations could go on to form powerful narratives, with serious repercussions for the shape of public debate. For some, this meant a reticence to commit to such statements, for others, an urgency to establish a powerful narrative as quickly as possible. This analogy demonstrates the power of the media event as an opening for new counter-narratives, given sufficient access to powerful platforms. I should make clear however that Lemonade opened a space for a constructive politics of emancipation, in total opposition to the various reactionary and fascist narratives aided by terrorist acts.↩
8 The term ‘appropriateness’ that I use here is obviously linked to ‘property’ and thus ‘ownership’: unique qualities that the music ‘owns’.↩
9 I’m not denying that all art produced within capitalist societies necessarily takes on the character of the commodity. Yet the discourse of art is still a utopian one, transcending the market and the commodity, even if the market ultimately benefits from this parallel discourse.↩
10 See Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991).↩
11 In her influential critique, Nancy Fraser draws particular attention to the demand that interlocutors in a public sphere ‘bracket status differentials’ and deliberate ‘“as if” they were social equals’ (62), which Fraser considers impossible. She also contests the exclusion of ‘private issues’ from the notion of the common good, and thus from public deliberation, showing that the assignation of ‘public’ and ‘private’ issues can be a way to ‘perpetuate class (and usually also gender and race) dominance and subordination’ (73). Concepts such as the ‘counterpublic’ have been developed as a way of bringing vital nuance to Habermas’s theorization. See Fraser, ‘Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy, in Social Text, No. 25/26 (1990), pp. 56–80, as well as Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics (Cambridge: Zone Books, 2002).↩
12 Drawing on the queer theory of José Esteban Muñoz, we might say that this collective ‘disidentify’ with the discourse of the universalist public sphere. See Muñoz, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).↩
13 In his The Gift, Marcel Mauss shows that this is rarely the case in reality. Nevertheless, we are more interested in the gift as a figure, a symbol or an idea: see Mauss, The Gift: The form and reason for exchange in archaic societies (London: Routledge, 2002).↩
14 Lemonade is certainly not a text with clear boundaries marking its ‘inside’ and ‘outside’. It is both fiction and non-fiction; it both acknowledges its public audience and denies this knowledge. Consequently, these designations are used pretty loosely.↩
15 Because of the relative underrepresentation of black women in professional music critic roles, these articles were more likely to appear in opinion and commentary columns, and thus more likely to include an author photo. Unlike album reviews, these are also registers of journalistic writing that tend not to affect an ‘objective’, depersonalised voice, but instead stress the subject position and background of the writer. Moreover, for reasons already discussed, these writers were obliged to write about Lemonade explicitly as black women.↩
16 This is another tactic that is acknowledged but rejected by hooks, who posits that while Beyoncé ‘can both create images and present viewers with her own interpretation of what those images mean’, ‘her interpretation cannot stand as truth’.↩
17 See Fraser (1990)↩
18 Some of this reception is clearly influenced by Bible-reading practices, and I think it’s worth considering what makes an artistic text appropriate for such quasi-spiritual exegesis (Beyoncé as both ideal human and goddess?).↩
19 This is one of the reasons why Lemonade is more music video than narrative film. Consider the distinctions between the constitutive fictions of the studio pop recording and the narrative film. The former explicitly dramatises its own production (albeit on a fantastical or metaphorical register) while the latter positions itself as a casual record of a world already in progress.↩
20 I’ll try to make this case in my next essay. Miriam Bale describes Lemonade as ‘a feature film’, but concedes that ‘Beyoncé is redefining authorship’, thus denying any simple representation of her as cinematic auteur.↩
21 This is, at any rate, the sense that Kanye brings to the word when he told Beck to 'respect artistry' at the 2015 Grammys. While its definition remains contentious, I think Kanye has done a lot to transform the meaning of words like 'artistry' over the last few years, perhaps unwittingly, by identifying intensely with the discourse and institutions of high art, and using this language in a hyperbolic way to characterise his very contemporary way of making music, and that of his peers. I think this is a good thing, and I believe that the definition of 'artistry' that Kanye employs—one which Beck does need to respect, and therefore give his Grammy to Beyoncé—is a more valuable one than the definition fuelling the pointless memes of various internet bores and crypto-racists.↩
22 This is something we often demand from people of colour and women, but not from white men: ‘I woke up like this’, etc. See Birgitta Johnson, Birgitta’s Music Box Review).↩
23 Carl Wilson actually admitted his ‘mistake’ in an end-of-year article, acknowledging James’s critique and calling the experience ‘a reminder of the obligation…of truly active, participatory listening’, although he predictably stops short of disavowing the possibility of ‘expert’ musical judgement tout court.↩
24 This argument forms the basis of Katerina A. Sardi’s article ‘I’m not black, why can’t I discuss “LEMONADE?”’, at NBC News.↩
25 For utopian horizons, see José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009).↩
26 The incredible success with which these writer established a politically appropriate and expedient canon of references can be gauged by looking at a counterexample—Freja Dam’s piece in Spin—whose references to Godard, Fellini and Moulin Rouge feel markedly tone deaf.↩
27 Personally, I loathe the concept of ‘genius’. It affirms the existence of an elite few whose personal expressions and aesthetic concerns are innately more valuable and even fundamentally more truthful than the rest of us.↩
28 This was parodied in a Saturday Night Live sketch entitled, 'The Day Beyoncé Turned Black'.↩
29 This is, by the way, far more radical than a black, female God (see Octavia Spencer in The Shack (2017) and Whoopi Goldberg in A Little Bit of Heaven (2011)), since women of colour are more likely to be excluded from images of rational humanity than those of spirituality or divinity, neither of which are as valued in contemporary Western society.↩