Have You Heard of This Work of Art Named LEMONADE by Beyoncé? It’s Pretty Good!

Don’t worry – this isn’t yet another deep dive think piece exploring the many layers of Beyoncé’s Lemonade; the last thing the world needs is another white dude analyzing this nearly unprecedented, indefinable, and inexhaustible work of art. But a few factors have compelled this whitie to put pen to paper fingers to keyboard – BRIEFLY – to try to make sense of the endless meaning the Queen packed into these 120 minutes.[1] Those reasons are:

  1. I’ve yet to write about a subject that my sister cares enough about to actually slog through my excessive verbosity (which won’t be on display here, as an ode to her).
  2. …I embarrassingly only exposed myself to Lemonade for the first time very recently. 

I know! I was living under a rock on E Street! But in my current quest to keep up with popular music,[2] and after seeing how many critics include Lemonade in their top 10 movie lists of 2016, I finally drank the lemonade. 

Yes, it’s that good. Yes, I’m also now drinking Beyoncé’s lemon-flavored Kool-Aid. Yes, it should be considered one of the best works of art of last year.

I hesitate to label it as strictly an album nor strictly a movie because they’re both in conversation with each other, and once experienced together, it’s impossible to evaluate them separately.[3] It’s actually similar to The Hamilton Mixtape, perhaps my second favorite album of last year. It can be enjoyed on its own terms, but anyone familiar with Hamilton will be unable to interpret it through anything except that fairly encompassing lens. 

God damnit, I’m already delving into more detail than I wanted to. Seriously, an overwhelming number of intimidatingly insightful pieces written by minds far more knowledgeable than myself can already be found on the net, and I’ll leave most of the heavy-lifting to those experts. For my part, I’ll say that Lemonade is probably one of this century’s slyest, deftest artistic manipulations of celebrity culture. Beyoncé basically understood that she could easily inspire the masses to pay attention to her legitimately nuanced artistic statements as long as they concerned her tabloid-centric relationship with Jay-Z. More than just the equivalent of treating a kid with candy-flavored Tylenol (translation: the way to make people take the artistic medicine that they ordinarily wouldn’t want is by wrapping it in more palatable packaging), Beyoncé doesn’t exploit celebrity culture as much as artistically investigate the shit out of it. 

I’m most interested in the movie’s rife imagery that deconstructs various ways that people – women, African Americans, celebrities, celebrity African-American women, etc. – have been visually objectified over the years. Beyoncé finds empowerment for herself and others by flipping the script on these stereotypical depictions, turning them on their heads to fit her needs. “You may have created these artistic forms to keep us down…” she almost seems to be saying to the old artistic powers that be, “…but I’m going to adapt and evolve them to bolster us back up stronger than you ever were.” The visual symbolism almost tells an entire story in itself that’s clearly inspired by – but yet again still distinct from – the songs themselves.[4]

And now, without further ado – and because my sister won’t finish this if I keep blabbering – two crazy theories regarding the subtext of Lemonade. I shall focus exclusively on “Don’t Hurt Yourself” to convey just how many subjective interpretations can be inspired by a mere 4-minute song:

I’ve been considering why Beyoncé decided to use Jack White on a song that’s so clearly a furious, quasi-irrational, yet clearly justified tirade against a man, especially since its visual imagery in the music video is clearly Beyoncé powerfully reclaiming the classic stereotype of the “crazy black bitch” that has long been forced upon African American women by MEN. Leaving aside the racial implications his name represents,[5] Jack’s presence also kind of adds a meta-commentary to the song that makes it so much richer. The chorus revolves around the idea that every time a man hurts a woman, he’s really hurting himself, which is especially true in celebrity culture since all of a man’s misdeeds are often widely reported. But instead of Jack’s voice on the chorus reaffirming Beyoncé, what if he represents her conscience – specifically the part that empathizes with the man with whom she’s so angry – singing back to herself in disagreement? Think about that in terms of Lemonade as a whole: if she wanted to craft any work of art that responded in any way to what Jay-Z did to her, she would’ve had to hurt him in some public way. BUT, following her own words in this song, she understood that hurting him in any way would also end up hurting her in every way. That basically explains how Beyoncé ultimately treats Jay-Z in Lemonade: critically, sternly, but also fairly and, most importantly, compassionately. In other words, like a complex human with complex baggage with an uber-complex history. None of this justifies what he did, but it’s such a smart move to subtly communicate to herself, the listener, and everyone who has ever been cheated on, that even in our angriest moments – and “Don’t Hurt Yourself” is undeniably the angriest song on the album – we need to remember not to let that anger dictate behavior that can come back to ‘hurt yourself’ more than you end up hurting your target.

Still with me? Hopefully? Okay, let’s get crazier:

Beyoncé emphasizes a few lines throughout the album by dramatically calling attention to them both musically (in the songs) and cinematically (in the movie). “Becky with the good hair” is probably the most (in?)famous example, but my personal favorite – which is actually my favorite line on the whole album…which is actually one of my favorite lines from any work of art last year – is: “I am the dragon breathing fire.” Sounds random, no? A deep dive has convinced me otherwise. The English word “dragon” derives from the Greek word “δράκων,” meaning “dragon, SERPENT of huge size, water-snake”. Note my editorial capitalization of that etymology: serpents have long been considered evil due to – what else – the Bible. Remember Adam and Eve? The woman was tricked by a serpent into committing humanity’s original sin.[6] Let me repeat that: a woman has been blamed ever since the Bible for humanity being expelled from the Garden of Eden. The worst part: her crime was simply the pursuit of knowledge, and not listening to the male god trying to tell her what she can and can’t do. Snakes have long been phallic symbols, but throughout history, Eve has been the one blamed, and women have long suffered the consequences. In a way, Eve is a foundational example of women being blamed for men’s mistakes, which often occurs in instances of infidelity as well (how many Hillary Clinton haters cited her husband’s affairs – and how she subsequently handled them – as an indictment of HER character during last year’s election?). Female victims tend to receive perpetrating scorn, as if they were somehow complicit in the crime. Yet like with much of Lemonade, Beyoncé recasts by reversing these gender-normative roles, turning herself into the powerful, masculine-symbolic snake breathing fire. Her fire – unlike that of most men throughout human history – actually empathizes with her victims, ultimately leading to her eventual re-acceptance of Jay-Z, but on more equal terms.

That occurs in a later song, which I may one day explore…hopefully by then my sister will be ready to read some more!

 

 

FOOTNOTES

[1] The album may only be 60 minutes, but the accompanying film is basically an obviously related but still separate piece.

[2] Bruce’s new music may be many things, but widely popular is not one of them.

[3] Aside, but when Beyoncé inevitably trilogizes her current string of surprise releases, she should release the visual component in movie theaters. More than just the vast amounts of money a rare, totally surprise movie theatee release would generate, such a roll-out would also convince a lot more general audiences – as opposed to just scholarly critics – to view Beyoncé’s visual artistry as an actual movie as opposed to a mere music video.

[4] If anyone has read a piece tracking the meaning of the ever-changing aspect ratios, I’d love to read it. Also, how many top tier directors ever fuck with aspect ratios?! Beyoncé clearly sees them as apt visual parallels for the societal barriers women must face.

[5] Jack = traditional white male. White = traditional skin color. And I really do think Beyoncé had reasons behind her decisions to use certain artists in particular songs. For instance, The Weeknd’s very name represents the party style of music he’s known for, both of which cleverly fit “6 Inch” since the song is about going out (which frequently happens on weeknds!).

[6] Beyoncé is aware of the type of ingrained institutionalized masculinity in words such as “MANkind.” Since our very words were systematically shaped by men who viewed themselves as superior to women, how can we expect to escape sexism through talking about sexism when the words we use to discuss it subtly reinforce the old status quo? The answer: be more mindful of our utilized words. The day we stop cherishing the meaning of words is the day discourse becomes less meaningful. You’re obviously not being sexist by saying “mankind,” but you’re most probably just unknowingly participating in a system created by men to subjugate the importance of women. You may think PC culture is ridiculous – and those upholding it definitely come down too hard on those who don’t – but is it really that much harder to say “humanity” instead?

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