We know very little about the recent life of Beyonce Knowles-Carter, the singer who has become the world’s most aloof and unimpeachable pop artiste. A 2013 HBO documentary, Life Is But A Dream, was directed by Beyonce herself; she has a climate-controlled archive of her life in footage and images.
On video, online and on the world’s biggest stages, she shows us only the glimmers she intends.
This how celebrity works now: Beyoncé and the rest of pop’s top stars have used social media and old-fashioned outlets not to compete with the tabloid investigations of Us Weekly, TMZ and the like, but to fundamentally overturn them. Beyonce’s iceberg-tip presence and biographical allusions are a return to the Old Hollywood system of fictionalised celebrity lives.
The difference is Beyonce controls, and cashes in on, her own myth: As much as one person can be, she is her own fixer, her own gossip columnist.
Except when she isn’t, like when footage escaped from the Standard Hotel in 2014 that depicted Solange Knowles attacking Jay Z in an elevator as Beyonce stood by her sister and her husband, motionless.
Rumours about Jay Z cheating flew then, but the couple set off on a joint stadium tour, On The Run, anyway.
“We celebrate love tonight,” the hip-hop mogul said at the tour’s Miami, Florida opener. No trouble in paradise. And at the time, Beyonce laughed off the bumpy ride.
“Of course sometime (expletive) goes down when it’s a billion dollars on an elevator,” Beyonce sang, twice, on her Flawless remix, waving away the rare moment of uncovered drama.
As is her way, Beyonce acknowledged her personal life without a droplet of revelatory detail. She was in control.
That was until Lemonade.
In the visual album, released recently across HBO and Tidal, the Jay Z streaming service in which Beyonce is a part owner, a husband cheats, a woman suffers, rages, and looks to her family tree for wisdom and a way forward. She finds it.
Lemonade is not a He Cheated album: It’s the Yes He Did, And We Worked It Out album, and it is much more than that. It’s art powerful and personal enough to transcend the living that inspired it.
Like stages of grief, the hour-long project maps out feelings from intuition to redemption.
In Hold Up, in a Roberto Cavalli dress, a giddy Bey and a baseball bat smashes car windows and fire hydrants before stepping into a monster truck. “Can’t you see, there’s no other man above you?” she sings. “What a wicked way, to treat the girl that loves you.”
The gritty Don’t Hurt Yourself, with help from Jack White, gives in to retaliation; later, with Beyonce at the piano and her still-husband at her side, Sandcastles finds love and grace again. “Every promise don’t work out that way,” she sings, her eyes clear.
The line between art and life is always in question with famous musicians: the work of Joni Mitchell, one of our sharpest storytellers, has been long marginalised into “confession”.
But as social media shifts fame into something always on, artiste-authored, and cynically intimate, more recent pop stars have exploited their hotline to fans. Justin Bieber promises his young fans that his songs will explain everything, yet they remain curiously free of Selena Gomez; Taylor Swift can decry the attention on her boyfriends, but her 1989 is full of clues that any Tumblr reader knows point straight to Harry Styles.
Then there’s Kanye West, whose Famous tells us too much about his interest in Swift. Songs have become their own tabloids, with pop fandoms as interested in Instagram drama as the music itself.
This is a bad thing for music, which needs feeling and vulnerability to connect for more than a news cycle, not soap opera plot twists.
What Lemonade offers is better than confession. It could’ve been another celebrity dodge: A shadow of a story offered in place of the darker one behind closed doors.
Yet instead of side-stepping, it leaps over the subject, expanding a narrative of two people’s marital pain into the tapestry of betrayal and hurt that drapes across black women in America. In its musical, poetic, and visual imagery, Beyoncé makes it clear that she is not alone.
There’s Serena Williams, one of the planet’s greatest athletes, dancing next to her; in shots evoking and reclaiming a vanished American South, a new generation of young black women are at her side.
Toward the end of the film, there’s a shot of such women holding the photos of lost black men: among them, shaking, is Lesley McSpadden, mother of Mike Brown, the 18-year-old black boy killed by police officer Darren Wilson on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri in 2014.
A sampled Malcolm X intones: “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman,” he says. “The most unprotected person in America is the black woman.”
Other words, spoken by Beyonce between songs, come from 26-year-old Somali-British poet Warsan Shire, whose imagery is breathtaking.
Beyonce’s solidarity reaches both wide and deep: she looks back at her own history to speak on her mother and father and the “curse” she saw coming through the generations.
There’s gossip here, if one wants it: Beyonce’s parents Matthew and Tina Knowles divorced in 2011 after the patriarch’s own infidelity. But the past revisited in Lemonade is a shared memory.
For a star who prides herself on empowerment, on speaking from a megaphone to the girls who run the world, these are not marching orders. It’s a conversation, and a humbling one. A title card that interrupts one shot quickly reads, “God is God and I am not.”
All together, this is a startling project: The most ambitious of a professional life that has taken Beyonce through two Super Bowl performances, a whole career with Destiny’s Child and now six solo albums.
It completes the alchemy of pain and grief and love into unforgettable art: every headline we needed, if not the ones we wanted, is in Lemonade.
Of course, inevitably, it begat more gossip. This round wasn’t Beyonce’s doing: Rachel Roy, a woman the tabloids previously linked to Jay Z, took to Instagram to seemingly out herself as the album’s other woman, its “Becky with the good hair.”
“Good hair don’t care,” she wrote on Instagram, the words of a person who cares a substantial amount. The day after Lemonade debut, Roy got herself a No. 1 Twitter trending topic and a handful of articles.
But the tweets dried up and the blog posts are already yesterday’s news. Lemonade is still here. Pour it up. – The Oregonian/Tribune News Service/David Greenwald