Beyoncé’s newest surprise visual album, Lemonade, was released in April of this year. Reviewers couldn’t praise it highly enough, quickly enough. Clicking around online, my eye was caught by at least a dozen glowing descriptions from the likes of the New York Times, Rolling Stone, and just about anyone who has ever written anything about music.
As a former closet Beyoncé fan (I’ve been out of touch with her for probably six or seven years), I was curious enough after reading a few of these to take out a temporary Tidal subscription and watch the cleaned-up version.
Forty-five minutes later, I emerged—impressed, a little tearful, and thoughtful. For several weeks after this viewing, I mused over what I had seen and the impression it had made on me. Why, exactly, was it so good? Why, exactly, was this so surprising? What about this album had so justifiably stirred praise from outlets who usually don’t have much to say about pop music?
Here’s the bottom line: this wasn’t something we usually get from pop music. Pop music has been used to treating light, predictable subjects in tired, shallow ways—always relying heavily on titillation to make its buck. Beyoncé has been no exception to this rule, until now.
Instead, Lemonade relies on something more complex, more human, and more—I say this with caveats—edifying.
It’s generally been taken as a treatment of Beyoncé’s personal experience dealing with her husband Jay-Z’s infidelity. There are other themes also brought to bear in the 45+ minutes of music, silence, and spoken word poetry. But it is this central theme of marital strife—a wife’s response to betrayal—that moves the album. In fact, the visual version actually has chapters, titled to show an emotional progression: “intuition,” “denial,” “anger,” “apathy,” “accountability,” “reformation,” “forgiveness,” etc.
Visual and spoken-word art
Far from relying on the famous Beyoncé gyration, there is almost no dance at all in the piece. Instead, there is a visual feast of evocative images. For example: dozens of black women in modern Victorian dresses, standing or sitting in what appears to be a deep south plantation and swamp; Beyoncé waking herself up in a room underwater; eerie use of fire and dark space; and grainy images of black families in home and neighborhood settings.
Throughout, Beyoncé’s slow, deliberate delivery of Somali-British poet Warsan Shire’s lines lends weight and wisdom that are simply unlooked for in a Beyoncé album. They make the listener feel that she is dealing with a real question—what does a real woman do when she is betrayed? This spoken poetry is not Carrie Underwood’s baseball-bat-to-the-side-of-a-car revenge candy:
- “You remind me of my father, a magician… able to exist in two places at once. In the tradition of men in my blood, you come home at 3 a.m. and lie to me.”
- “I grew thickened skin on my feet, I bathed in bleach, and plugged my menses with pages from the holy book, but still inside me, coiled deep, was the need to know… are you cheating on me?”
- “If it’s what you truly want… I can wear her skin over mine. Her hair over mine. Her hands as gloves. Her teeth as confetti. Her scalp, a cap… we can pose for a picture together, the three of us…”
The standard Pop-Fem rhetoric… with a twist
The first half of the film—and 5-6 of the 12 songs on the album—are angry in tone and deal explicitly with infidelity. In many of these, admittedly, you get some of the standard power moves that women in pop rely on. Appeals to her own fame and sexual clout as a means of exerting power over a man are sprinkled throughout, with anthems such as “middle fingers up, put them hands high/ wave it in his face, tell him ‘boy, bye’,” “Sorry… (I’m not sorry),” and “Who the **** do you think I is? You ain’t married to no average ****, boy.”
But these clichéd girl-power lines are dispersed among truly heart wrenching and honest portraits of the vulnerability a woman gives herself up to in marriage. “When you hurt me, you hurt yourself,” she grittily sings in a collaboration with Jack White. “Don’t hurt yourself.” “What’s worse, looking jealous or crazy, jealous or crazy?” This progresses into another arresting and insightful theme—a pit stop examination of father-daughter relationships, in the song “Daddy Lessons” and accompanying poetry:
“Mother dearest, let me inherit the earth. Teach me how to make him beg. Let me make up for the years he made you wait. Did he bend your reflection? Did he make you forget your own name? Did he convince you he was a god? …are you a slave to the back of his head? …Am I talking about your husband or your father?”
And after this pit stop, there are songs of transition, which seem to find Beyoncé exploring her impulse to forgive instead of walking away. “Show me your scars and I won’t walk away,” she croons in “Sandcastles.” “Found the truth beneath your lies/ And true love never has to hide/ I’ll trade your broken wings for mine/ I’ve seen your scars and kissed your crime,” she sings in “All Night.” This final on-topic song is also when Jay-Z appears in the flesh on the visual album.
There are also two songs, one of which was previously released, which explore themes of racial tension. At least in the visual album, these don’t feel like a random move outside of the thematic flow. These songs are visually tied to the main theme, as we are made to ask: where are relations between men and women more heartbreakingly unstable than in the black community?
How good is the music?
The music is good. I probably won’t buy this album, because even the non-explicit version is not something I’ll be playing in my home while raising children. But of the tracks I heard, my favorites were probably “Hold Up,” with its wonderful drum sounds, “Daddy Lessons,” with its unexpected southern soul, and “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” that angry collaboration with Jack White mentioned earlier.
I’m told that the clear musical influences and samplings Beyoncé and her people pulled from for this record included Led Zeppelin, Andy Williams, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, to name a few. But I’m not nearly well-versed enough in music to have picked all this up on my own.
As far as just simple catchiness, I’d say it ranks as high as anything Beyoncé has ever made (that I’ve heard), with a bonus of genre-bending innovation. But what brings this to the next level for me was the lyrical content and the visual component.
What can a Christian get out of it?
I would recommend a watch to most Christian female friends of mine. I’m more hesitant to recommend it to Christian men; although the content is not heavily sexual, there is at least one image of rear female nudity and I’m not sure what else I could have missed.
The message of Lemonade was interesting to me, and engaged me in thoughtful analysis of marriage: what it means to the Christian, and what it means to the world. For the world of Lemonade, marriage is a real thing, a commitment that puts both parties in a position to be sinned against and deeply hurt. It is something that you can save, through some process of reformation, forgiveness, and reconciliation. It is something that seems to have deep spiritual impact on the parties concerned, and that changes the position of the woman—with or without her desiring that change.
Obviously, this is not the full Christian view of marriage as willing self-sacrifice, with the purpose of painting a picture of Christ’s greater self-sacrifice and the church’s surrender. But it is closer to reality than anything that typically gets addressed in the pop world.
Compare these themes of vulnerability, pain, and reconciliation to a few sample lines from women in pop this year:
- “All my ladies, listen up/ If that boy ain’t giving up/ Lick your lips and swing your hips/ Girl all you gotta say is/ My name is ‘No’/ My sign is ‘No’/ My number is ‘No’/ You need to let it go…”
–Meagan Trainor, “No”
- “Baby, this is what you came for/ Lightning strikes every time she moves/ And everybody’s watching her/ But she’s looking at you, oh, oh… we go fast with the game we play/ Who knows why it’s gotta be this way/ We say nothing more than we need/ I say, ‘Your place,’ when we leave…”
–Calvin Harris ft. Rihanna, “This is What You Came For”
- “I ain’t gon’ be cooking all day, I ain’t your mama/ I ain’t gon’ do your laundry, I ain’t your mama…”
-Jennifer Lopez, “I Ain’t Your Mama”
It’s a desert out there. Apparently women in pop are capable of understanding and communicating only a few simple statements through music: 1) “I am super sexy.” 2) “I will use my body to entice all men everywhere, giving it to those I choose to give it to and withholding it from those who do not give me what I want. This is the best thing about being a woman.” 3) “This is also my only way of exerting power over men” (some power has to be asserted, because in the pop world, the men are also busy singing appalling things about women—unrepeatable things that repeatedly reduce them to dancing objects). 4) “I am more than my appearance, but my appearance is also very important and the main thing I’m going to talk about for the rest of this song.”
It’s enough to make anything with the depth of a kiddie pool feel refreshing. And my experience of Lemonade was that it offered something a little more—perhaps something to wade through and enjoy once or twice. Something to discuss, to kick around with other married Christian women. Just not something to do your daily laps in.