Culture Is A Weapon. Join the Fight:

How Lemonade Threw a Wrench in the Think Piece Machine

Bey & Co. resisted the media cycle by giving us exactly what we asked for

/ June 28, 2016

Some shared experiences are better left unarticulated. They are better left sensed in the spaces between our understanding, in peace and reflection. For many, the morning after Lemonade’s release was eerily calm, a quiet refuge before the coming storm of response pieces already swirling about.

In the midst of that stillness, those looking deeply into Lemonade saw only themselves reflected. We saw an accidental glimpse of ourselves, a confrontation with the self that was at once unnerving and powerful, soothing us for the briefest of moments from the impulse to provide a ruling verdict. And in this moment we caught an image of a world without think pieces.

Unlike “Formation” and the 2013 digital drop, Lemonade was’t about timing, and it didn’t stop the world by catching us off guard. In a media culture of critique and snapping back, Lemonade stupefied fans and non-fans alike by  delivering exactly what fans have demanded. This time Beyoncé stopped the world by telling us exactly when she would reveal her project, only giving us the word “Lemonade,” a link and time to show up. And then we all did.

Beyoncé’s content has not changed much since her beginnings, but the way people are allowed to interpret and write about her has shifted. Lemonade held our attention, even as an adaptation of recycled concepts from Beyonce’s wheelhouse: Girls night out, God is great, Love conquers all (ride or die), You don’t need a man, and Why don’t you love me? Sure, she has grown older, her bank account has multiplied  and her relationship status has shifted over time, but overall it boils down to the same few themes. 

All of Beyoncé’s career has been leading up to Lemonade, including often overlooked songs such as “Black Culture,” “Grown Woman,” and “Creole.” “***Flawless” and “Superpower” are the preface to “Formation,” “Jealous” the prequel to the mid-sections of Lemonade. “Irreplaceable” stands in the doorway filing its nails somewhere between “Don’t Hurt Yourself” and “I Ain’t Sorry.” “Freakum Dress” is the PG-13 sister of “6 Inch.”

If her message has not shifted much,  then how did Beyoncé’s progression towards Lemonade hold the media’s attention long enough to establish her as a legend, instead of a passing tabloid?

In a moment when even large-scale international publicity stunts have lifespans shorter than the morning news cycle, holding the media in suspense, or withholding immediate judgment seems impossible. We simultaneously consume content while consuming responses and reactions to content, to a point in which the response precedes and sometimes supersedes the content.

Lemonade poses not only a necessary exploitation of the void of speculation into pop culture, but also demonstrates how strategic control of the means/memes of production can change the receptivity of messaging. With careful control of sound bites, public statements and appearances over the fives years, Bey & Co. have cultivated a presence that first accelerated, and then resisted think piece culture. And she did it by giving us exactly what we’ve asked for.

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Needing To Know

After P. Diddy’s “Rock The Vote” flop, Bush/Gore election fraud, and Obama’s congressional gridlock world, many of us have less power to elect change in civic representation less than we do to choose celebrities. We cast direct votes with intrigue, obsessive Instagram fan accounts, gifs, memes, and retweets.

Beyoncé forecasted this merge of pop culture representation and the civil rights movement. In her second solo album, “Upgrade U” references civil rights leader MLK, and loops his uplifting aura into a theory of upgrading her partner, “I can do for you what Martin did for the people.” On this duet with Jay Z, with whom rumors had already started that she was dating, Beyoncé promises to elevate his status if he stands by her side.

Like vetting a politician, over the years fans needed to know the depth of Beyoncé’s political stances. For us to stand with Beyoncé, we needed to know her promise of hope – her pledge to ‘upgrade’ us – was real. We knew we could expect B to entertain, but could she also stand in solidarity?

In 2010, the most important question a journalist could ask a pop star was “Are you a feminist?” Even though Beyoncé has always privately identified as a feminist, the former girl-group singer found it necessary to publicly emerge as a feminist, “in a way.

We needed Beyoncé to say it. Or maybe we needed to change the perception of feminism in American culture and we knew celebrities had the influence to shift them. During my foundational years of coming into feminism and other identity formations, I needed to know: will an army of famous bad bitches have my back or should I look elsewhere for belonging?

Like vetting a politician, over the years fans needed to know the depth of Beyoncé’s political stances. For us to stand with Beyoncé, we needed to know her promise of hope – her pledge to ‘upgrade’ us – was real. We knew we could expect B to entertain, but could she also stand in solidarity?

Re-Birth, Pre-Formation

2010 was also around the time that Beyoncé killed Sasha Fierce. After her 3rd studio album tour, she took a hiatus to reassess priorities and sever ties with her Daddy-then-manager Matthew Knowles.

Moving from behind the façade of Sasha Fierce and into 4 the album – named for her favorite number – we got to get to know Beyoncé on a different level, or, at least a new image on which to project our needs. We listened to her new album with a pop obsession that called for more nuance, and when it wasn’t there, we made sure that was made known through critiques and debates.

Beyoncé became a tangible, relevant battleground through which feminism negotiated issues of misogynoir in the mainstream. In a world of Mileys, Emma Watsons, Taylors and Lena Dunhams as the new face of feminism, we used Beyoncé to provide a counterweight to the racial asymmetries in pop white feminism.

But this is when it got out of hand. The question shifted from “Are you a feminist?” to “Are you the right kind of feminist?” – and it was asked of Beyoncé more-so than of her feminist celebrity peers.

The periodic click-bait resurgences over the next year asking whether or not Beyoncé was really a feminist played into ideas of misogynoir and a general dismissal of Black feminist and womanist sites such as TransGriot that had been writing that Beyoncé was a feminist since the beginning of time. The typical flow of knowledge in feminism is from Black women to the mainstream.

And then she dropped a visual album without any promotion. Beyoncé’s self titled digital album drop in 2013 was a moment countless other artists have tried to recreate, and will continue to try to re-vamp in years to come. After Jay Z released Holy Grail on Two weeks’ notice, Beyoncé released hers on no-week’s notice.

For those who were still in denial about Beyonce’s stance on feminism in 2013, even after she had stated publicly that she was, Beyoncé’s self-titled album put that doubt to rest. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s words on feminism featured on ”***Flawless” ended the feminist debate abruptly, breaking her away from the way journalists are allowed to write about pop stars like Katy Perry or Miley Cyrus.

FORMATION BROKE THE INTERNET

After years of demanding Beyoncé be Blacker, more feminist, more vulnerable, she finally showed up for us exactly in the way we wanted: “Formation.” The think piece sphere completely imploded. Battles about Beyoncé being pro-Black and/or anti-police occupied my TL. I watched as the media boomed and busted in a week’s time.

For the month following “Formation” writers were exhausted and the think piece sphere resigned itself to allowing Beyoncé to give us what she will when she was ready. “Formation” threw us something to chew, then Lemonade served us up a complete meal while we were still sitting there with our mouths full.

Many Black writers, including myself, demanded that everyone let Lemonade marinate because it was the ultimate pop album of relatability and realness that Black women across the country have been demanding, even those who did not originally place their vote of confidence within Beyoncé or even pop culture.

With Lemonade, Beyoncé gave us new emotional depth that liberated (at least some of us) from endless inquiring into her life and pushed us to think more about the larger picture. It is not about whether or not Jay-Z cheated, it’s about human emotions of jealousy, lust, redemption, sin, forgiveness, betrayal. It is about a level of honest vulnerability where the specifics do not matter as much as the larger truth behind them. For those of us used to artists’ lives being consumed as veraciously as their art, it caused many of us to pause.

“Don’t Hurt Yourself” Between Beyoncé’s Blackness and Mine

In some circles, saying you don’t like Beyoncé is equivalent to saying you don’t love yourself. We’ve come to define ourselves based on what we believe Beyoncé is and is not. And this is not entirely misguided. Recognizing how we are co-constructed by the implications of our broader pop culture scene, there is a way in which having a stake in Beyoncé is having a stake in ourselves. Beyoncé’s art and self-“Formation” has converged with the public identity so much that critique and analysis must be carefully done.

Beyoncé is about as private as pop icons can be, rarely making headlines for her behavior or commentary. In contrast to her peers – a long-winded Kanye, and Insta-Queen Rihanna – Beyoncé mainly communicates with her fans through her music.

Projections onto Beyoncé’s political stances can only go so far when she doesn’t speak up in any direction. In a way, this makes Beyoncé stans have more ownership over defending and spreading her message.

The platitude of “you have just as many hours in the day as Beyoncé” is a bit of a misnomer. To have as many hours as her, you have to be over 500 people on any given day and your own damn pep squad propelling you forward. Beyoncé takes a village, and a bee-hive.

Sociobiologists have been looking to the eusociaility of bees for a long time to draw conclusions about the human social condition. Like royalty, a queen bee of a hive is chosen from birth. From the beginning, she is fed royal jelly in her larvae stages and then cultivated over time to take her fate as inevitable ruler of the hive. While the queen feasts on the honey and promises her eventual greatness, it is the female worker bees who do the heavy lifting. Synchronized in a form of decentralized unity, the bees know what needs to be done to keep their queen satisfied. The bees need the queen just as the queen needs them to care for her.

The Bey-Hive (pronounced Bee-Hive), like worker bees of a hive, act as “fanning bees” and “guard bees” of the Beyoncé empire. formerly known as the Beyontourage, takes up the arms to fight the battles that Beyoncé’s existence poses the world. In a strange convergence of language and identity, the Bee Hive operates with a similar mentality to the social insects that both provide us sweet, sweet honey and leave stingers in our skin.

In some circles, saying you don’t like Beyoncé is equivalent to saying you don’t love yourself. We’ve come to define ourselves based on what we believe Beyoncé is and is not. And this is not entirely misguided. Recognizing how we are co-constructed by the implications of our broader pop culture scene, there is a way in which having a stake in Beyoncé is having a stake in ourselves.

If you give a stan a lemon, maybe they’ll feel their own pain…

To hold us in suspension is to, ironically, force us to give a closer look. In “Hold Up” Beyoncé smashes the surveillance camera, turning the scene from color to black and white, but the camera remains on her. Beyoncé’s Black femme body remains hyper exposed, both from within her control and without. Up until Lemonade, the closest we’ve felt to Beyoncé’s personal life through her lyrics, other than when Blue Ivy Carter is on the track, was when her sister jumped Jay-Z in the elevator. “Of course sometimes shit goes down when there’s a billion dollars on an elevator.”

Lemonade swaps the camera for the mirror. And the resulting space between Beyoncé’s experience and our own is precisely what makes Lemonade so powerful. It’s an accidental glimpse of ourselves that is at once unnerving and powerful. We’ve speculated on Beyoncé’s life just enough to align hers with our own.

Lemonade provides a roadmap through the book of hard truths of loneliness, deception, confidence, and pain in our own lives. It is a book to connect personal experiences to a larger legacy of what it can mean to be a Black woman in the United States. Beyoncé provides leadership in which she can be what I need her to be without my ever needing to know who she really is.

On the same side of that coin is the caveat that to judge Beyoncé’s album would be to also judge ourselves for what it is we are asking for her to be. If that connection was not explicit enough before Lemonade, consider the lyrics to “Don’t Hurt Yourself”: “when you hurt me, you hurt yourself.”  We have needed Beyoncé to be everything, and she has put the ball back in our court.

For a moment, we gazed so deep into the crystal ball of pop icons, searching for feminist icons, and see ourselves reflected back, full, impure, wounded, and flawless. For a moment we lived in a post response piece world. We were gifted stillness for a moment while the world stopped. “Carry on.”