WHEN LIFE HANDS YOU MELONS
Like every other warm-blooded mammal, I found Beyonce’s new, hour-long “visual album” Lemonade visually stunning (Hello!) and I even like some of the songs, but I don’t know how I feel about so much raw, unfiltered emotion being aired for public consumption. It’s like when I’m at a poetry reading and some overgrown adolescent decides to read his diary (or jourrrrrnalllll) out loud — not cool and kinda narcissistic. I didn’t sign up to be your therapist — are you going to pay me for this?
I mean, I appreciate the fact that people use their diaries to process emotion — I have used my own for such purposes in the past — but not everything we pen needs to see the light of day (or be performed for an audience). Some things can be taken from the journal and refined and shaped into “art,” but other things should maybe stay in the sketchbook…or with the therapist…or the marriage counselor…or the BFFs.
“[P]oetry,” wrote William Wordsworth, “is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity.”
What we have here definitely comes off as a “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” (though we know that it took months and months of pre-production, production, and post-production with seven different directors to assemble that hour-long video, so we can’t really, rightly, call it “spontaneous”), but what often gets lost in our culture of immediate self-expression is the recollected in tranquility bit. Art comes from a place of calmness, from emotions processed and remembered, not from raw pain (or joy) — that immediate stuff may be crucial to the process, but it almost always comes out corny. (OK, I’m generalizing, art can come from many places and all artists have their own process or processes, but you get my point — we’re not likely to be at our most eloquent when we’re wounded or raging. There is something to be said for control.)
In this moment, as opposed to Wordsworth’s Romantic Movement, though, we want our art to be raw to be “real” — there is a cult of authenticity that favors such immediacy — but don’t forget that art is not supposed to be “real” — rather, “art” shares its root with “artifice,” with “artificial.” It is something that is MADE, deliberately, in an attempt to evoke a certain effect.
But wait…are the words even Beyonce’s? They are credited to the Somali-British poet Warsan Shire…
And what do I know? The public’s response has been overwhelmingly positive — Beyonce has at least struck a nerve. Or she has her finger on the pulse, if you will. There’s a lot of people (particularly women) saying that they appreciate her honesty — that they wish they could say such things to the people who hurt them, or that they wish they’d had a role model such as Beyonce a generation ago, when they were wronged in similar ways. Still, it reminds me a bit of Joyce Maynard’s opportunism, for some reason.
For these reasons and more, Wesley Morris’s (for the most part positive) review in the New York Times stands out for asking, “How is this not a work of pretentious self-pity? How isn’t this the mistake of the year?” but doesn’t answer those questions — that is left to the viewer to answer. The best part of his review is the zinger with which he closes. (A jab and a stick? A 1-2 punch? Why must all our language be so violent?!?)
First, Morris holds Beyonce’s feet to the fire for failing to call out Jay-Z for the line in her song “Drunk in Love,” where he raps “Catch a charge I might, beat the box up like Mike / In ’97 I bite, I’m Ike, Turner, turn up / Baby no I don’t play, now eat the cake, Anna Mae / Said, ‘Eat the cake, Anna Mae!’” In case you don’t catch the allusions, these lines reference Mike Tyson’s sociopathic rage and make light of Ike Turner’s abuse of Tina Turner. (The cake is a reference to the Ike and Tina biopic What’s Love Got to Do With It?) Beyonce, even as she “calls out” Jay-Z’s infidelity, let’s him slide on graphic imagery of abuse. If she’s so mad at him for “cheating” and she’s letting it all out, then why does she allow him to insult her by suggesting he is Ike force feeding cake to her Tina while he’s running around with other women behind her back?
Then, Morris reminds readers that Jay-Z is actually in on Lemonade, too. Of all the streaming services from iTunes to Pandora to Spotify, Lemonade is available only on Tidal — the streaming platform owned by none other than the Jigga Man, himself.
“He might be paying for his sins,” concludes Morris. “But we’re still paying him.”
Keeping it real? Maybe not…But what do you expect from the couple who branded their own child with a trademark?
[EDIT: I think I actually got it wrong. I fault the “rawness” and speak in favor of “emotion recollected in tranquility,” but now that I reconsider, it’s clear that the both Beyonce and Jay-Z were not just “tranquil” but “calculating.” There’s multiple takes of every shot in that video, friends. It’s an act.]