When Lemonade dropped, members and non-members of the Beyhive alike came together to marvel at what Beyoncé had done. After a career marked by radio silence on her personal life and frustratingly implicit indications of her black, Southern heritage, her sixth album surprised us with both its lyrical candor and its carefully crafted cultural themes. In watching the Lemonade documentary, we learned with a qualified certainty that Queen Bey had not only been a victim of infidelity, but was also a loud and proud spokesperson for the black South — and not just its black women, but its queer, homosexual and transgender community, too. Beyoncé’s Lemonade is a reclamation of a many things: her sexuality, her Southern pride, her politics, her personal life, but perhaps most centrally, her blackness. At face value, Beyoncé reclaimed these things masterfully in Lemonade. The work went to great lengths not only to inspire and provoke, but also to craft the musical narrative onto a hardy foundation of historical accuracy and complex cultural references. We saw Beyoncé not only as an icon, but also both a vulnerable human and conjure woman.
Taken at face value, it does appear as if Beyoncé did the good work faithfully. Despite a few pitfalls (see: her tone-deaf lyric about being Creole), the documentary did serve the black community well by giving its dynamism screen time — which was in direct contrast to her largely one-dimensional expression of blackness in the past. That past is what made SNL’s The Day Beyoncé Turned Black skit so culturally apt when the dialogue went like this:
“Well, what about Single Ladies?”
“She was black in that.”
“What about Jumpin’, Jumpin’?”
“She was black in that, too.”
“What about the Pink Panther movie?”
“Okay, yeah, she was white in that.”
The last line is as comedic as it is because it hones in on the idea that Beyoncé’s success, up until very recently, has been arguably contingent on her being a neutral good — a black, but not too black icon. As disappointing as this interpretation of Beyoncé is to me, I find it hard-pressed to deny its insight in a time where implicit racism is spellbound into the fabric of our society. When I was in high school, I heard one of my classmates say Beyoncé was the “only black girl” he’d have sex with. Some can argue that her previously safe pop image draws parallels to the work of Joel Chandler Harris and his over-simplified, obviously detrimental character Uncle Remus. By capitalizing on her sexuality and guising it as feminism, she also potentially reaffirmed the harmful stereotype that black women are caricatures of sex, shackled to an insidiously patriarchal backdrop (see: the tracks Bootylicious, Cater 2 U).
But that conversation can go on for another two hours; it forces us to engage in an entirely separate and controversial dialogue about whether or not there is a “right” way to tackle feminism: how mindful should an icon be about respectability politics? Is it pro or anti-feminism to disregard those formalities?
Regardless, recognizing her track record of safe career decisions is wildly relevant if a critical discussion about her integrity as an artist is to be had. Was it her history of caution that allowed her to be unabashed about her views now? Or does that caution reflect her cowardice, or worse yet, her capitalistic nature? There are two ways to approach this dialogue: first, by judging her as a pop icon, and secondly, by judging her as a person.
In our first framework, Beyoncé does not seem any better than Taylor Swift in that the music she releases targets a profitable demographic, which she caters to as a function of career-longevity and profit. Taylor Swift’s 1989 was profitable pop-perfection not only because it sounded good, but also because it knew how to appease a youthful and idealistic audience. In this case, it’s hard not to remember that Beyoncé only publicly presented herself as an ally of deeply marginalized black peoples in a cultural moment when the conversation about Black Lives Mattering was functionally O.K. The curious timing of her unabashed pride in her blackness has me wondering why, even though she’s wearing cornrows now, why didn’t she do it before? And why are they still blonde? The timing also beckons me to think of Beyoncé’s southern pride in alignment with Stark Young’s status as pro-agrarian. Though Beyoncé did take the time with Lemonade to emulate facets of Southern culture like manners, sincerity, family, and pride, she herself also emulates the antagonistic Northern threat to the South by using “common talk” in her voiceover and by living in Hollywood. Beyoncé toned down her Southern drawl and perfected her diction for the Lemonade voiceover, and though she filmed it on plantations, and porches, and other culturally motivated locations of blackness, we all know she does not live in a cultural hub of blackness at all. She lives in areas of tremendous privilege which are diametrically opposed to the experiences of the vast majority of black people in America. This isn’t to presuppose that she shouldn’t enjoy her hard-earned wealth — it’s just that by it, she’s irrevocably lived and breathed a pretty anti-Southern life.
In our second framework, though, Beyoncé does not have to be purely capitalistic or fully gracious, either. In fact, I would argue that Beyoncé’s Lemonade was her best work not only because it brought progressive attention to the political climate but because it was the first time she stopped singing us lullabies and started telling us about her nightmares. If we, the Beyhive, interpret Beyoncé as human, we no longer have to be angry at her for capitalizing on a moment nor genuflect her “Greatness” for doing it at all, because we see her moralistic character as fundamentally complex. Beyoncé can be both unforgivable and redeemable because that is what any real person is. Perhaps there is something about Beyoncé that tells us she has the double consciousness Dubois talks about, and perhaps there is something about her that lets us know one of those consciences is dictated by the industry that gave her a platform in the first place. In which case, we can still be content with her categorically safe behavior in the past knowing she at least infused a tinge of southern exceptionalism in her music before (see: her staple “Houston Texas baby” chant).
Still, I find myself compelled by a hidden third framework in which her fanbase cannot really understand Lemonade as anything other than autobiography as performance. Thinking of Lemonade as both a product and a journal entry gives us the space not to take Beyoncé’s (or even Jay-Z’s) hubris too personally. Max S. Gordon was skillful in recognizing how the power couple can at times, misuse a rich legacy of black art to their benefit, but was perhaps shortsighted in his assumption that this is really as detrimental as it seems. I think of Nina Simone’s powerlessness and how it debilitated her from profiting from her own art or being represented properly, and how her career served as a tragic allegory for how black people can be marginalized in the music industry.
It is easy to peg Beyoncé and Jay-Z as ruthless capitalists. It is less easy to imagine that black musicians cannot give voice to their community at the magnitude and level of impunity that Beyoncé does without being inherently self-promoting. In that case, Beyoncé’s Lemonade does not have to be either a pure reclamation of blackness or an expression of opportunism, but it can be both.