When Life Gives You 'Lemonade', Make Lemons
The problem with Lemonade is that it’s not ‘Formation’. Lemonade can’t match the Southern Gothic creepiness of Bey’s exorcist head bobs in that unforgettable video; it has nothing that tops the modern American horror story of those images of a black child dancing in front of riot police; musically it has no hook to rival that insistent, lilting bounce. In its 60-odd minutes Lemonade cannot construct a vision of Beyoncé in 2016 with the power and economy that ‘Formation’ managed; as articulations of an ethnic group’s most fundamental needs go, anyone – even Beyoncé herself – would struggle to improve on the punishing simplicity of “stop shooting us”. Lemonade is an hour long film which features, after its credits, a five-minute short that obviates the need for its existence.
The problem with Lemonade is that it works better as a silent film. Mainly, this is because the film itself is astonishing, equal parts fashion designer’s wet dream, cinematographer’s delight, and Malickian parable about returning to nature (I’m far more confident in using that word ever since I read on Twitter that it’s just shorthand for “closeup of a tree”). Some of its images are genuinely haunting, indelible, running the gamut from The Cell-like surrealism to a spooky Louisiana Voodoo darker than anything found in Carcosa. And then there are the faces: black faces, black female faces given loving, unsparing attention – a grande dame of Southern cooking, Serena fucking Wiliams, the mothers of murdered sons.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that the music isn’t able to cash all these cheques. What is surprising, though, is how unadventurous so much of it sounds. ‘Hold Up’ is a straight-up banger; ‘All Night’ is gorgeous, given wings to soar by that ‘Spottieottiedopaliscious’ horn section (the note in the credits saying that the song “contains elements” of Outkast’s song is a bit like saying our atmosphere “contains” nitrogen). But after that it’s all a bit patchy: ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself’ is kind of good, I guess? I’m not sure I needed a Bey-jams-backstage-at-Glasto-with-The-White-Stripes track in my life, but it’s not the worst offender. I’m also kinda taken with Nashville-tastic stylings of ‘Daddy Lessons’ but doesn’t make it any less derivative. ‘Freedom’ has a fun Ennio Morricone-ish sample and is enjoyably percussive, but its Becky-worthy This Girl Can messaging feels designed with a lucrative advertising tie-in in mind. ‘6 Inch’ is fine but I’m really not sure we need another Weeknd late-night drinking session wrench-rhyming “She make them pesos bad” with “But why does she feel so sad” or whatever he’s doing this time. ‘Sandcastles’ is Eva Cassidy on a crying jag; ‘Love Drought’ could have come off an Ariana Grande album. And then you get to ‘Formation’ and it’s like listening to a different record (in a sense it is: it is very much post-credits). And all it does is make you wish for an album of songs as sonically interesting.
The problem with Lemonade is other people. The people who seize on a handful of stills, or gifs, or lyrical snippets, and go full Hillary Clinton on them, yaaaaas-queen-ing and slaaaaay-ing and generally appropriating Beyoncé’s fierceness for their own and using it to pad out the vacant spaces at their core. The people who myopically narrow down with their minute attention spans (scarily way less than a minute!), rather than giving something room to breathe. One song I haven’t touched on yet – one of the better tracks on the album – is ‘Sorry’, with its already-infamous shoutout to “Becky with the good hair”. The incredibly boring, entirely predictable backlash against potential Beckys from the self-styled Beyhive – whose brutal retaliation included posting lemon emojis on the Instagram pages of the leading candidate and (classily) her daughter – goes to show that, really, we don’t deserve good, interesting things. If you are a member of the Beyhive, if you will ride for Queen Bey, if you think it’s pretty damn swag to have hot sauce in your bag, ask yourself this: is it that bee emoji on your phone that is being frequently used, or is it you?
The problem with Lemonade is Beyoncé. You think she is surprised that this was the response? You cannot give a line like “He better call Becky with the good hair” the room to breathe that she does, repeat that line, and then be surprised if someone Sherlock Holmesing for lurid lyrical detail stumbles across it. Beckygate is the result of a calculated move from an artist better than any other in history at mediating themselves, their #content, and the media and fan response that ensues.
And I find that frankly terrifying. Judging by the procession of celebrities meekly queuing up on social media to thank Beyoncé for putting this album of so-so songs into the world, other people find her (and / or her the reach of influence) terrifying, too. It becomes hard to resist attributing her a creepy, Moriarty-ish omniscience: maybe the reason Lemonade works so well as a silent film is because she knew already that the majority of people would consume it as such, via Gifs and meme-heavy screenshots (!!!). She might have seen you coming a mile off – even if she hasn’t, can you still trust her? Can you truly engage with (and therefore like) her music, especially when the aloofness is a bug, not a feature? For a song like ‘All Night’ to work, you have to believe in the prevailing emotion (this is not Kraftwerk). Does the lens-flare heaven's-own-Instagram-filter lighting; do the selfie-like Zoolander poses into the camera, Queen Bey in all her filtered #nofilter glory, help, or hinder? The Beyonce who smashes the camera early in Lemonade might be seen as disrupting the male gaze, claiming the lens for herself (let’s call it Visual Pleasure and Narrative Beyoncinema). But when has she not been the subject of her own carefully-edited work of self-documentation? So much of her success rests on her appearing literally flawless – so much so that when unflattering photos of her do emerge, they are genuinely newsworthy. I don’t know what’s worse – an artist so unwilling to engage as a human being with her fanbase, or a fanbase that loves her for it anyway.
That is troubling, because in Lemonade Beyoncé is also saying and doing some things that merit further, deep discussion, and an actual engagement with the person saying them. As aloof as Beyoncé remains, you cannot put a lyric like “I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils” out into the world (as the most famous female black artist in that world) and not do immeasurable good in terms of how some black children perceive themselves. You cannot evoke the imagery of the Black Panthers and not raise questions about how domestic US policy has failed its black citizens in the wake of the Civil Rights movement. You cannot invoke a flooded, post-Katrina New Orleans and just leave it to dry out in the wind.
Take “hot sauce in my bag – swag”. On the surface, it’s a classic Bey 2.0 line: spunky, self-confident, basic enough for the Beckys drizzling Cholula on their avocado toast to get a little kick of self-recognition. I had no idea of the deeper cultural reasons why carrying hot sauce in one’s bag was actually a fairly common practice for African Americans in the past – I don’t want to whitemansplain it; partly it has to do with Jim Crow; read the damn article – but I’m glad I do now know, and it worries me that skimming over the surface, focusing on the hashtags and the Gifs, is an inherently more meagre way to enjoy art. I’m not asking for Beyoncé to give a detailed exegesis; I am simply uneasy at the shiny commercial edifice she has built over a far more interesting set of foundations.
The problem with Lemonade is me. I’m a white man, the polar opposite in terms of entitlement and privilege of the most disrespected, unprotected, and neglected people in America per the Malcolm X quoted in Lemonade. Like, I don’t think I’m racist or sexist; I’d go so far as to say I prefer hearing from people that we've previously confined to the cultural margins (give them the keys to the city and you get Top of the Lake, Key and Peele, and A Brief History of Seven Killings; give it to the same old white dudes and you get True Detective Season 2). But what do I know? I can’t in good faith say there aren’t a set of inbuilt biases that prejudice (yes) me against Lemonade. I hope this isn’t the case, but can anyone complete a profound enough self-audit to be able to say that sort of thing in total confidence?
A slightly more interesting question is whether I should still be allowed to write about Lemonade, since it speaks so little (or so indirectly) to my experience. In Lemonade, white faces are absent for almost the entire film, save the optimistic chapter soundtracked by ‘All Night’. This feels like a profoundly generous act, the carving-out of a small but inclusive niche. One of my favourite songs of last year, ‘Miniskirt’ by Braids, includes the line “I’m not a man-hater // I enjoy them like cake”. To be entirely honest, I’m happy to take the place of patisserie in the cultural firmament, especially in discussions as charged as the one around Lemonade: an occasional dose of something almost entirely lacking in nutritional value. And clearly, a crusty white guy playing cultural arbiter over the work of a vital black female artist is not right, but determining that any people not directly connected to an artist’s experience cannot at least engage in the debate over his or her work feels wrong to me, too. Yes, it’s partly me being selfish – a white middle-class guy being marginalised! Excuse me whilst I play the world’s smallest violin, which I learned to play at great expense, at Eton – but it’s also because in closing off doors and avenues to people, you implicitly reduce their incentive to engage with things thoughtfully in the first place. As part of thinking about Lemonade, I’ve found myself reading a number of pieces – like the one on hot sauce; the one glossing “good hair” is also powerful – that I might well have breezed past if trying to think further about Beyoncé’s art was not something I felt I could do. I think they have enriched my enjoyment of Lemonade more generally; plainly there are oceans of ignorance still to cross. Is heading in the right direction enough?