When watching Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade, one cannot help but be reminded of the boldness and daring of one Michael Jackson’s Thriller. In 1983 the Thriller music video was received as a masterpiece in how to create a visual spectacle to narrate a soundtrack. That said, Lemonade and Thriller are different beasts. Lemonade is a movement whereas Thriller is a spectacle.
Lemonade is not so much a Rosetta Stone of Beyoncé’s mind – that is, a means to decode her long sought-after secrets and private thoughts. But rather, Lemonade is an anthology of meaning onto which we each project ourselves. Many of us in our haste have projected our imaginings of Jay-Z’s infidelity as the central message of Lemonade. In effect we see Lemonade as homage to Jay-Z, albeit a not too flattering one.
I feel this Jay-Z-centric interpretation is sad, tragic and narrow. It is sad to imagine that a whole bunch of brilliant women spent weeks filming, expensed millions of dollars, laboured hours of brainstorming and endured weeks of editing in order to create homage to Jay-Z. Under such an interpretation then we can conclude that Lemonade in its conception and existence fails the Bechdel test. Truly sad.
Further, a Jay-Z-centric interpretation is tragic because it says that you believe Beyoncé has a malnourished capacity for reflection. That you believe that even when she is calling a spade a spade she lacks capacity to be tacitly talking about something else. Finally, this interpretation is narrow because it degenerates and collapses the possible meanings of Lemonade into a black hole out of which its brightness cannot escape. It robs Lemonade of the richness that it could represent.
I am one of those that feel that critics often spend more time, analysing and critiquing work than what the author spent or intended. That critics often break something down so much that it loses its taste. That is they have a tendency to decompose Lemonade as a splash of water, a smattering of sugar and a squeeze of lemon in a way that denudes it of its very appeal. Lemonade is visceral and raunchy. Notwithstanding, I believe critique can expand the possibilities of a work.
Seeking meaning in a work, itself, absent the viewer is limiting. Each of us is not an empty jug but are each part-filled with Kool-Aid. The meaning of a work is often constructed as we engage the work. This construction is where a gush of Lemonade is mixed with our own Kool-Aid to produce the varied emotions on each of our individual palettes. It is in pursuit of these possibilities that I gnaw at Lemonade.
Lemonade has given rise to what I term the authenticity police. These are individuals who see Lemonade (and Formation) as symbolic of the prodigal daughter finally reclaiming her authentic self. This authentic self is said to be one which Beyoncé has either been timid to publicly engage or reluctant to embrace. At this point I begin to roll my eyes. Authentic self? Really? You gonna run with that line?
So are we to understand that when Beyoncé channelled Etta James to usher in the Obama presidency, she was not being authentic. Or when she shared the stage with Jay-Z she was not being authentic. I agree that what we are seeing is a different Beyoncé but I think it is nonsense to think this is more authentic than the Beyoncé of before.
Beyoncé in her current guise is no more authentic than Beyoncé steeped in white grammar. It is wrong to label an oppressed self as being a less authentic self. To somehow yearn and clamour for a purified Beyoncé outside the capitalist framework that created her is to deny the very thing you seek to venerate. Beyoncé, like many other humans, is a ball of contradictions.
Lemonade is the stuff of the much-storied Southern hospitality. Lemonade is that homely beverage that lacks the regimented stiffness of fine dining. Lemonade gives the illusion that the host offering it, by so doing, is confiding in you their deepest home secrets. Much like hospitality, Beyoncé’s outpouring of Lemonade is not necessarily an invitation to her private self but possibly merely an invitation for you to feel at home.