There are lots of important things to say about Beyonce’s short film, Lemonade. I’m not the right person to say most of them. But I watched it, mesmerized, barely moving, from beginning to bed. And I can’t get it out of my mind.
Beyonce in a flouncy yellow dress grinning a toothpaste commercial smile and bashing car windows in with a baseball bat. Beyonce in braids and athletic attire like a boxer. Serena Williams as Queen B’s lady in waiting. The mothers of the recent victims of police shootings. Jay Z and Beyonce with their heads together in such intense intimacy that I felt intrusive to be watching.
I’ve been talking to my students about the difference between art and entertainment, and whether artists can express truth in a truly universal language, or they are hindered by cultural specificity that will inevitably exclude some people from connecting to it.
I play them this: 6:21-11:46, the second movement.
I do this when I propose to them that music can change how they feel, whether they choose to allow it to or not, that music affects their biology with no need for cognitive intercession. I make them listen with no break, with no commentary. I write the translation on the board as it is sung to keep them attending to the meaning of each word.
After five minutes of Bach, I ask if they feel different. They always do. I ask if it’s because they know the song, and it reminds them of a time when they heard it in a calm state of mind. It never is. It’s the music itself.
Then I ask them to imagine they are 18th Century Lutherans, to imagine the main hymn tune is one they know very well and have sung all their lives. I ask them to imagine going to church on Easter morning and hearing how Bach has enhanced and enriched this comfortable, familiar tune to make it dark and warm and heartbreaking. And they recognize that, in those circumstances, it would likely have even more impact.
In my opinion, John Elliot Gardiner understands “Den tod ist niemand” better than any other conductor I’ve ever heard — except maybe Andrew Megill, but I don’t have a recording of him conducting it. And one of the reasons he can get so deep into Bach is that Bach is his. Bach is him. He’s a northern European male in the second half of his life. He’s been studying and performing Bach for decades. He’s steeped in it. He owns it.
I’m not quite so connected to Bach as Gardiner, but I’m close enough that I can recognize the art in it without thinking through how slow it is, how many descending seconds there are, etc. It hits me. I feel it.
Lemonade hit me the same way. No intellectual analysis necessary. I can feel Beyonce’s heart in her singing, in her visual performance, in the tempos and timbres and textures. It’s raw and human — an excellent indicator of great art. A generous slice of its meaning is served up on the surface, clearly expressing and evoking the emotional journey it describes. And it also stands up to analysis and close scrutiny — the deeper you look, the more you find. Another excellent indicator of great art.
And it dug into me. I can’t get it out of my head. I feel drawn back into it, like watching it scratches an itch I didn’t know I had.
But Beyonce is not me, and her culture is not mine. I’m a classically trained middle aged white lady, which makes me an outsider to Beyonce’s music. I appreciate her art, but I do so as an outsider. The vast and mighty praise coming from the audience most closely connected with Beyonce is a result of her effective artistic expression that transcends race and class and style, combined with her very specific and effective invocation of her race and class and style.
Like Bach uses his Lutheranism, Beyonce uses her culture. Who is allowed into whose world? Who says which is of more or less value? Is it only contingent on how close you are to which world?
Too often, art only gets labeled as “good” when it is recognizable by those in power to bestow that label — white men, historically. It has taken outsiders a long time to make any inroads at all toward being accepted as worthy of that label, because the Label Bestowers had to overcome their (subconscious?) preference for what they already know. Music of “others” isn’t theirs, so it didn’t count.
And in the same way, on the other side of the fence, non-trained music fans who love pop music, rap, hip-hop, country, etc. feel like art music isn’t good because it isn’t theirs. They feel like it isn’t intended for them, that it isn’t supposed to speak to them, so it doesn’t count.
I feel like the “mine/yours” boundary we imagine between classical music of the highly trained and popular music for everybody is arbitrary and useless. The boundary between culturally significant elements is more important because it supports the deeper layers of meaning for those who are close to it. The problem comes when insiders use the boundary to keep some people out, and outsiders use it as an excuse not to bother looking over someone else’s imagined fence. So musicologists don’t want to listen to Beyonce because they don’t recognize it, but at the same time, they put up a fence around Bach because they don’t think untrained musicians can or should be a part of Bach’s expressive universe.
But anyone can be part of Bach’s universe. Not everyone will orbit close to his central axis, where his gravity is felt most intensely, but we can all be somewhere in the sphere where we can feel his power. And anyone can be part of Beyonce’s universe. Not everyone will orbit close to her central axis, where her gravity is felt most intensely, but we can all be somewhere in the sphere where we can feel her power.
Lemonade is art, so it belongs to everyone in different ways and in varying amounts. I’m so afraid it will be dismissed by the white male establishment because it doesn’t belong to them completely. I really hope we can celebrate the fact that it belongs to black women most of all, and honor how effective and truthful it is about both universal human experiences, and the lives of black American women.
Now go read what women of color have to say about Lemonade. It’s more important than what I have to say. Their proximity to Beyonce’s gravity gives their insight greater weight. Orbit at your own distance without presumption or entitlement. Enjoy the view. Listen hard.