Over the weekend, pop singer Beyonce released a new album called “Lemonade” (because if life gives you lemons). For a piece of work hailed as “groundbreaking” and “brilliant,” it’s strange that the title is one of the most overused cliches in the history of cliches.
But this is the advantage of being a feminist sex icon in modern America. Everything you do and say will become the greatest thing anyone has ever done or said, that is until the next thing you do or say. Beyonce does not occupy this category alone, but due to her race and her dancing ability, she stands at the pinnacle of it.
Never mind that “Beyonce” is more a brand than a person. The lady herself is a person, but what’s presented to the world is a carefully constructed and marketed product. It’s a narrative, a story, a walking and talking fantasy novel for girls. I don’t know how much of the final manuscript is Beyonce’s brainchild and how much comes from the team of people around her, but rest assured that everything we see is manufactured. This, after all, is a woman who hired a “visual director” to follow her around anddocument and stylize her every move.
None of this is unique to her, of course. What I’m articulating is a familiar lament about all pop music today. It’s not art, it’s advertising. Like superhero films are designed just to hock action figures and sell tickets to the next superhero film, Beyonce’s albums are designed to hock her fashion line and sell downloads of her next album. Everything in pop culture is a franchise now, including pop singers. It’s all made for the purpose of perpetuating itself, like a virus. It certainly is not interested in expressing anything true or beautiful or good or difficult or joyous or painful. As the new iPhone is just the old iPhone with different commercials, so the new Beyonce song is just the old Beyonce song with an arguably different computer-generated beat.
But, as I said, I could lob that criticism at most of what we consume in this culture. So much of it is bland, superficial, repetitious, existing for its own sake. Devoured quickly, with little intellectual effort, leaving you still hungry and slightly nauseated. I find it therefore annoying and confusing when people speak of Beyonce’s alleged genius, but the unwarranted intellectualization of vapid, empty nonsense is not the most troubling aspect of all of the Beyonce adulation in this culture. The most troubling aspect is that her music is called ”empowering.”
I only found out about the album because social media was overrun on Saturday night with women declaring how “empowered” they feel by Beyonce’s latest offering. The media has crowned it the most empowering anthem to womanhood ever produced. The Daily Beast took it a step further, announcing that the “breathtaking” work of art calls us to “introspection, to speculation, and, most fiercely, to action.”
The album has been extolled as a “beautiful,” “stunning,” “powerful,” and “epic” masterpiece. The Pieta is a lump of Play-Doh in comparison. Beethoven’s 5th is mere flatulence when stacked against this album. Even God’s most awe-inspiring artistic achievements – Mount Everest, Victoria Falls, the universe itself – all melt away in the blinding light of ”Lemonade.” That’s the gist of the critical response.
One feminist website went so far as to chronicle 45 lyrics that, they promise, “you won’t be able to stop thinking about.”
Here are a few of the “unforgettable” lines they highlighted:
“Hold up, they don’t love you like I love you / Slow down, they don’t love you like I love you.”
“We built sand castles that washed away / I made you cry when I walked away.”
“Nothing else ever seems to hurt like the smile on your face / When it’s only in my memory.”
“I hop up out the bed and get my swag on / I look in the mirror, say, ‘What’s up?’ / What’s up, what’s up, what’s up.”
“Epic” and “stunning” seem to be a bit of a stretch here. I think I’d go more with banal and tiresome. Metaphors about oceans and sandcastles haven’t suddenly become brilliant again. And if I can’t stop thinking about “get my swag on,” it will only be because I’m trying desperately figure out why anyone can’t stop thinking about a meaningless slogan that’s been used in approximately every rap song since 2006.
At any rate, it would be merely absurd, not necessarily dangerous, for a woman to feel “empowered” by these rote pop song platitudes. Unfortunately, in Beyonce’s case, when her lyrics aren’t warmed-over and cliched, they’re vulgar, ugly, manipulative and destructive. Often they’re all five of these things at once. Granted, many pop songs are profane, mind numbing garbage, but considering Beyonce’s status as Pagan Goddess of Secular America, her garbage is all the more toxic. Especially when mixed with racial exploitation. Remember, this is the woman who gave us a militant homage to the Black Panthers at the Super Bowl.
I was particularly disturbed reading some messages and emails from a number of mothers who, after I criticized Beyonce on Twitter a few days ago, wrote to inform me that their daughters have become “better” and “more confident” people from listening to Beyonce. Beyonce is a role model, I’m told. The president shares this view, stating a while ago that Beyonce “could not be a better role model” for his girls.
Role model. Empowering. Brilliant. Genius. These are lofty titles for anyone to fit, so how close does Beyonce come? Leaving aside for the moment the racist undertones and the fact that she dresses like a wealthy stripper, let’s look at what she’s actually saying. Here are a few choice lyrics from the the same album the New York Times calls “a revelation of spirit:”
Who the f*** do you think I is?
You ain’t married to no average b***h boy
You can watch my fat ass twist boy
As I bounce to the next d*ck boy
And keep your money, I got my own
Get a bigger smile on my face, being alone
Bad motherf*****, God complex
Motivate your ass call me Malcom X
Yo operator, or innovator
F*** you hater, you can’t recreate her no
You’ll never recreate her no, hero
Going through your call list
I don’t wanna lose my pride, but I’ma f*** me up a b**ch
Know that I kept it sexy, and know I kept it fun
He trying to roll me up, I ain’t picking up
Headed to the club, I ain’t thinking ’bout you
Me and my ladies sip my D’USSÉ cup
I don’t give a f***, chucking my deuces up
Suck on my b*lls, pause, I had enough
I ain’t thinking ’bout you
I ain’t thinking ’bout
Middle fingers up, put them hands high
Wave it in his face, tell him, boy, bye
Tell him, boy, bye, middle fingers up
I ain’t thinking ’bout you
Y’all haters corny with that Illuminati mess
Paparazzi, catch my fly, and my cocky fresh
I’m so reckless when I rock my Givenchy dress (stylin’)
I’m so possessive so I rock his Roc necklaces…
Oh yeah, baby, oh yeah I, ohhhhh, oh, yes, I like that
I did not come to play with you hoes, haha
I came to slay, b***h
I like cornbreads and collard greens, b***h
Oh, yes, you besta believe it
This is all quite incoherent, but I was able to discern 6 messages your daughter will hear loud and clear while listening to “Lemonade:”
Lesson 1: Use sex as a weapon to possess and to gain revenge.
Lesson 2: Find self-worth in your money and the expensive things you can buy.
Lesson 3: Speak with the grace and femininity of a drunken frat boy, saying things like “suck on my b*lls.”
Lesson 4: Never hesitate to f*** a b***h up.
Lesson 5: Express your empowerment with middle fingers.
Lesson 6: Eat corn bread and collard greens.
That last lesson is actually not bad culinary advice, but the others seem a bit hazardous. It truly boggles the mind that mothers (and fathers) would be enthusiastic about their daughters marinating their minds in this bile. I understand, in today’s culture, it’s exceedingly difficult to insulate children of a certain age from this kind of stuff, particularly if they go to public school (which is another argument for homeschooling). But the sad truth is that many parents don’t see any reason to even attempt to shield their daughters from music that encourages them to “bounce to the next d*ck.”
It should go entirely without saying, but apparently it must be said: bitterness, greed, envy, narcissism, sexual desperation and self-objectification do not empower. They diminish and demean. And they certainly don’t lead to happiness.
Besides, Beyonce’s “I don’t need no man” mantras are undermined by her own music, which often encourages women to degrade themselves for the sake of pleasing men. Here’s a lovely stanza from her last album:
Driver roll up the partition please
I don’t need you seeing Yoncé on her knees
Took 45 minutes to get all dressed up
We ain’t even gonna make it to this club
Now my mascara runnin’, red lipstick smudged
Oh he so horny, yeah he want to f***
He popped all my buttons and he ripped my blouse
He Monica Luwinski’d all on my gown
Whoa dere daddy, daddy didn’t bring a towel
Really, the grossest thing about that verse is that she refers to herself in the third person. But it’s perhaps an even greater concern that she released a song all about being covered in a guy’s bodily fluids. And this is the kind of thing that, based on my interactions, many mothers want their daughters to hear and take to heart. The president of the United States said himself that the woman who sings about performing oral sex on a dude in a limo “could not be a better role model.”
The truth is, Beyonce’s music, like a lot of pop music, is weird, aggressive, sullen, whorish, egomaniacal, vaguely satanic and deeply stupid. I feel no remorse in saying that, because that’s precisely how it’s intended. If her producers read this I’m sure they’d respond, “Yes, exactly, thanks for noticing.” Her music and her whole image and much of the pop industry are craftily designed to rip your soul out and stuff the vacant cavity with a loud jumble of sex, violence and materialism.
There are many forces in society who share this goal, but few can be quite as effective as pop singers. Once a culture abandons god, celebrities like Beyonce step into the void. They are revered with a religious fervor because every culture must revere something with a religious fervor. The Christians have Christ, ancient pagans had Apollo, the modern pagans have Beyonce and her fellow deities in Hollywood and the recording industry.
And the real danger is that this deification and worship is not an accident. Modern pop artists specifically call for it. Beyonce celebrates herself in every insufferable song and invites the listener to do the same. “Invite” is probably too generous a word. She demands that her fans literally “bow down, b***hes” and tremble before her. These days, feminists would spontaneously combust if you quoted Ephesians 5, but if a rich pop singer calls them “b***hes” and tells them to get on their knees in worship, they eagerly submit. The sadomasochism of pop music is probably one of its most bizarre elements.
And once the listener bows, as she’s been instructed, whatever Beyonce says – even if it’s shallow and hackneyed and idiotic – will not only be celebrated as a work of uncompromising brilliance, but as an infallible moral insight. “I can wear this/do this/say this because Beyonce did.” This is the thought process of young girls and grown women alike. This is what spiritually poisonous music can do to a person. Indeed, music is and has always been a powerful art form, but in a country where the pews are empty, it becomes a religion.
So, no, your daughter is not just having fun and gaining ”confidence” when she listens to Beyonce. She is worshiping at an altar. She is adopting an ideology. She is learning things.
The question is whether she’s learning the right things.