It’s no accident that so much energy has been poured into analysing Beyoncé’s latest offering, Lemonade. It was designed for this very purpose.
Sure, it’s a video and an album and catnip for fans, but it’s also equal parts present and puzzle for those of us who write on pop culture. On marketing. On gender. It’s a production made not merely for consumption, but for dissection. For multi-media, multi-discipline and multi-faceted over-thinking and intellectualisation.
There’s an obvious story here about Beyoncé’s contribution to culture. Debates to be had about what constitutes authorship in an album with 72 writing credits. A story about new ways of delivering music, about new ways of experiencing it.
There’s a tale here of song-writing as catharsis, of the public revelation – the public performance – of one’s pain. Of doing revenge theatrically. Of taking control of a scandal, of one’s story, of framing it, of monetising it.
And there’s a treatise here on contemporary feminism, on race, on what it means to be a black woman, a black mother, in 2016. About the role – and myth – of empowerment in 2016.
Interesting stuff, sure, but my entry point is a little different.
I’m fascinated here about the true talent that’s being overlooked. In all our speculating about whether Jay-Z really strayed, and whether he was getting his din-dins prepared by Rachael Ray, lost is the capacity for this all to be construed as fiction. As art sure, but as thorough fantasy. That instead of this being about Beyoncé bleeding in front of us, perhaps it’s a story, it’s fiction, it’s folly.
The documentary centres on a 1971 Theatre For Ideas town hall meeting where Norman Mailer takes on with good humor a quartet of feminists including the “formidable lady writer” Germaine Greer.
The banter is sometimes interesting, sometimes indulgent, and Mailer comes across as every bit as conceited and dismissive as predicted. And yet – and as difficult as it is to admit – the pithiest and most insightful remark of the night came from that towering writer with a matching ego.
Mailer, reflecting on feminist criticisms of his works cautioned the audience to remember that just because one of his characters says something egregious it doesn’t mean it’s his own viewpoint being verbalised.
It’s probably a point that shouldn’t need to be repeated and yet – particularly for women writers – there appears to be a sexist belief that we can only ever be autobiographical, writing what we know, what we’ve lived. About the domestic, about the small, about the interior.
The writer/comedian Mindy Kaling recently commented about her frustration that people so readily assume her Mindy Project character, Mindy Lahiri, is her alter-ego. As though Kaling couldn’t possibly imagine any existence other than her own.
Such minimising rarely happens with male writers.
The easy reading – and the one encouraged in our social media, tell-each-other-everything culture – is that Lemonade is Beyoncé’s high-road response to the years of speculation that she’s married to a cad. That it’s her way of working through things in a culture that expects celebrities to do their … journey … on a reality television show.
A more cynical reading is that Bey and Jay-Z – the latter on whose own streaming service Lemonade was released – are in fact just consummate entrepreneurs. That they’re simply capitalising on the insatiable interest in their private lives and, rather than diffusing the chatter or issuing denials, instead, they’ve stoked the blaze, further fuelled fascination and been nicely remunerated in the process.
Both are possibilities sure, but I like the idea of Queen Bey simply playing make-believe. I like the notion that Lemonade is an opportunity for her to toy with perceptions, to play out a drama that may have everything – or absolutely nothing – to do with her real life.
That none of it really matters because the version of self served up for public devouring has always been artifice. In a world where perceptions can only be managed so far, why not just treat it all as a wonderful soap-operatic art project?
We’re very ready as a culture to buy into the idea of a man as the Great Auteur, of men being able to tell stories that aren’t just their own. Women need to be extended the same courtesy.
That sometimes we’ll tell our stories of love and loss and heartbreak. And then on other occasions we’ll cook up some fiction that captivates the planet. For the very same reasons that men do.
Because women are also artists. And liars. And shit-stirrers.