By Elizabeth Daley
Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade draws from so many sources that it is completely original. But the most striking element of the work is how it firmly situates her as a 1990s woman. She is “Miss World,” she is “Every Woman,” she is “The Only One,” and “You Oughta Know” she wants a “New Beginning.”
Lemonade revives the graphic female vulnerability and combativeness that groups like her own Destiny’s Child knocked out in the 2000s with their more palatable chart-topping “Girl Power” music. On Lemonade, Beyoncé presents herself as at times self-conscious, vindictive, or even self-hating. “I’m not too perfect to ever feel this worthless,” she sings on “Hold Up,” asking herself: “What’s worst: lookin’ jealous or crazy?”
Coming from the woman known as Queen Bey, who has previously presented herself as “Flawless,” commanding fans to “bow down bitches,” these lyrics are revolutionary. She takes hold of her own voice and presents it, in all its self-doubt and imperfection, as worthy of a global audience. While some critics see the entire project as great marketing, if money alone were the goal she could have produced a more traditional work. Instead, this hour-long visual album is a statement about limits on expression. “If you believe in equal rights, the same way society allows a man to express his darkness, to express his pain, to express his sexuality, to express his opinion—I feel that women have the same rights,” she said recently in an Elle interview.
Girl Power was driven by market force.
Though Beyoncé grew up during an era of combative female musicianship, Destiny’s Child came of age within the more recent Girl Power movement led by the Spice Girls and continued by artists like Jennifer Lopez (“I’m Real”), Eden’s Crush (“Get Over Yourself”) and Christina Aguilera (“Genie in a Bottle”). These songs topped Billboard’s 100 in 2001 (along with Destiny’s Child) and achieved accessibility by placing female “empowerment” within appropriately gendered confines.
Girl Power was driven by market force. It “was anodyne enough to encompass almost any and every worldview,” writes Andi Zeisler in her new book, “We Were Feminists Once,” tracing the impact of branding on feminism. The music’s rise in America coincided with the homogenization of radio stations under the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which allowed radio consolidation. It also took hold as the female music festival Lilith Fair, was derided as being silly by mainstream media and sell-out by certain feminists.
Slowly, the radio became dominated by pop stars like Britney Spears who sang about being a “Slave for U,” but expressed no critique on the position. These female pop stars were “survivors,” not crybabies. They were equal to men, best demonstrated, as Ariel Levy writes in her book “Female Chauvinist Pigs,” by their ability to wield sexual power while remaining in control and relatable.
Lopez was not “every woman,” she was the more universal, “real.” Aguilera instructed those who wanted to get with her to “rub me the right way,” while Eden’s Crush had this narrow view of female liberation: “Cuz without you, see I do anything I like, Sometimes I stay out all night.” Real rebellion.
While Destiny’s Child deviated from the Girl Power formula, recording songs like “The Story Of Beauty,” about the sexual assault of a girl by her stepfather, the band’s version of empowerment was not extreme or insane. In this way they were aligned with other Girl Power groups: empowered, but within reason. They were not asking to die like Courtney Love on “Miss World”; they were not asking to “make new symbols, make new signs, make a new language, with these we’ll redefine the world,” like Tracy Chapman on “New Beginning,” and they certainly were not walking across fire, dealing with demons or holding anyone “until the screaming is gone,” like Melissa Etheridge. These women would never sing angrily about going down on someone in a theater like Alanis or ask: “Are you thinking of me when you fuck her?” Nor did they yell “I hate you so much right now! AAHHH!!” like Kelis on “Caught Out There.”
While many of Beyoncé’s lyrics seem to be directed at a cheating man, the words are not there for him to join in on—they’re there for her to announce.
It can be assumed that these songs from the 1990s were not at all interested in getting dressed up for a male audience. Two are written by lesbians and it’s hard to imagine an adequate male response to “Caught Out There,” “Miss World” or “You Oughta Know”—which by its title alone shuts down dialogue and commands authority. These songs express feelings that have come to be considered uncool in their earnestness for at least a decade (unless delivered by silly aw shucks Taylor Swift, whose personality has arguably become performance).
While there may be the occasional combative feminist song that can still elevate a female singer to success, not since the 1990s can I recall watching something as simultaneously mainstream and exclusively female and feminist as Lemonade. Most of the shots in the visual album focus on women, and while many of Beyoncé’s lyrics seem to be directed at a cheating man, the words are not there for him to join in on—they’re there for her to announce. Bey makes this perfectly clear when her husband, Jay-Z, symbolically appears in the film as little more than a scarf she drapes around herself. His presence, perhaps his entire personhood, is incidental. He could be any man. This album is about her feelings and identity—unapologetic to its listeners, male or female. Anyone who doesn’t want to listen can, in her words, “suck on my balls.”
Before introspection was relegated to the realm of selfies, 1990s women were making similarly confrontational confessional mainstream albums. Hole’s breakout 1995 album was instructional in its title: Live Through This, dared the band. Erykah Badu’s 1997 debut album, Baduizm, promised listeners a glimpse into the personal. The Billboard Hot 100 chart once had room for a variety of artists to try new things and hit makers in all genres were female.
While Lemonade is surprising in its content and form given our current Billboard chart, Beyoncé has been moving in this more confrontational experimental direction for a while. As early as 2009, she began covering the 1995 female rage anthem “You Oughta Know,” banging her head and mixing the song with her own “If I Were A Boy,” where she explores confines of femininity, imagining how things might be different if roles were reversed. In the song “Haunted” off her 2013 self-titled album, Beyoncé expresses frustration with the current music scene speaking the lyrics: “I’m climbing up the walls cause all the shit I hear is boring. All the shit I do is boring. All these record labels boring, I don’t trust these record labels, I’m torn. Soul not for sale. Probably won’t make no money off this, oh well.”
Rather than provide a dictionary definition of feminism…[Beyoncé] performs the feminist act of expressing herself without need for explanation.
Rather than provide a dictionary definition of feminism as she did on her 2013 album, on Lemonade she performs the feminist act of expressing herself without need for explanation. The sonic and visual effects remind me not of The Yeah Yeah Yeahs or Jack White, both credited on the album, but of 1990s women like PJ Harvey, Tori Amos, and Me ‘Shell Ndegeocello. These women play, sing, and write their own songs and don’t shy away from controversial images and topics.
On her 1993 album Plantation Lullabies Ndegeocello sings: “Revolution against this racist institution, the white man shall forever sleep with one eye open.” In “Soul’s On Ice,” she says: “Excuse me does your white woman go better with your Brooks Brothers suit? I have psychotic dreams. Your jism in a white chalk line,” using spoken word in an even more bold way than Beyoncé does on Lemonade, as the spoken word is incorporated into the song.
Like Ndegeocello, Beyoncé brings up race in a gendered context. To show the impact of police brutality and racist violence, she features images of black mothers holding photos of sons lost to police brutality and racially motivated aggression. Lashing out at a cheating lover, she suggests he “call Becky with the good hair,” taking aim at racist culture for valuing the physical attributes of white women over those of other races.
Like Tori Amos, who is known for penning songs about rape and masturbation, Beyoncé, too, tackles taboo subjects. Portraying herself as a scorned woman, she mentions what might be a reference to her miscarriage: “So what are you gonna say at my funeral now that you’ve killed me? Here lies the body of the love of my life, whose heart I broke without a gun to my head. Here lies the mother of my children both living and dead.”
As an artist known for performing gospel, some of this spoken word stands in stark contrast to her prior work, but it fits right in with certain 1990s women. “I bathed in bleach and plugged my menses with pages from the holy book,” Beyoncé says on the album, quoting poet Warsian Shire. In her song “Icicle,” about masturbation, Amos sings: “I think the good book is missing some pages …when my hand touches myself I can finally rest my head. And when they say “Take of his body,” I think I’ll take of mine instead.” Beyoncé counters, mentioning “orgasm heightened by grief.”
The confrontational nature of Lemonade, with lyrics like “Who the fuck do you think I am? You ain’t married to no average bitch boy. You can watch my fat ass twist boy. As I bounce to the next dick boy” harks back to 1990s rappers like Salt n’ Pepa who let it be known that what they wanted to do was “None of Your Business.” On “U.N.I.T.Y,” Queen Latifah wanted to know “Who You Callin’ a Bitch?” Lemonade also evokes Tricky’s Martina Topley-Bird (Maxinquaye 1995) and Imani Coppola in her 1997 “Legend of a Cowgirl” as well as an entire chunk of the Lilith Fair lineup. I hear Fiona Apple’s song “Criminal,” coincidentally off her album “Tidal”—the name of the exclusive streaming service where Lemonade can now be found.
[Men] are supporting characters, only made interesting by the women they are associated with.
With Lemonade I see a young Beyoncé absorbing all the female-centered music and culture around her. On this album she has reclaimed rock’s black female legacy, as Brittany Spanos writes in Rolling Stone, providing a “re-imagination of what rock can be and who can sing it.” She is also reviving female musical traditions of the 1990s, where men are not invited in. They are supporting characters, only made interesting by the women they are associated with.
While there were some songs in the early 2000s such as Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ‘Em Up Style” which may have directly influenced Beyoncé’s latest work—specifically “Hold Up,”—where Beyoncé can be seen destroying property with a bat, when Cantrell came out with “Hit ‘Em Up Style,” advocating for financial revenge on a cheating man, Beyoncé of Destiny’s Child was being managed by her father and still singing within the realm of legal female liberation. She sang of being an “Independent Woman” and not needing any man’s money—a theme that continues through her present day work.
However on Lemonade, Beyoncé seems to realize that the Independent Woman is a myth. “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman,” Malcolm X is quoted as saying in her video. Even if Beyoncé doesn’t need a man’s money, she is still in need of a man’s love. She is still ensnared by the patriarchy like every woman, no matter how independent. Her album was still first released on Tidal, a service owned primarily by her husband.
In showing her own weakness, Beyoncé’s Lemonade debunks the Independent Woman as a trope used to compel women who haven’t “made it” to blame themselves. Beyoncé gives women her lungs, her permission, after more than a decade of Girl Power, to scream at systemic sexism and racism on their own terms. She busts the illusion of the Puritan work ethic, the notion that if anyone tries hard enough, she can succeed. From the top, Beyoncé looks down and says it isn’t so. She realizes success is a state of mind impacted by a variety of conditions, singing: “Freedom! Freedom! I can’t move! Freedom, cut me loose. Freedom! Freedom! Where are you? ‘Cause I need freedom, too!” She sinks on a police car, she speaks of death multiple times. She succumbs to the weakness of loving a man who doesn’t deserve it, but even in that position, she finds strength from speaking her truth to other women. She finds strength in existing in a world where men are not the choir she is preaching to.