In the wake of Beyoncé’s audiovisual masterpiece Lemonade, critics have decided they can see straight past the work and into the mind of Beyoncé herself, and they have determined that she did it all for the money. Never mind that they present no evidence or even analysis to support their claims – apparently they just know. And they know well enough to write entire glorified thinkpieces on it, like Piers Morgan, who took to the Daily Mail to declare that he preferred the “old Beyoncé” to this new radical black woman who uses “grieving mothers to shift records and further fill her already massively enriched purse.”
Presumably, artists who have anything political to say must give our work away for free lest we be mistaken for profiting from tragedy. The problem, of course, isn’t that Beyoncé made money from her opinions—lord knows, Piers Morgan’s entire sad career is built upon doing exactly that—the problem is that Beyoncé is a Black woman controlling her own narrative and using it to say something powerful about her humanity and the rest of the world’s denial of it.
In the hands of cultural critics, an artist’s intentions—or rather the critics’ assumptions of those intentions—become a bludgeon to chastise creators of color or protect white artists. We see this again and again: a celebrity messes up, lets some of their true thoughts seep out into a hot mic, and the first thing we hear about is that they never meant to offend. Focusing on intention frames the offending party as the victim—alas, they tried and failed but at least they tried—and erases the real damaging effects of their actions along with the people they’ve hurt. Last year, when two white women were criticized for creating a children’s book that showed a black child smiling as she performed slave labor, the majority-white publishing world jumped to their defense, insisting that they never intended to glorify slavery, that they weren’t racist.
Infidelity is the inciting incident; it sets off the journey to a higher self that results in the true heart of this story: A love letter from a Black woman to Black women. tweet
Intent, of course, is irrelevant. As artists, one of the first things we learn about sharing work is that once it’s out there, it doesn’t matter what we hoped we made or meant to make. What we made is all that remains. What we made is what will change the world, for better or for worse. Knowing that is part of releasing it, what ignites the fire inside us to get it right, what keeps us pushing ourselves to do better. What matters is the work itself and the context of the society we create it in.
But intent is hard to argue with; it’s a slippery thing, a question of interpretation presented as fact, and so can be used in lieu of actual critical analysis of the work. In an error-riddled New Yorker essay, theater critic Hilton Als insists that Beyoncé is a just a “canny businesswoman” who only brought in revolutionary ideas as a “signifier” to add to her “commercial success.” How do you know?! I wanted to scream at my computer screen. What in Lemonade led Als to so clearly devise Beyoncé’s intentions? And second of all: what’s wrong with making money? White artists make bank on top of bank on a regular basis, with and without (but usually without) anything important to say about the world. I can’t recall Piers Morgan or the New Yorker ever raising a finger to question the intentions of white artists.
What, then, is the artist of color with a message to do? Should we shut up? Keep our message easily-digestible and safe? Or just post our political work for free, as if there could be an easy line drawn between what’s “political” and what’s not? Should we starve? Would living in squalor make us true revolutionaries in the eyes of (well-paid) cultural critics?
Als, who (like Piers Morgan and I) is a man, goes on to complain that Beyoncé’s “message has always involved men,” and that Lemonade is her “still telling some dude to fuck off.” I read that and wondered if we’d watched the same piece of art. For a narrative about rising from the ashes of infidelity, Lemonade is remarkable in how few men actually appear. When they do show up, as my wife pointed out after we first watched it, their screentime is regulated—they’re almost always shown in presence of a woman. It’s as if they must be escorted in to the sacred female space of the Lemonade world. The male guest stars on the album—none of whom appear in the movie—tend to take a backseat. I didn’t even notice Jack White or The Weeknd’s contributions at first, great though they are, and James Blake’s song is the shortest (and most beautifully haunting) track. Kendrick Lamar’s rap didn’t make it into the film.
Even the cheater in question takes up blessedly little room in the scope of Lemonade. He’s not a character in the work so much as a negative space. The album never gives him a voice; the lyrics never describe him. He cheated; he was a nobody and now he’s a big deal; he wears Louis Vuitton—that’s about all we learn. “Am I talking about your husband or your father?” Warsan Shire’s poetic interlude asks at one point. It’s a question the work itself declines to fully answer.
Presumably, artists who have anything political to say must give our work away for free lest we be mistaken for profiting from tragedy. tweet
To me, Lemonade, isn’t about cheating; it is, as the title suggests, about healing. Infidelity is the inciting incident; it sets off the journey to a higher self that results in the true heart of this story: A love letter from a Black woman to Black women. We follow the protagonist, whom Beyoncé performs, from a lonely field, through scenes of joyful carnage (witnessed by startled strangers and a doomed security camera), and a dark parking lot, to the central visual theme of the work: a southern landscape populated by Black women of all ages in blissful and sometimes sorrowful communion with one another. In other words, Lemonade is a journey to love—but not simply romantic love we’ve seen over and over between a wayward man and a hurt woman— this work concerns itself with forms of love seldom explored in the pop world: love of self, love of community, love of womanhood and Blackness, love of spirit; the kind of love Baldwin said “takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.” In the midst of this power, this network of support and journey inward that is both epiphany and requiem, Beyoncé the character learns, or decides perhaps, to forgive, to love again, and then quickly moves Forward from this place of inner strength to revolution, a ferocious, energized cry for Freedom. Personal rage and grief transform to political rage and grief and in that transformation we see they are not so far from each other at all.
Lemonade the audiovisual album brims with so many cultural, spiritual, and literary references, it warrants an entire book of liner notes. As a collection of songs, it demands to be listened to in order; each track resolves into the next both thematically and musically as the arc moves from pain (“you my lifeline think you tryna kill me”) to triumph (“with every tear came redemption/ and my torturer became my remedy”). The narrative is nuanced and graceful, laced with elegance, wrath, and humanity. Rewatching the film on a bus ride back to Brooklyn this weekend, I found myself tearing up at the many images of love presented during the penultimate song, “All Night.” We made it, the film seems to whisper, through fire and water and our own deceptions, we came through alive, our souls intact. Tellingly, this happy ending isn’t when we see Beyoncé and Jay being cutesy with each other (that comes earlier during the somber, sweet and suddenly, perfectly vicious ballad Sandcastles)—this conclusion speaks to a much more gigantic love, an expansive, joyful celebration of the journey itself, the path back to an awakened heart.
If we take the work for the work, rather than the gossip around the work or our assumptions about the artist’s intentions, we’re left with an epic genre-bending masterpiece about love and revolution—a deeply human, deeply felt homage to struggle and survival, Blackness and womanhood. “Beyoncé’s Lemonade,” Jamilah King writes, “is what happens when Black women control their art.” Those of us to whom it’s not directed are better for the privilege of bearing witness.
Speculation aside, maybe Lemonade didn’t tell us much new about Beyoncé the Person’s intentions or relationship. It did have plenty to say about Beyoncé the Artist: she will continue the long tradition of shattering the boundaries of pop and protest and say something powerful about love in the process. And she will get paid doing it—as well she should.