The "monoculture" has supposedly been dead for at least a decade, but it ain't necessarily so. World-devouring pop music phenomena do still exist, but today that universe is made entirely of Beyoncé — a Michael Jackson/Madonna/Prince figure whom everyone who cares about popular culture is supposed to grapple with and have big thoughts about.
And so, like every one of her albums and videos of the last half-decade or so, "Lemonade," the hourlong "visual album" that dropped on Saturday, has galvanized the entire thinkpiece-industrial complex, a function of both the economics of digital publishing — them clicks, tho! — but also because the biggest pop star on Earth is making art that increasingly invites and maybe requires a million considerations and reconsiderations.
When Beyoncé addresses the public at all now, it's with statements like this: out-of-the-blue and at once searingly candid while being meticulously, preposterously choreographed. "Lemonade" is about black women, and black feminism, and her family's particular history down in the Delta, and her troubled marriage and motherhood. The mothers of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown make appearances. A young black man considers what President Obama has meant to his identity. Serena Williams twerks.
That's not even a tenth of what happens here — it's all too much and not enough and gorgeous and mesmerizing and messy. And it's complicated by Beyoncé's particular position on several different cultural stages all at once: an inconceivably wealthy pop demigoddess offering herself up as a figure of familiarity, wish-fulfillment and a template for actualization — and, of course, tending to the important business of selling the "Lemonade" album and her forthcoming tour.
So yeah. There are a million threads to pull here, and some writers out there will inevitably try to do the most and take them all on at once. (You brave, brave fools.) But if you're feeling compelled to dive into that ocean of essays about what "Lemonade" means, I'd like to point you to Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah's fantastic consideration of Beyoncé for NPR's The Record from 2014, titled "How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You: The BeyHive."
In it, Kaadzi Ghansah wrestles with the way Beyoncé's celebrity and her, uh, "dedicated" fandom (the aforementioned "BeyHive") rests against her embrace of feminism. That descriptor sounds way drier than the piece reads. Kaadzi Ghansah goes to a Beyoncé concert in Brooklyn and embeds with some of her fiercest fans to makes sense of their relationship to her:
[Beyoncé], like most black women, must work hard but, unlike most black women and girls, is endlessly well-defended. She will never be homeless. She will never be broken. ...While her fans' lives might be pocked with disappointments and failures, somehow their Queen's life has largely avoided this. There are people who like to say hyperbolic, vapid things like, if you hate Beyoncé you must hate your life. Beyoncé is such a symbol of triumph that these people are willing to overlook her extremely problematic ties to the worst forms of capitalism (Pepsi, Wal-Mart and Barneys). But recently I've come to realize how much the Hive's deep, at times blind investment in her isn't so much about loving her one ton of talent but rather their defense of her place on the pedestal. They are in love with what she transmutes. What she is allowed to be. And Beyoncé does this more earnestly than the majority of singers today: she performs for them, shows them what a woman in successful control of her life sounds like. This is why they root for her. She gives her fans hope — as Tina Turner once did for women in the '80s — a sense that they, too, might win at life and vanquish the hurt. Beyoncé is the rare exception who has beaten the odds, despite her being a woman, and despite her being a black woman.
A few days after Beyoncé's album came out I was invited to join more than 40 women in a conference call about the album. Did I come in love? Adrienne Maree Brown, the facilitator of the call, asked me when I revealed I was on assignment. I replied that I came in sisterhood. Which is the word that kept circling in my head as I listened, almost awed into silence by these women, many of them women of color, who just wanted to be rapturous over the black woman who almost shut down Christmas. For one hour all that these women wanted was a private space to say "Beyoncé is my sister and I love her."