Music video commentaries (7) – Beyoncé

Beyoncé, Lemonade (Beyoncé, Kahlil Joseph, et al., 2016)

This is the only viewing in the entire semester for which I don’t have a free link. This hour-long video (or short film, or “visual album,” as Beyoncé herself calls it) is not available on YouTube or Vimeo, but only (as far as I can determine) on for-pay music streaming services (like Spotify, Apple Music, and Tidal). But it is such a powerful and important work that the class would not make any sense without it. Beyoncé combines music videos for every song on her album of the same name together with bridging passages, in order to form a complete single work. (She had previously released her eponymous 2013 album as a visual album, with music videos for every track; but the videos, like the songs, were each entirely separate). Though the video as a whole tells a story of loss and redemption, it is not a narrative in any traditional cinematic sense; Beyoncé seems to have invented an entirely new genre of work, one that defies ready definition. Of course, like just about all music and video work today, Lemonade is an immense collaboration; many peope contributed to its making. Besides Beyoncé herself, the most important collaborators are Warshan Shire (a British-Somali poet) whose words are adapted for the bridging passages between the songs, and the director Kahlil Joseph (who has also directed videos for Flying Lotus, Shabazz Palaces, Kendrick Lamar, and FKA twigs).

Supposedly a director’s cut of Lemonade exists, that is entirely the work of Kahlil Joseph; but this has only been shown a few times, in museum settings. Beyoncé subsequently replaced some of Joseph’s work with videos for particular songs by other directors (though as far as I can tell, Joseph is still responsible, together with Beyoncé, for the overall structure of the work). Each segment – bridging material plus song – has its own title, which is separate from that of the song. Here is a listing of the sections of the video; both the name that flashes on screen and the name of the song; in cases where I have been able to find the credits, I have also listed the directors of the particular videos:

  1. Intuition – Pray You Catch Me – ???
  2. Denial – Hold Up – Jonas Åkerlund
  3. Anger – Don’t Hurt Yourself – ???
  4. Apathy – Sorry – Kahlil Joseph and Beyoncé
  5. Emptiness – Six Inch – ???
  6. Accountability – Daddy Lessons – ???
  7. Reformation – Love Drought – Kahlil Joseph
  8. Forgivenesss – Sandcastles – Mark Romanek
  9. Resurrection – Forward – ???
  10. Hope – Freedom – ???
  11. Redemption – All Night – Melina Matsoukas
  12. (a separate song) – Formation – Melina Matsoukas

I should also note that I find it very difficult to write about Lemonade, among other reasons because so many people have written about it already, many of whom know the ins and outs of Beyoncé much better than I do. In fact there is an entire book of essays on Lemonade: The Lemonade Reader, edited by Kinitra D. Brooks and Kameelah L. Martin. With your Wayne State ID, you have unlimited access to this volume; you can either read it online, or download it in whole or part. It is worth at least looking through this volume, and reading whatever parts of it catch your interest. Simply go here. You can also read — this one is open access, so you do not need a Wayne State ID to reach it — an illuminating discussion by three music video critics here. In another open access article, Carol Vernallis puts Beyoncé’s work in the larger context of the history of music video here.

In any case, Lemonade links (apparent) autobiographical material with broader issues. The immediate subject matter is taken to be the infidelity of Beyoncé’s husband, Jay-Z, her anger over this, and their eventual reconciliation. Consider the second song, Hold Up, in which Beyoncé, dressed in a bright yellow gown, and wielding a baseball bat, smashes up cars, shop windows, and security cameras. The song is upbeat, and Beyoncé’s expression is joyful more than angry. She is shown doing all this damage in slow motion, while fires and floods break out behind her, and passers-by look on in amazement. The song’s lyrics suggest a movement back and forth between anger and willful craziness, even as everything revolves around the reproach: “what a wicked way to treat the girl that loves you.”

At the same time, the song and video suggest wider contexts than just the autobiographical one. In the video for the previous track, “Pray You Catch Me,” we see Beyoncé underwater; at the start of Hold Up, she comes out of the front doors of a house, and water gushes out behind her. Symbolically or mythologically, this suggests a movement of (re)birth. Several of the articles in The Lemonade Reader suggest that the iconography of the video contains references to the orisha Oshun, the goddess associated with love and sensuality, and also rivers and other bodies of water, in Afrodiasporic religious practices like Santeria and Voudun (originally part of Yoruba mythology, brought to the New World by enslaved Africans, and maintained by practitioners ever since). This gives Beyoncé’s personal drama a much broader resonance in African American history.

Similar references are maintained throughout Lemonade, despite the widely different musical and cinematic styles of the various segments. During the song Freedom, we are given a connection to the Black Lives Matter movement, as we see the mothers of young black men who were murdered by cops or security guards holding pictures of their sons. Many sections show Beyoncé surrounded by other black women, whether dancing or just standing in formation (to use the word from the song of that title). These shots emphasize solidarity and survival despite a long history of oppression. There are many shots of plantation buildings and grounds from the Old South. Often we see black women wearing 19th-century clothing; they have come to inhabit and take over for themselves the locations in which their ancestors were enslaved. Other times, we see black women dancing or riding on a bus with traditional African face markings and adornments. The continuity among generations is reinforced with interpolated family videos: in the latter parts, which deal with reconciliation and redemption, we see intimate moments between Beyoncé and Jay-Z; Jay-Z playing with their daughter Blue Ivy; and, during the song Freedom, footage from a family gathering in which Jay-Z’s grandmother, celebrating her 90th birthday, says the familiar line about making lemonade when life gives you lemons — thus giving the album its title.

These are just a few of the many ways in which the Lemonade visual album combines personal expression, family history, the broader history of African Americans, and spiritual references. The music is surprisingly diverse, ranging from rap to rock to soul ballads to even a country music number (“Daddy Lessons” – as we have mentioned earlier in the semester, though country music is conventionally regarded as a white musical genre, in fact, like nearly all other kinds of American popular music, it has extensive African American roots as well). The album is also stunningly diverse visually: it combines color and black-and-white, wide screen and narrower aspect ratios, vibrant footage and grainier sequences that either simulate, or actually come from, older media forms. But there are also continuing visual motifs that recur throughout the video, linking these heterogeneous forms: fire and water, lavish old-fashioned interiors, and so on. Moreover, though the video has a clear progression in terms of its expression of feelings and moods, this is accomplished without anything like a traditional cinematic narrative. There are no characters in the usual movie sense. Beyoncé plays herself, more or less, moving between explicit performance and represented fictional situation. Her family — husband, daughter, and parents — makes appearances, as well as various celebrities (from Serena Williams to the mothers I mentioned above). But whatever may have happened in Beyoncé’s and Jay-Z’s marriage, nothing is literally dramatized. We have, in effect, a series of tableaus whose music and visuals and lyrics (not just song lyrics, but also the spoken poetry from Warshan Shire) convey a wide range of moods and historical references; but they do not tell a story in any conventional sense. Music videos have, from the beginning, ignored cinematic conventions (like continuity editing) that are supposed to keep the story’s through-line clear; Beyoncé pushes beyond this to give us a progression that is fairly clear, and that nonetheless ignores the conventions of narrative consistency and closure. She invents a new form of expression, one that would not be possible either through film alone nor through music alone.

Beyoncé, Irreplaceable (Anthony Mandler, 2006)

This is a relatively early Beyoncé song, from her second solo album. It’s a feminist empowerment song. The video is directed by Anthony Mandler; we’ve previously seen some of his videos for Rihanna. The video pretty straightforwardly dramatizes the lyrics of the song, in which Beyoncé kicks out an unfaithful lover and (at the very end) brings in a new one. Not only are these men not irreplaceable, they are pretty much interchangeable. Noteworthy details of the video include the backlighting from the Sun that gives Beyoncé an aura; the scene in which she appears about to embrace the man who’s leaving, but instead turns out to be taking back the jacket that she had bought for him, and the performance of the song with an all-woman band.

Beyoncé, Single Ladies (Jake Nava, 2008)

This is one of Beyoncé’s most famous and popular videos. The song is another feminist empowerment anthem, telling off men who are unwilling to commit to their relationships, by putting a ring on it. The video director is Jake Nava — he has directed other videos for Beyoncé as well, and in this class we have previously seen his videos for Lana Del Rey and for Kanye West. It’s a dance video, choreographed by Frank Gatson Jr. and JaQuel Knight, both of whom have frequently worked with Beyoncé as well as other major artists. The choreography is inspired by “Mexican Breakfast”, a 1969 dance number choreographed by Bob Fosse for Gwen Verdon and two backing dancers. The music and presentation are very different, but you can see the way Beyoncé and her crew are sampling moves and gestures from Fosse. Here is an article comparing the two. Single Ladies, unlike the Fosse number, is in black-and-white. The dance also takes place in an empty space, with no backdrop and no distractions. Nava uses mostly long shots so that we can see the entire bodies of the dancers, and fairly long takes so that their movements are not broken up too much: in this, he follows the precedent set by Hollywood musicals in the 1930s through the 1950s. However, Nava also creates cinematic tension by varying the lighting throughout the video. At times, the space is entirely white; at other times, the dancers are in a spotlight, and the surrounding area is less bright. Nava also zooms in and out, at times coming much closer to Beyoncé in order to pick her out: this is something that you don’t see in classic Hollywood musicals (or in the Fosse number). Toward the end of the video, the editing becomes much more active: we have very fast cuts, and strobing light changes, to create a sense of climax. The other notable feature of the video is the titanium roboglove (complete with ring) on Beyoncé’s left arm. She may be Everywoman, but she is also a cyborg — more advanced, and more posthuman, than you and I.

Beyoncé, Why Don’t You Love Me? (Melina Matsoukas, 2010)

The song has a retro-pop feel to it. The video, conceived by Beyoncé and directed by Melina Matsoukas, is a campy 1950s parody, gleefully mixing together two sorts of of women’s roles of the decade. On the one hand, there are sitcom clichés (from I Love Lucy, Leave It To Beaver, and other shows of the era); on the other hand, Beyoncé also performs an evocation of Bettie Page, celebrated pin-up girl of the period. (Beyoncé also sports a Bettie Page look in the video for Video Phone, which we saw earlier in the semester). The effect is hilariously incongruous; Beyoncé does housework while dressed in fancy lingerie. Among other things, she accidentally burns a roast in the oven (a definite 50s-sitcom moment), but she also fixes a car, and dusts off all her Grammy award statues. We also see her in a bubble bath, and driniking a martini and smoking a cigarette while talking on the phone to a man who evidently fails to love her back; mascara runs down her face from what we presume are her tears. The humor here matches the song, which is upbeat despite the complaints of the lyrics.

Beyoncé, Dance For You (Alan Ferguson, 2011)

This is another retro exercise; this time the video (directed by Alan Ferguson, who also directed a number of Janelle Monáe’s videos, and was married for a time to Beyoncé’s sister Solange) evokes 1940s film noir. This is not just a matter of the clothes and decor (a detective’s office in a period skyscraper), but also of the cinematography and lighting. We have changes of focus (Beyoncé first appears as a fuzzy image in the doorway, before she comes totally into focus) dramatic camera angles (think of the shot near the end where the detective is framed between Beyoncé’s stocking-clad legs), light coming in through the slats of Venetian blinds, shadows cast by rotating fans, and other such hallmarks of detective movies of the era. The man could be Humphrey Bogart (though he is nowhere as charismatic) and Beyoncé could be any number of femmes fatales. The detective mostly looks on impassively, though he smiles a bit when Beyoncé comes right up to him. The video knowingly evokes the “male gaze” that feminist film theorists have identified in classical Hollywood cinema: as Beyoncé does her sexy dance, she is extravagantly displaying herself, both to the detective and to the camera, as an object to be desired. However, this is done so knowingly and deliberately, and with such exaggeration (if that is the right word – I am not sure that it is), that Beyoncé is actively, and even aggessively, taking control of the situation, reclaiming the male fantasy as her own power and her own initiative.

Beyoncé, Partition (Jake Nava, 2013)

Another video directed by Jake Nava; another video in which Beyoncé extravagantly displays her body for the male gaze, here explicity the gaze of her husband, Jay-Z. At the beginning (after outdoor scenes of a French chateau), and again at the end of the video, we see Beyoncé from across the breakfast table, as her husband looks more at the newspaper than at her. She drops a napkin, which a maidservant dutifully comes and picks up. In between the two iterations of this opening/closing scene, we have Beyoncé in a lavish burlesque performance, featuring multiple ornate and revealing costumes, plus doubled images, top-bottom mirror images, silhouette body outlines, and dark, expressionist lighting (I especially like the dark blue). As with Dance for You, the video asks us to make our own judgment: is this (self-)exploitation? or is it Beyoncé taking control of the traditional objectification of womens’ bodies? or is it Beyoncé exalting herself beyond all measure? or is it (as at least one academic has claimed) that Beyoncé “performs the historical objectification of black female bodies and replays that objectification in order to point out that, stereotypically, black women have had few means of garnering attention beyond sexual performances”?

Beyoncé, Drunk In Love (Hype Williams, 2013)

Hype Williams directs this video in gorgeous black-and-white. It’s all on the beach, at night and early morning. Beyoncé dances, and she and Jay-Z caress one another. According to Beyoncé’s creative director Todd Tourso, the look of the video is meant to evoke the fashion photography of Herb Ritts (mostly known as a fashion photographer, but he did direct a few videos, including the beachside Madonna video Cherish, which we saw earlier in the semester). The video is pure, ecstatic lust; I am not sure what else to say about it.