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Listening to music is, like, so yesterday. These days we have to watch it, and no performer has exploited that phenomenon as cannily as Beyonce, whose self-titled fifth album was released three years ago as a combination audio-visual package. Now she’s done it again, premiering Lemonade, her new “visual album,” as a “world premiere event” last Saturday night on HBO. And the world definitely took notice.
Many viewers’ immediate reaction to the incendiary material about marital strife and infidelity was naturally to attempt to discern how much of it was based on the singer’s marriage to Jay Z and the purported affair he had with fashion designer Rachel Roy, who may or may not be the “Becky with the good hair” caustically mentioned in the lyrics.
We’ll leave it to the gossip columns to probe for the truth, but whatever it is there’s no doubt that the scenario provides a compelling framework for this hourlong music video, whose theme initially appears to be “You don’t want to cheat on Beyonce!” (Why anyone would want to is another story.)
“You can taste the dishonesty,” she sings in the opening moments, and it only gets more savage from there, with such lyrics as “What a wicked way to treat the girl who loves you” and “You ain’t married to no average bitch, boy!”
Seen in the opening moments crouching on her knees on an old-fashioned, vaudeville-style stage, the singer initially appears to be a victim. She throws herself off a building as if committing suicide, only to land in a body of water that morphs into a water-filled bedroom, complete with floating Bible. “Are you cheating on me?” she asks.
But she recovers quickly, and fiercely. She’s seen striding down a crowded street, menacingly holding a baseball bat, and is soon exultantly bashing cars, a fire hydrant, and eventually even the camera itself. For good measure, she also runs over some cars with a monster truck. “If it’s what you truly want, I can wear her skin over mine,” she creepily announces. “Her scalp, a cap,” she adds, sounding like the serial killer Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs.
“We can pose for a photograph, all three of us,” she says bitterly. “So what are you going to say at my funeral now that you’ve killed me?”
But eventually the themes become weightier, less concerned with personal grievances and more about making a statement about the oppression of women, particularly black women, in America. We hear a snippet of a speech by Malcolm X in which he declares, “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman.”
There are countless images of powerful women (men are virtually nonexistent until the final few moments), often looking like Amazons as they stride through a field or writhe ecstatically on a bus. But despite several moments in which she’s seen looking deeply agonized or unglamorous, there’s no stronger woman onscreen than Beyonce herself. Changing hairstyles and outfits with dizzying speed, she stares down the camera as if she could hypnotize it into submission — which of course, she can.
The video is a virtual compendium of cinematic styles: It’s shot in both color and B&W; the aspect ratios, film stock and frame speeds constantly vary; and there is the occasional use of intertitles. Shots rarely last more than a few seconds, but the end result seems elegant rather than choppy because of the seamless editing. The often surreal imagery is gorgeous, reminiscent of directors ranging from Bergman to Malick to Lynch (there’s a shot in which the camera glides down a red-drenched hallway that inevitably recalls Kubrick’s The Shining), with fire a recurring motif. The visuals are redolent of different historical eras, from the antebellum South to the civil rights protests of the 1960s to the present day. The songs are divided into chapters, with such headings as “Intuition,” Denial,” “Anger,” “Accountability,” “Forgiveness” and “Redemption,” describing the wide emotional arc.
One of the most powerful sections features the simultaneously mournful and resolute faces of the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Michael Brown, each holding up a photograph of her lost son.
But as if to provide catharsis for the emotionally spent viewer, the video concludes on a happier note of reconciliation. We see home movies of Beyonce, her husband and their adorable daughter Blue Ivy, looking like the perfect loving family. There’s footage from the 90th birthday party of Jay Z’s grandmother Hattie, whose comment “I was served lemons, but made lemonade” gives the project its title. A climactic series of sweetly photographed images of numerous couples in loving embraces seems to signify that Beyonce, at least, has taken the adage to heart.
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