So far, the Internet-intellectual music criticism addressing the politics of Beyoncé’s new visual album “Lemonade”—an R&B confession of marital discord that attempts to locate, within its narrative of the spiritual-psychological consequences of infidelity, a counterintuitive yet interrelated locus of black feminist empowerment—has coexisted in equal superabundance with apolitical scuttlebutt inquiring as to the real identity of “Becky with the good hair” (Jay Z’s alleged mistress).
I’ve listened to “Lemonade”—it’s not for me. Furthermore, I don’t particularly care who “Becky” is. To me, on the gossip front, the more interesting question is this: why is Beyoncé still married to Jay Z?
As I commence my guesswork, I should note that Beyoncé obviously owes no one any explanations or apologies for her personal life. I’m not writing in order to chastise her for standing by a cheater—she can do whatever she wants. (People hold differing ideas about the significance of sexual fidelity in a marriage, and of course, when possible, we should avoid imposing our own standards on others.)
Moreover, I’m aware that nobody outside of a relationship can ever really understand what happens within one. Any narrative of blame or weakness—or happiness—that we might invent can serve only to satisfy our own nosy concern.
But if, like me, you have an inescapable curiosity about the lives of both acquaintances and strangers—and particularly about motivations behind deeply personal decisions and inclinations that no one but the person in question (if anyone at all) will ever truly know—some speculation is inevitable.
I’m not emotionally invested here—it’s a dispassionate inquisitiveness: why would a powerful, beautiful, energetically talented, financially plenteous woman in her thirties want to remain attached to an unignorably homely, misogynistic, slow-moving, personality-devoid “businessman” in his fifties (supposedly he’s 46, but ask Nas) who also cheats on her?
The simple explanation: she loves him, obviously. Why else would she have married him in the first place?
The cynical explanation: they never were in love—as a traditional “power couple,” they have from the beginning occupied a union based on practical mutual advantageousness, like a corporate merger, for the purpose of promoting both of their careers (their shared brand is such that every Jay Z album is also an advertisement for Beyoncé, and vice versa). Within this interpretation, Beyoncé doesn’t actually care about Jay Z’s unfaithfulness. Instead, his extramarital affairs instantaneously registered, for her, as a business opportunity: a shocking celebrity scandal broken not by a tabloid but by the celebrity herself, in the form of a purchasable product (nothing so classless as a sex tape or tell-all memoir but intimate all the same—a relatable musical journey of emotional trauma, superbly crafted to speak convincingly to all the silly mortal women who have “feelings” and “problems” and want to believe that the industry-engineered perfection-robot serving as their aspirational avatar has faced and triumphed over similar tribulations).
The complicated explanation: it’s probably complicated. By all accounts, official and unofficial, Jay Z and Beyoncé have had some rocky patches (including temporary breakups) in their shared life, yet fourteen years after their first date and eight years into their marriage, they are, apparently, together still. “Lemonade” isn’t the first time that either of them has used the recording studio to air romantic grievances during this stretch: Beyoncé has hinted at Jay Z’s infidelity since “B’Day” in 2006, and on “Kingdom Come,” Jay Z used the single “Lost One” to delineate the dissolution of their early romance due to Beyoncé’s single-minded careerism.
For celebrities, as for civilians, love is, evidently, hard. I don’t particularly like Jay Z or Beyoncé’s music, but I wonder if the presence of a creative outlet on each end of their relationship—a mastered and validated artistic space where the frustrated or injured party can come to express anger, figure out hang-ups, and resolve inexpressible emotions through musical transmutation—is the reason that their bond (if such a thing really exists) has withstood so much conflict.
If so, “Lemonade” (whether we like it or not) is a compelling testament to the power of the artistic process: Beyoncé could have divorced her husband—instead, she made an album. We must, after all, do something with the chaotic energy life gives us, and it’s not always possible to redirect it toward the people in our lives who give rise to it: it’s a central paradox of human existence that loved ones will always stir up more emotion in us than they’re equipped to receive in return—they have their own emotions to deal with.
Beyoncé and Jay Z suggest that, as usual, art—in its infinite receptiveness, its capacity to embody (occasionally in organized and appealing terms) the mess we would otherwise have to make of our lives—is the only answer.
I fear this is not the lesson that “Lemonade” (a work of art secondarily; a professionally executed, multimillion-dollar corporate media product and for-profit endeavor first) immediately communicates. The worst part of big-budget commercial art is not necessarily its aesthetics but the one-way conversation it inspires. Its fearsome pyrotechnics and polished, focus-grouped perfection may provide pleasure, but they don’t effectively put forth the concept of art as a vital force in which all of us are involved at all times, not only as awed consumers of branded entertainments concocted by media-anointed demigods but as creative interpreters of our own lives—their joys, heartbreaks, and complexities.
The primary message of “Lemonade” is the same as that of every other Beyoncé album: Beyoncé is the greatest, most spectacular human entity on the planet. The subordinate, accidental, far more important message, I think, is to be creative, whatever that may mean to you.