Even with my advanced age and near-total lack of exposure to pop music in the year of our Lord 2016 — a year in which my most recent live-music experience was with the world’s premier classic Van Halen tribute band — I couldn’t help being taken in by the exciting release of Beyoncé’s new album, Lemonade.
It was exciting because of how she did it: announcing a program called Lemonade with no other details on HBO two days before it aired, goosing people’s anticipation about what it might be. Most people correctly guessed that it was another previously unannounced album, like her last one, Beyoncé. Even more interesting, once people heard it, was the album’s content: an apparently extremely confessional (or very persuasively performed) musical psychodrama about a female protagonist — let’s just call her Schmeyoncé — working through her feelings about being cheated on by an unnamed hound dog — Schmay-Z, we’ll call him. It’s raw, it’s emotional, her voice is terrific, the production sounds great, it has already sold a trillion copies, and it’s dominated the pop-culture conversation for a week now.
Speculation is wild about who exactly Schmay-Z may have cheated with, and whether his marriage to Schmeyoncé is still operative, and above all WHO IS BECKY WITH THE GOOD HAIR? Other people speculated that it was all just a big marketing stunt. There was a lot to talk about in all this, and any way you looked at it, there was a lot to give Beyoncé credit for: for her emotional honesty in writing about such painful subject matter, for pushing the lyrical content of pop music into such bold new places, for her promotional savvy.
To clarify, I am no particular fan of Beyoncé, by which I mean I have not actively followed her career, never bought any of her music, don’t have her picture in my locker. I like her just fine, but I am aware of her strictly on a pop-culture level. Anytime I have happened to see her performing on television, I am invariably wowed by her. (Try singing and dancing in perfect sync with an army of backup dancers at the same time. Now try BELTING and dancing at the same time.) She obviously works hard, she is possessed of a phenomenal instrument, she looks amazing on stage — what’s not to like?
But I have not seen anyone giving her any credit for something that to me is more significant than any of those other things: that Beyoncé is inventing a totally new kind of pop music.
Pop music, if it is about anything, is about The Hook. You know, The Hook: the part that makes you sing along, the catchy part. “Oh, whoa, whoa, Jamie’s cryin'” is The Hook. “Billie Jean is not my lover” is The Hook. “Whether you’re a brother or whether you’re a mother you’re stayin’ alive” is The Hook. The Hook is everything in modern music. Hell, The Hook is everything in any music. Mozart is loaded with hooks. So is Beethoven.
“If you liked it then you should have put a ring on it” is a terrific pop Hook. “Got me feeling so crazy right now” is even better. I can’t pretend to have ever been a big pop music guy — I’m more of a dyed-in-the-wool rockist — but I know a good Hook when I hear one, and Beyoncé’s had some of the best.
So it’s interesting to me that Lemonade, whose promotional hype has completely blotted out the sun to a degree that even I couldn’t resist checking it out, is almost entirely Hookless.
Seriously, can you sing any part of any of these songs from memory? The closest the album comes to even using a traditional verse-chorus-verse structure is on “Daddy Lessons,” an acoustic country-flavored number that brings in second line-style horns at the end and is, probably not coincidentally, my favorite song on the album. “Formation,” the single she premiered as a guest performer earlier this year at the Super Bowl, totally upstaging I don’t even remember who, and inspiring a silly non-controversy about her alignment with the Black Lives Matter movement (and which inspired the single best tour t-shirt ever) is the best suited for Club Play, with its strong beat, but it also doesn’t really have a chorus or anything to stick in your head.
Beyoncé has been headed this way for a while: The big hit from her last album, “Drunk In Love” was the same way: her performance is very impressive, she can rap, she can sing her ass off, and she looks great in the video. (She always looks great in the video.) But the song is so jam-packed with lyrics, coming faster than Bob Dylan on a bennie jag, she never stops for a Hook. There’s nothing to sing along to, nothing to stick in your head. It’s more like an exercise than a song.
When the Schmay-ZJay-Z/Beyoncé concert special On The Run aired on HBO a while back, I watched it not because I was a big fan of either artist’s records, but because Beyoncé’s sensational Super Bowl halftime appearance — she’s neck and neck with Prince for Best Halftime Show ever, if you ask me — was still fresh in my memory, and I thought maybe I’d try taking a ride on the Bey train and see what all the fuss was about.
I couldn’t get through it, because there wasn’t a Hook to be found; not when Jay came out, not when Bey came out. Just a marathon of words, like that guy that used to do the FedEx commercial.
I don’t really say this as criticism: it’s the reason I don’t really follow Beyoncé, because I’m your old-fashioned Great-Uncle Gennexer, clinging to my olde-tymey preference for songs with choruses, but who am I to say she’s doing it wrong? She is clearly not in need of my advice. She’s got this. She can do anything she wants, and the mainstream will come to her.
And what she wants, apparently, is to give only passing notice to singability or repetition and make the most lavishly produced slam-poetry jazz of all time #1. That’s a new thing, and she’s inventing it. I may not like it, but I can appreciate it.
I didn’t dislike listening to Lemonade. It sounds great, the narrative (and it is a narrative) is confessional enough to be arresting at first listen. Beyoncé, as always, is in terrific voice and gives an incredibly versatile performance, trying out all kinds of styles and personas. She is virtuosic throughout, and of course she looks great in the videos. But once the prurient thrill of peeping on a famous couple working through such a salacious matter has gone — and I suspect it will go pretty soon — it’s hard for me to imagine wanting to come back to it again and again for years. But I’m not her demo; she didn’t make Lemonade for me. I’m the old guard, the people that want albums we can go back to a million times. I want to listen to Let it Bleed until I wear it out and then I want to go and buy another copy.
Beyoncé doesn’t give a shit about that. She’s not making music for forever, she’s making it for RIGHT FUCKING NOW. She made it for the people that have never known a world without smartphones, without total access, without the constant oppressiveness of NOW. She’s inventing something here, and it will be very interesting to see where it goes.
Not interesting to me, because I like Hooks and choruses and shit you can dance to, but you know what I mean.