Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Avant-Garde Aesthetics, and Music Video: “The Past and the Future Merge to Meet Us Here”
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Beyoncé’s Lemonade is a 56-minute film composed of twelve music videos with interludes comprised of spoken-word poetry, concrete sound, and visual tableaux. Lemonade focuses on difficulties with marriage and monogamy; the popular press has described it as a commentary on Beyoncé’s marriage to Jay-Z. But it is equally about African American history. It’s a call to action.
I’ll focus on three key aspects. First, Lemonade draws viewers in. While Beyoncé appears in every music video and many of the interludes, the film never devolves into autobiography. Instead it incorporates its viewers as well as the performers depicted in the frame and heard on the soundtrack. Second, Lemonade encourages the listener-viewer to make sense of a complex whole. Its elaborate structure demands we discover sonic and visual connections across sections. Finally, by drawing on music-video and avant-garde aesthetics, Lemonade showcases multiple story lines and strands simultaneously.
Two overlapping genres—music video and experimental film—provide Lemonade with a means to hold the past, present, and future together. Besides the narrative of Beyoncé’s marriage (expressing anger, fear, grief, reconciliation and reintegration), Lemonade develops historical strands about Africa, the Middle Passage, slavery, reconstruction, lynching, neo-liberalism and the disinvestment of black neighborhoods at the beginning of the 1970s, Hurricane Katrina, and the police murders of African-Americans. Lemonade embodies opposites: love and hate, engagement and alienation, forgiveness and revenge.
All of Lemonade’s parameters—from sound effects to cinematography—work to incorporate an ever-widening community. But it’s Lemonade’s spoken-word poetry that directs us to listen carefully. Beyoncé hails imagined others off screen: “Pray I catch you whispering, I pray you catch me listening.” Beyoncé’s carefully rendered, wide ranging personas begin to suggest not only a self-portrait, but also feelings and modes of comportment we may share.
Bad-ass in the style of 1970s funk singers like Betty Davis, “Don’t Hurt Yourself” telegraphs Beyoncé’s sentiments through highly marked physical gestures. Her sternum is rigid beneath a thick, open-shouldered fur coat. Her flesh, wrapped tight under a bodysuit, is complemented by skin oiled like a prizefighter’s, hair coiled tight, and lips pulled back to a snarl. Slowly taking two steps, Beyoncé gathers herself for this role. With more power than any male rock-and-roller, she slams her face into the camera: “Who the fuck do you think I am / You ain’t married to no average bitch, boy.”
“Sorry” shows Beyoncé as a clubber in search of men to party with. Here she’s placed at a greater distance, body springy, elbows more relaxed, with a higher-pitched, feminized, playful singing. The women seated in rows alongside her undulate, bobbing back and forth, distributing out her gestures.
In “Six Inch,” Beyoncé appears as a spaghetti-western character. Dressed in low-cut crinoline and lace and a wide-brimmed hat, she sings in her lowest register, eyes reddened and furtive, lips chapped. The frame is tinted a deep red. Conversely, “Don’t Hurt Yourself” was a blue-teal-gray while “Sorry” was in black and white. Cruising through a working-poor neighborhood late at night, Beyoncé peers out from a limo. She seems to glide on the exhale.
In the avant-garde interludes, Beyoncé speaks softly and intimately into the microphone. Her words chime with earlier instances and get picked up by later ones. The interstitial tableaux often show Southern women in Victorian, gothic dresses. What is the status of these mysterious figures? Is Beyoncé an incarnation of a ghost we’ve seen earlier? Does the scarred woman with the “dream big” tattoo represent her somehow? Are these figures from the past or the present?
Lemonade has an arch structure we might represent as ABCBA. It’s unclear which half generates the other: the first focuses on the personal, the latter on community. This uncertainty creates a dreamlike effect. The mirrored pairs, described from the film’s center out, include “Sorrow” and “Love Drought,” with their glistening synths and light, busy percussion in the high register. “Don’t Hurt Yourself” and “Freedom” share blues- and gospel-influenced riffs. “Hold On” and “All Night” connect through ska: both have reverby guitars on the off-beats and heavy bass on the strong beats.
The songs’ timbral effects color the image. The cymbals and off-beat wood blocks of “Hold On” bind to Beyoncé smashing windows with a baseball bat. In “Love Drought,” the sun glistens on the water, which brings out the sparkly digital synths. “Don’t Hurt Yourself” includes an abrasive electric guitar that seems to mesh with the soot of the underground parking lot. These connections help distribute sound into the spaces we see. Sweeping sound-collages and sonic builds between and within songs (and interludes) evoke a sense of passage.
Music videos can reflect a song’s rhythmic layers. In Lemonade, visual details like dappled lights, smoke, fire and glistening light speak to the music’s micro-rhythms. The music’s pulse connects with performers promenading through water, riding horseback, and driving around in cars, and with the camera winding through tunnels. Motionless figures reflect the music’s slowest rhythms. The plantation manor’s chairs and benches, now redistributed to an underground basement and slave cabins, cleave to the long drones in the bass.
As Holly Rogers, Lisa Perrott, and I argue in “Beyoncé’s Lemonade: She Dreams in Both Worlds,” an experienced listener-viewer can move across the film’s patterns, forging connections across media—from text to image to music. Music videos can develop several visual and aural threads, each containing motifs and meanings. Because each thread is connected to distinct musical gestures, timbres, and song sections, none needs to win out or be annihilated.
Like many music videos, Lemonade shimmers: history and current events remain co-present. As Beyoncé says, “The past, and the future merge to meet us here.”
Carol Vernallis is a research affiliate at Stanford University. She’s the author of Experiencing Music Video: Aesthetics and Cultural Context (Columbia University Press, 2004), and Unruly Media: YouTube, Music Video, and the New Digital Cinema (Oxford University Press, 2013).
See Lisa Perrott, Holly Rogers and Carol Vernallis, “Beyoncé’s Lemonade: She Dreams in Both Worlds” (Film International Online, June 2, 2016). See also Kevin Ball, “Beyoncé’s ‘Formation’” in Film Criticism, Volume 40, Issue 3, 2016. Ball notes the ways “ambivalences forge interpretative tributaries into the song and its video.”