Beyoncé is an international pop-music superstar and certified cultural phenomenon, not an alchemist with otherworldly powers. But this 20-time Grammy Award winner’s ability to turn almost anything she sets her sights on into pure gold would surely have inspired envy and admiration from Sir Isaac Newton, Rudolph Steiner and other noted alchemy champions through the ages.
Witness “Lemonade,” her chart-topping new “visual album,” and her ongoing Formation World Tour, which includes a sold-out show here tonight at Qualcomm Stadium.
“Lemonade” is her sixth consecutive studio album - the first was her 2003 solo debut, “Dangerously in Love” - to enter the national Billboard sales charts at No. 1, an unprecedented feat by any artist in any music genre. In its first week of release, the album sold 485,000 copies and had a dizzying 115 million streams, while songs from “Lemonade” sold an additional 908,000 copies.
But that’s just the tip of this golden musical lemon for the woman born Beyoncé Giselle Knowles. Fondly revered by millions of fans as Queen Bey, she inspires a rare devotion among her fans, whose ranks include fellow vocal star Adele.
“Beyoncé is the most inspiring person I’ve ever had the pleasure of worshipping,” the English singer recently declared on social media. “Her talent, beauty, grace and work ethic are all in a league of their own.”
Since leaving the group Destiny’s Child to launch her solo career a decade ago, Beyoncé has become a global heroine and an iconic role model for many. In the process, she has simultaneously embodied multiple roles and identities. They include: feminist and sex symbol; independent woman and faithful wife; devoted mother and fabulously wealthy business magnate; proud survivor and unabashed champion of racial pride and diversity.
All of these are evident, in varying degrees, on “Lemonade,” her second consecutive “visual album,” which she unveiled with a one-hour HBO special last month. It’s also her second consecutive “surprise album,” although fans have been expecting its release ever since she announced her Formation tour during the Super Bowl halftime show in February.
Her first “visual album,” 2013’s “Beyoncé,” seemed like a collection of music videos, in which the visuals (read: videos for each song) took precedence over the music. This time around, she hasn’t entirely flipped that equation, but she has leveled the playing field so that her new songs can just as effectively stand on their own.
Beyoncé has also expanded her musical palette on “Lemonade,” collaborating with Kendrick Lamar one moment and Jack White the next, sampling a classic Led Zeppelin drum part on “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” then delivering a stone-cold country song on “Daddy Lessons.”
Firestorm of controversy
In the few weeks since its April 23 release, “Lemonade” has fueled enormous controversy on social media, based largely on how many of its 12 songs appear to chronicle the alleged infidelities of Beyoncé's famous husband, Jay Z. The album has also fueled a surge in sales for at least two lemonade companies, Natalie’s Orchid Island Juice and Uncle Matt’s Juice, according to reports in Business Insider and the Huffington Post.
Never mind that neither company is named or referred to on Beyoncé's new album; the mere connection to “Lemonade’s” title has paid off handsomely for them. Or, as Natalie’s Orchid Island Juice namesake and marketing director Natalie Sexton told the Huffington Post last week: “People are drinking lemonade and posting pictures with #Beyoncé. You can’t drink lemonade these days without thinking of her.”
With or without real or figurative lemonade, or philandering by her husband, a sizable number of people can’t do much of anything without thinking of Beyoncé. At 34, she appears to have handily supplanted Taylor Swift, Madonna, Janet Jackson and Lady Gaga as the most influential current female artist in pop music. And, at least for now, she seems to stand alone as pop music’s most celebrated wronged woman.
Never mind that there’s no evidence Jay Z has actually cheated on Beyoncé. Or that he enthusiastically attended her tour-opening April 27 concert in Miami, where she dedicated her adoring 2009 power-ballad, “Halo,” to “my beautiful husband, I love you so much.”
Because the sheer power of Beyoncé's confessional (or apparently confessional) new songs and their spitfire lyrics have convinced myriad fans that she has been betrayed. A single reference to one of her husband’s alleged flings in the song “Sorry” - “You better call Becky with the good hair” - created mass online hysteria, as indignant fans sought to identify and excoriate “the other woman.” (“Becky,” for the record, is an unflattering term used to describe white women who are demeaning to African-American women).
Blurring fantasy and reality
Like few others in pop music, Beyoncé is able to consistently blur the lines between fantasy and reality with masterful ease, making her artfully crafted songs seem autobiographical. By doing so, she achieves an intimate relationship and sense of community with her intensely devoted followers, while revealing little to nothing about her private life with her husband and their 4-year-old daughter, Blue Ivy.
That few of Beyoncé's fans have any direct access to her life - apart from that provided through her videos, albums, concerts and very carefully orchestrated promotional campaigns and media coverage - is a testament to her marketing savvy. Forbes magazine last year estimated her worth at $250 million.
Packwood Entertainment, Beyoncé's eight-year-old company, produces movies, TV specials and music videos. Her newest ventures include Ivy Park, a chic line of women’s athletic clothing, and a new record label to showcase young artists she is mentoring. Her example of how to live in, and out of, the spotlight should be instructive for her proteges.
When controversy erupted around Beyoncé, as it did after her 2016 Super Bowl halftime show performance of “Formation” - which some viewers and conservative media pundits blasted for its purported condoning of violence against police and use of Black Panther-inspired imagery - she wisely stayed out of the fray. Likewise, when her video for “Formation” drew equally harsh criticism.
Two months later, in an interview in the May issue of Elle magazine, Beyoncé addressed the issue.
“I’m an artist and I think the most powerful art is usually misunderstood,” she said. “But anyone who perceives my message as anti-police is completely mistaken. I have so much admiration and respect for officers and the families of officers who sacrifice themselves to keep us safe. But let’s be clear: I am against police brutality and injustice. Those are two separate things.”
Duality and nuance are not common characteristics in pop music, music videos or - for that matter - Super Bowl halftime shows.
But duality is precisely what fuels the best songs on “Lemonade.” That Beyoncé presents this in an enticing musical (and visual album) package may not be a feat of alchemy. But in a pop-music world too long dominated by empty images and superficial messages, it comes close enough to striking gold.