Beyoncé Turns 10

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Beyoncé Turns 10


First off: Please do not get cute about the title of this blog post. The very famous singer Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter celebrated her 10th birthday in September 1991, around the same time that she joined the hip-hop rappin’ Girl’s Tyme. She is now 42 years old. She is not turning 10. But the album known as Beyoncé — the fifth solo Beyoncé full-length, the one that changed all notions of how an A-list pop record could work — came out 10 years ago today. It’s been a decade since the sudden midnight announcement that a new Beyoncé album was available for purchase. It feels like it’s been longer.

When Beyoncé arrived, it took a moment for the news to sink in. As in: What do you mean there’s a new Beyoncé album out right now? How is that possible? Beyoncé arrived six years after the digital pay-what-you-want release of Radiohead’s In Rainbows, and David Bowie had managed to secretly prepare his comeback LP The Next Day earlier that year, but the surprise album was still a relatively new concept. Beyoncé had assembled armies of massively successful pop stars and songwriters and producers in service of her grand vision. She’d enlisted the services of Jay-Z, Drake, Frank Ocean, Justin Timberlake, Timbaland, Pharrell, The-Dream, Miguel, Ryan Tedder, Sia, a whole mess of others. She’d filmed 17 discrete big-budget music videos. And she’d kept the whole endeavor secret up until the moment that it went up for sale on iTunes. It was like a magic trick that nobody else had really bothered attempting.

And it was good. The release and production of Beyoncé practically guaranteed a grand-scale critical freakout, which is exactly what happened. By and large, music critics really hate it when big albums come out in December. We’ve lovingly labored over our year-end lists for so long, and those lists have usually already run. We don’t want to put a December album on next year’s list. It’s annoying, whether we’re dealing with D’Angelo or SZA or Playboi Carti. But Beyoncé casually swept all those concerns aside. Here, we had one of the planet’s biggest pop stars returning with a fully-considered statement-piece record — an album with icy electro-freakout keyboards and pillowy zoned-out doo-wop and a Chairlift co-write and a sampled Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie disquisition into the nature of feminism. We were helpless to resist. I freaked out over Beyoncé, and most of my peers did the same.

That kind of breathless praise can become a trap. Last week, Angelica Jade Bastién wrote a great Vulture piece about Beyoncé’s Renaissance concert film, going hard on the kind of idolatry stars on Beyoncé’s level invite and maybe encourage. Bastién writes about the way Beyoncé keeps her sloganeering vague enough that people can attach their own causes to it, exploiting widespread affection to the tune of billions: “Her words reflect broadly liberal pablum meant to give the appearance of care and mean just enough that her fans can project radicalness upon her but not so much that she would ruffle anyone enough for her to lose money or be forced to stand for something… Beyoncé is a brand that stands for absolutely nothing beyond its own greatness.” Given that Beyoncé marked the moment that Beyoncé incorporated terms like “feminist” into her presentation, it’s worth asking, a decade later, whether the whole Beyoncé phenomenon has been a net positive for the cultural landscape.

Ideally, the release of Beyoncé would’ve led to an avalanche of thoughtful, considered grand-statement pop albums — the biggest stars of the genre all thinking hard about what they wanted to say. That’s not what happened. Instead, the fury around Beyoncé has had some regrettable effects. The Beyhive was already plenty active before Beyoncé, and that fan army provided a model for unhinged, supercharged online fanaticism. Earlier this year, Amazon ran Swarm, a miniseries, co-created by Donald Glover, in which a young woman’s devotion to a Beyoncé-type figure becomes so uncontainable that she goes off on a multi-state killing spree. The show presented a heightened, exaggerated world, but that level of bugged-out, destructive standom looked familiar. So that hasn’t been great. The flood of surprise albums has mostly been a drag, too. Less than a year after Beyoncé, many of us discovered that we had an unwanted, unsolicited U2 album on our phones. That hasn’t been great, either. But how much of that is the fault of Beyoncé, or Beyoncé? And what do you want out of a big pop album, anyway?

Nobody expected Beyoncé from Beyoncé. She seemed like she was slowly, gently entering the legacy-artist portion of her career. Her previous album, 2011’s 4, was probably her best to that point, and it was also her least successful. Beyoncé started 2013 by singing the national anthem at Barack Obama’s second inauguration and by giving a great Super Bowl Halftime performance — moves that artists make when they’re shoring up their own legendary status, not when they’re at the peak of their vitality. Later that year, she released a self-mythologizing HBO documentary that nobody liked, covered Amy Winehouse on the Great Gatsby soundtrack, and voiced a role in the deeply forgettable animated movie Epic. Her husband Jay-Z released his shittier-than-shit album Magna Carta Holy Grail as a Samsung cross-promotion. This mega-famous couple, both of whom had been great artists once upon a time, were on their way to becoming merely celebrity tycoons. They are celebrity tycoons now, but Beyoncé cut hard against all of that. It suggested that a celebrity tycoon could still be a vital artist.

Beyoncé doesn’t exactly sound radical now, but it sure seemed audacious at the time. Beyoncé had access to any big-deal musical professional that she might want to work with, and she put many of them to work. But her main collaborator was Boots, a previously-unknown producer who’d just signed with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation management company. Boots hasn’t exactly become the big name that I thought he’d be after Beyoncé, but he’s quietly put in work on records from people like Run The Jewels, FKA twigs, and Phantogram. (I had dinner with Boots and a few other people once. He was quiet.) The Beyoncé credits were crowded with big names, but there’s a real aesthetic at work through the whole thing — jagged, rhythmic, spare. There are some truly sharp ideas and decisions on the record — the short transition pieces between songs, the icy beeps and chopped-up shards of guitar, the sheets of artfully arranged noise that never stop it from working as pop. Despite all these other names and voices crowding the frame, it sounds like a massive pop star and an exploratory unknown producer holing up together.

When Beyoncé was new, I was struck by its moments of rupture, like the quasi-political grandstanding of “Flawless” or the way that she ends the album with two tender ballads — one dedicated to the baby that she lost to miscarriage and the other directed at Blue Ivy, the baby who lived. A decade on, the narrative of Beyoncé is less important to me. What I love is the bangers. “Blow.” “Partition.” “XO.” “Flawless” again. The bits where Beyoncé slides into quasi-rapping, or the ones where she goes nuts with the falsetto. Certain phrases on Beyoncé almost immediately entered the cultural lexicon and become tiresome. (A Brooklyn band called Surfbort has existed since 2015.) But those phrases wouldn’t have lingered if they hadn’t been attached to supremely catchy pop songs. I’ve been listening to Beyoncé a whole lot to write this piece, and that’s been an extremely pleasurable pursuit. So maybe the Beyoncé brand really does stand for nothing but its own greatness. But maybe greatness is its own reward.

Beyoncé is a time-and-place album. It came out at the intersection of a few different technological movements. Beyoncé could release the whole album online, all at once, because 2013 was essentially the moment that physical media became obsolete. She could sell the whole thing as a $16 package on iTunes — with videos included, the same price that you might pay for a CD in 1996 — because she kept the album off of Spotify, back in the moment when that was still a viable strategy. She didn’t have to release an advance single because she was already famous enough that she knew the world would listen to the whole thing and that the big hit — “Drunk In Love,” in this case — would emerge relatively organically. Beyoncé is an artistic statement that maximized its own profit. Is that a contradiction? Should that be a contradiction? Is Beyoncé’s business acumen praiseworthy or sinister? Or somehow both? I’ve thought hard about all these questions, and I don’t really have an answer. But none of those questions has ever bothered me enough that I won’t play “Partition” at excessive volumes whenever I get the chance.

It’s not really fun to pile more praise at the feet of the most extravagantly praised people on the planet. The cult of personality surrounding pop stars has become an uncomfortable fact of circa-2023 life. I love Taylor Swift, and I’m also sick of hearing about Taylor Swift. Beyoncé is in that category, too. A decade after Beyoncé, her greatness can sometimes feel vaguely oppressive, her actual humanity ever more remote. Hero narratives are exhausting and simplistic, whether those narratives are applied to politicians or writers or pop stars. If you idolize someone enough, you’re always at the risk of being disappointed. Beyoncé is a profit-motivated corporate megalith who sometimes presents herself as an underdog while continuing to conquer. But she makes great fucking records. Beyoncé? That’s a great fucking record. Happy b’day.

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