If you happened to hear collective shouts of near-orgasmic adulation and delight echoing from sea to shining sea last Friday, it was because Beyonce released a new album. The screams were coming from music critics and others in media who want us to know that “Black Is King” is quite possibly the greatest artistic achievement of all time, equaled only by Beyonce’s other albums, together comprising a catalog of music so breathtaking and awe-inspiring that Beethoven, if he wasn’t deaf and also dead, would be plunged into despair upon realizing that he could never hope to produce anything as heart-wrenchingly beautiful.
The latest offering from Queen Bey — released as a visual album on Disney+ as a companion piece to last year’s abysmal “Lion King” remake, and also as a traditional album on iTunes — is, according to NPR, a “sumptuous search for divine identity” that “resonates deeply.” Critics at the New York Times were beside themselves with joy, using words like “overwhelming” and “extravaganza” and comparing Beyonce to “the rising sun.” The AV Club exclaimed that the pop album inspired by a Disney cartoon is “an unfettered celebration.” Mashable declared that Beyonce is “the only artist to exist at her level.” She is, in a word, “magical.” Phrases like “a tribute to her artistry” and “supreme black art” have been wielded by gobsmacked critics. Everyone seems to agree that “Black Is King” is a masterpiece.
Coincidentally, we were also told that her last album was a masterpiece. And the one before that. And all of the rest of them, all the way back to her first album in 2003 which was also a masterpiece. The only possible exception was her eponymous fifth album which was merely “close to a masterpiece.” Well, even the Queen has her off days.
The only thing more effusive than the praise Beyonce receives for her music is the praise she receives for simply existing. An article in W Magazine, written to defend her against charges that she doesn’t write her own music, insists that the pop star is “an exceptional human being at everything she tries.” By the way, the defense is that she doesn’t write her own music but she is “involved.” Truly it takes an exceptional woman to be involved in the song that she is singing. Another article calls Beyonce an “irreplaceable force for inspiring change.” Elsewhere she is called “the greatest artist of the decade” and, from a more timeless perspective, a “goddess.”
The point is clear. Beyonce is an extraordinary artist, an extraordinary woman, an extraordinary human, and everything she does is equally as extraordinary. This is American society’s Official Beyonce Position and dissent will not be tolerated. Those few who dare commit the unspeakable sin of failing to squeal with delight every time Beyonce does or says anything are, we are told, “racist.” Fellow singer Lana Del Ray was forced to defend herself against racism charges after offering mild criticism of Beyonce, because, according to the worshipful masses, you could not possibly have any reason to dislike any aspect of Beyonce or her music unless you simply hate all black people in general. That is the only explanation.
Or maybe not.
Let me offer another potential reason to be slightly less enthused about Beyonce than the reverent critics above: she’s just not that great. She is not a staggering artistic genius, no matter how often we are instructed to view her that way. Indeed, for better or worse, her music is rather run-of-the-mill pop fare. It is not particularly innovative and it certainly isn’t insightful. One of the most popular songs on her latest album — a jaw-dropping track and the best on the album, says Billboard — is called “Mood 4 Eva.” The lyrics are about what you’d expect from a song that uses a number in place of a word. Here’s Beyonce’s opening verse:
I know my enemy prey on me, so pray for me
Tick, tick, wait on it
I’m keepin’ down my body count
I’m finessin’ like a trap bounce, a trap bounce, yeah
‘Cause every day above ground is a blessing
I done leveled up now, view panoramic
None of my fears can’t go where I’m headed
Had to cut ’em loose, now I’m loose, break the levee, yeah
I’m ’bout to flood on ’em, flood on a sinner
The rain and thunder gon’ fall, go Mutumbo, no, no center
You can’t dim my light
This song has 14 credited writers. Admittedly, it’s practically Virgil in comparison to some of her past lyrics — “bow down b*tches, bow, bow down b*tches, bow down b*tches, bow, bow down b*tches,” from the song “Bow Down,” comes to mind — but it is very hard to see how this rises to the level of masterpiece.
You could argue that her music, especially on this most recent album, is judged as much by the accompanying visuals as by the songs themselves. Fine, but the visuals are fairly standard for modern music videos. She’s a good dancer, certainly, but even as a dancer she isn’t doing anything that other young pop divas can’t do. Michael Jackson was a genius dancer because he redefined the art form and moved in ways that seemed almost physically impossible. Beyonce isn’t doing that. She isn’t doing anything especially remarkable. She delivers a product that is, visually and audibly, a perfectly acceptable entry into an already existent genre. Her dancing and singing are good, while her lyrics, and the messages they contain, generally straddle the line between vapid and repugnant. In other words, she makes pop music. Nothing less and certainly nothing more.
I wish I could say that this attempt to turn the “Single Ladies” singer into pop’s version of Michelangelo was merely dumb and annoying. It is both of those things, of course, but it’s also more toxic than that. You can judge a culture in many ways by it’s most celebrated art. And the people within a culture will judge themselves in many ways through the same lens. Our art is the story that we tell about ourselves. It is how we grapple with the problem of existence. It is how we search for deeper truths. There is a reason why art and religion have been inextricably tied since the dawn of civilization.
Speaking of Michelangelo, the people of 16th century Italy could step into the Sistine Chapel, look up in wonder, and feel themselves and their spirits drawn into a beauty that was, and still is, truly transcendent. This is quite different from the experience modern Americans have when they listen to Beyonce sing: “Can you eat my skittles, it’s the sweetest in the middle” (from the song “Blow”, 2013). Beyonce’s music, like most pop music, is diverting and catchy at its very best. At its worst, it’s so ugly and stupid as to induce despair.
The point is not that our culture has no great art. Musicians of the last several decades have given us many authentic masterpieces, and geniuses in other mediums like film and television have produced works that will stand the test of time. But the art that we choose to elevate the highest, and praise the loudest, is the art that will influence us — and especially our children — the most, and define our era. I suppose it is appropriate that Beyonce claims that honor, for ours is an era that is loud and extravagant, but empty at is core, and not as impressive as it appears on the surface. If Beyonce is our queen, our empress, then someone has to say that the empress has no clothes (literally, much of the time).
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