How not to listen to Lemonade: music criticism and epistemic violence
With the premier last month of Lemonade, her second visual album, Beyoncé didn’t make the world stop so much as she make it revolve: around her, around her work, around black women. For all of the limitations of pop music as a medium (it’s inherently capitalist, for one) and Lemonade’s various feminist strategies (“Formation,” with its “Black Bill Gates” language, can be heard as a black parallel public to white corporate feminism), the album nevertheless re-centered mainstream media attention on black women’s cultural and creative work.
As the conversation about Lemonade revolved around black women and black feminism, two white men pop critics writing for major publications responded with “So What About The Music?” articles. The description to Carl Wilson’s Slate piece asks “But how is it as strictly music?,” and Kevin Fallon’s Daily Beast piece asks both “But is the music any good?” in the title and “But is the music worth listening to?” in the dec. Each time, the “but” sounds like the antecedent to its implied mansplainy consequent “actually…” And just as “but actually” recenters men as authorities and experts, these three questions decenter features prioritized in black women’s pop performance traditions, and in Lemonade itself. As posed in these two articles, the “so what about the music?” question frames “music” so narrowly that it both obscures or at best trivializes what the album does musically. Wilson and Fallon’s essays are good examples of how not to listen to Lemonade.
I want to read Wilson and Fallon carefully so we can think about when this question makes for both technically correct and ethically/politically responsible theory and criticism, and when it makes for technically incorrect and ethically/politically irresponsible theory and criticism. My aim here isn’t to argue that Wilson and Fallon are bad people. My focus is the definition or concept of “music” that’s at the heart of the method they use in these two articles (and methods are bigger than individual writers). In more academic terms, I’m asking about research ethics. If, as Wilson’s and Fallon’s articles prove, the “so what about the music?” question can be a power move that establishes the critic’s or theorist’s authority, how can we–especially the mainstream we–ask about the music parts of pop music without making that power move?
Firstly, both articles apply fairly conventional European fine art aesthetics to the album. Wilson invokes pre-Enlightenment European aesthetics to argue that the “reality show aspect” of the album is somehow aesthetically inconsistent with great pop music. Prior to the 17th century, it was commonly thought that the status of a work’s form or medium ought to correspond to the status of its representational content: painting, the most highly regarded art form, should have subject matter of equal stature–gods and royalty. Wilson’s claim that “the other distraction is the way that the album’s central suite of music interacts with tabloid-style gossip (and a certain elevator video clip) about Beyoncé and her husband Jay Z” echoes that centuries-old sentiment, a sentiment which is about as alien to Lemonade’s aesthetic as, well, Boethius is.
Fallon begins his article with a genuflection to Prince (as does Wilson), scrunches its nose at the gossipy lyrical and narrative content, and then twice scoffs at the very idea of a visual album, “whatever that is,” as though we in the West don’t have precedents for this sort of Gesamtkunstwerky (the total artwork combining music, visuals, and lyrics) thing going back to Wagner and the Florentine Camerata (the collective attributed with inventing opera in the 17th century). He does talk more extensively about the sounds and music than Wilson does, but given the rapid turnaround he also faced, there’s not a lot of close listening to specific musical figures, performances, or compositional techniques, mostly just a survey of the different genres on the album.
Wilson says that the cheating story detracts from the album’s musical quality because it’s an unoriginal narrative:
a drama of jealousy, betrayal, and reconciliation, one of the most ancient and common of human experiences, and of songwriting fodder…that issue of thematic freshness may render some of the songs here less distinctive and invigorating than Beyoncé was.
I find this an odd criticism to level at a pop album, or even an artwork. Nobody would say that West Side Story or Romeo & Juliet were aesthetically diminished because they recycled that tired old theme of jealousy, betrayal, and (failed) reconciliation. Moreover, as Angela Davis argued in Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, these themes of jealousy, betrayal, and reconciliation are the foundation of black feminist pop music aesthetics in a personal-is-political kind of way. Both articles force a contextually incorrect definition of “politics” onto the album, one which sees the most intimate details of relationships, sex, and kinship as merely personal and apolitical. Fallon, for example, says “there’s no doubt that the music on the album is far more personal than it is political.” Both critics fail to consider it in terms established in black women’s pop performance traditions.
Even in Wilson’s attempt to focus strictly on the music, he spends most of the time talking about visuals and lyrics. He hears a wide range of sonic references in Lemonade, from Dolly Parton to Donna Summer to the Lomax recordings to calypso. But he thinks this makes it sound derivative: “as an aural album, Lemonade is a little less fascinatingly singular and eccentric than Beyoncé” (Wilson). Fallon makes an almost identical remark in his article: “Lemonade doesn’t hurl itself toward any genre in a statement of artistry. Instead it masters… um, all of them, but in turn doesn’t make the same powerful statement of Beyoncé’s artistic mission, like her last album did.” Contrast this with the way Jonathan Shecter talks about Diplo’s post-genre eclecticism as “fresh and cutting-edge,” part of an “ongoing artistic evolution.” As philosopher Christine Battersby has argued, the habit of thinking that flexibility is a sign of innovation when attributed to white men, but a sign of regression when attributed to anyone else, is a habit that goes back to the 19th century. It’s not surprising that Beyoncé gets dinged for the same thing that garners Diplo praise: in her case, what Fallon calls “the most daringly genre-hopping music she’s ever produced” is evidence of unoriginality, whereas in Diplo’s case post-genre eclecticism is evidence of his ability to distinctively transcend provincialism. Even when Wilson’s article does manage to talk about sounds and music, it trivializes Beyoncé’s other artistic achievements on the album.
Both articles rely on some gendered and racialized interpretive habits to address the song’s aesthetic value, lyrical content, and Beyoncé’s artistry. But what about their discussion of the music?
These same racialized, gendered habits tune Wilson and Fallon’s listening and mask the sonic dimensions of Lemonade that don’t fit their narrow concept of music. Both critics make a conceptual move that separates musical practice from black feminist practice. Fallon uses some parentheses and a “but…?” question to put rhetorical and grammatical space between Lemonade’s black femininity and its musical and sonic features: “(By the way, it’s powerful, and feminist, and unapologetically black, and transfixing, and gorgeous, and assured, and weird, and confusing, and dumb, and groundbreaking.) But hey: Is the music any good?” This framing defines “the music” as something distinct and independent of the album’s black femininity, as though black women’s and black feminist musical traditions didn’t infuse the album’s music…or, to the extent they do, they don’t count as “music.”
Wilson makes an identical move. Following the white liberal feminist aesthetics that influence lots of contemporary post-feminist pop, Wilson’s piece locates treats the black feminist message primarily in the video. “In video form…it’s more evident that [Lemonade] is equally the cyclical story of generations of black women dealing with men and balancing their struggle for R-E-S-P-E-C-T (as well as S-E-X) against the violations and injustices of race and gender.” He sees the politics in the visuals, but doesn’t consider the sounds as having anything to say or do about that story and that struggle.
This approach isn’t limited to well-meaning but ignorant white men pop critics: even bell hooks’ now (in)famous essay on Lemonade looks at but doesn’t listen for its politics. She argues that it is a “visual extravaganza” whose “radical repositioning of black female images does not truly overshadow or change conventional sexist constructions of black female identity.” Locating the politics entirely in Lemonade’s visuals, hooks’s essay treats black feminism as something contested solely in terms of images. (And divorcing the images from the sounds fails to consider the fact that the sounds impact how viewers interpret what they see.)
This is the wrong method to use for thinking about Lemonade and Beyoncé’s work as a whole (and pop music in general). Sounds on this album don’t operate independently of black femininity, black women’s performance traditions, or individual artists’ black feminist politics. On the one hand, thinking with Daphne Brooks and Regina Bradley, it’s more accurate to say that Beyoncé’s sound game has generally led the way and been more politically cutting-edge than her visual game. On the other hand, sound can also be what does the heavy lifting for patriarchy and other systems of domination, as I argue here. Separating the music itself out from the political content misrepresents what music is and how it works. And it is a particularly gendered misrepresentation: critics are not so eager to separate Kendrick’s sounds from his politics. In both white and black philosophical traditions, dominant concepts of politics and the political are normatively masculine (just think about the gendered public/private distinction, for example), so from these perspectives feminine and feminized sounds don’t feel or seem “political.”
But in these two cases the divorce between music and politics is also what lets white men pop critics have authority over black feminist music. If they can distill Lemonade down to its “solely musical” aspects, then they can plausibly present themselves as experts over generic, depoliticized sound, sounds disconnected from knowledges and values tied to particular lived experiences and performance traditions. Problem is, in the same way that there is no generic ‘person’ without a race or a gender, there is no generic, depoliticized sound. As Jennifer Stoever has argued, even though Western modernity’s occularcentric epistemology obscures the sonic dimensions of white supremacist patriarchy and the subaltern knowledges developed under it, sounds nevertheless work politically. Digging deep into the music on Lemonade or any other pop song does not involve abstracting the music away from every other aspect of the work and its conditions of production. Digging deep into the music part of pop music means digging deeper into these factors, too.
When Regina Bradley, Dream Hampton, Laur M. Jackson, Zandria Robinson, and Joan Morgan talk about how Lemonade makes them feel, what affects and knowledges and emotions it communicates, they are talking about the music–they just work in a tradition that understands music as something other than ‘the music itself’ (that is, they don’t think music is abstracted away from visual and cultural elements, from structures of feeling common to black women with shared histories and phenomenological life-worlds). As I have tried to show in my own work, the sounds and musical performance are central to Beyoncé and Rihanna’s work because they engage traditions of black women’s and black feminist knowledges. Aesthetic practices develop and emerge as types of implicit (i.e., non-propositional or non-verbal) knowledge, knowledge created in response to lived experiences in a particular social location. Aesthetic practices can communicate and perform knowledges that reinforce systems of domination, and they can also communicate and perform subordinate knowledges that map out strategies for survival amid domination. Dominant institutions (like the music industry) and people from dominant groups (like Iggy Azalea or Eric Clapton) separate the aesthetic practice from the implicit knowledges that make it meaningful, and thus neutralize those knowledges and make the aesthetic practice fungible and co-optable. Talking about “the music itself” or “solely music” does the same thing: it is a form of what philosophers call epistemic violence.
So, asking “but what about the music?” is a way to dig into those implicit knowledges to show where much of this epistemic work is happening. And that’s good analysis that isn’t (necessarily) epistemically violent. It demonstrates what Stoever calls “an ethical responsibility to hear African American cultural production with…assumptions about value, agency and meaning” (31) that are appropriate to them. But you can also ask “but what about the music?” in a way that abstracts away from these implicit knowledges. That’s what Wilson’s and Fallon’s pieces do, and that’s why they’re both epistemically violent and objectively poor methods of musical interpretation. But we can and do better when we write about and theorize the music part of pop music. And, to riff on Mariana Ortega’s argument in her article on the type of epistemic violence she calls “loving, knowing ignorance,” doing better means listening to and with black women, black women’s music, and black feminist aesthetics. You can’t divorce music or listening from politics; listening better can and will follow from practicing more just politics.
Robin James is Associate Professor of Philosophy at UNC Charlotte. She is author of two books: Resilience & Melancholy: pop music, feminism, and neoliberalism, published by Zer0 books last year, and The Conjectural Body: gender, race and the philosophy of music was published by Lexington Books in 2010. Her work on feminism, race, contemporary continental philosophy, pop music, and sound studies has appeared in The New Inquiry, Hypatia, differences, Contemporary Aesthetics, and the Journal of Popular Music Studies. She is also a digital sound artist and musician. She blogs at its-her-factory.com and is a regular contributor to Cyborgology.
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