Beyoncé: Pop meets politics
Her latest album, 'Lemonade', mixes the personal and political, drawing on feminism and black activism. FT pop critic Ludovic Hunter-Tilney talks to FT arts journalist Griselda Murray Brown about Beyoncé’s live performance and artistic evolution
Produced by Griselda Murray Brown. Filmed by Nicola Stansfield. Edited by Petros Gioumpasis. Images from Getty, Associated Press and Reuters, and footage of 'Lemonade' courtesy of Columbia Records and Tidal.
BEYONCE (SINGING): My daddy Alabama, momma Louisiana. You mix that negro with that Creole, make a Texas bama.
GRISELDA MURRAY BROWN: Queen B to her fans, Beyonce is one of the world's most successful artists. Her latest album, "Lemonade," mixes the personal and political. Here, her anger at the rumoured betrayal of her husband, Jay Z, meets a wider anger that chimes with feminist politics and the Black Lives Matter movement. Beyonce is currently touring, and she played her first UK dates in Sunderland last night. Our pop critic, Ludovic Hunter-Tilney, was there. Ludovic, you called "Lemonade" a work dazzling drama. Could you say the same about the show last night?
LUDOVIC HUNTER-TILNEY: The show, which was the first in first in the European leg of her "Formation" world tour, yes, it was. It was sort of a high production value big stadium number, which was quite dazzling in its use of drama, quite different from the album. The album she describes, which she released as a surprise release, and described it as a visual album.
GRISELDA MURRAY BROWN: Yeah.
LUDOVIC HUNTER-TILNEY: So each track came with films which were parts of it, almost as if it was like a sort of act of musical theatre, but a recorded version of that. The stadium show is a bit more old fashioned. It's a bit more of a sort of old fashioned Las Vegas style big number. It doesn't quite have the edge of the album itself, I would say.
GRISELDA MURRAY BROWN: Does it preserve the narrative of "Lemonade?" I mean, you have this kind of woman scorned to kind of forgiveness and reconciliation. Did her live show kind of keep to that narrative?
LUDOVIC HUNTER-TILNEY: That was the essential arc of it. It opened with "Formation," the lead single from "Lemonade," which is the one that she debuted at the Super Bowl in February, which caused a great stir with its extremely startling intervention in the whole Black Lives Matter activism, with dancers wearing afros, and such like being in front of a huge television audience of Americans.
Well, I mean, she opens with that song on the tour as well, but there are no sort of dancers dressed as Black Panthers. I mean, she ended it with a black power salute. The song itself is a very sort of striking song about black identity in the south and racism. But having raised that, the show then moves onto the other side of "Lemonade" that you just mentioned, the side which is to do with the fury of a woman scorned, and which has brought about lots of scuttlebutt really about the state of her marriage to Jay Z.
GRISELDA MURRAY BROWN: I think Beyonce's feminism is quite interesting. I mean, she's talking about Black Lives Matter, and particularly black women, one of the most overlooked groups in America. And some feminists have said that this is a kind of sexualised, kind of commodified feminism. But for many she's sort of-- for many of her younger fans this is their introduction to feminism, really. I mean, what do you what do you make of the way she's handled this as a subject?
LUDOVIC HUNTER-TILNEY: Well, onstage, I mean, she projects this sort of great image of female solidarity. That theme of rivalry between women over men in the album is framed and ultimately trumped by a sort of message of female solidarity, and so much as she has--
GRISELDA MURRAY BROWN: And of sisterhood.
LUDOVIC HUNTER-TILNEY: Yes, sisterhood. She has 14 as a retinue, 14 dancers. She has a backing band who are all women. She has backing singers who are all women. The only men who are allowed on stage for this show in a sort of a neat reversal of the usual domestic stereotypes were the men who are mopping the Sunderland Rainwater off stage before she came on.
GRISELDA MURRAY BROWN: A nice symbol of kind of girl power.
LUDOVIC HUNTER-TILNEY: Completely. And also, the audience were majority women. You know, lots of young women basically going to-- going to see it. My neighbour turned to me and said, you know, asked me what I was doing with my notepad. And said, do you like Beyonce? With some sort of just like, you know, surprise.
GRISELDA MURRAY BROWN: Disbelief, yeah.
LUDOVIC HUNTER-TILNEY: You know, someone in possession of a Y chromosome should be there to enjoy that. So yes, I mean, it's a really-- it is a very powerful and populist way of bringing feminism out. It is problematised by the sort of extremely skimpy outfits.
GRISELDA MURRAY BROWN: Yeah, I think that there's definitely a fine line between sexualised objectified women and sexually empowered women. I personally feel that actually what Beyonce is doing now is quite different from what she did in the days of kind of put a ring on it, which is not a particularly kind of feminist sentiment. And now she's a sort of older woman. She's a wife. And she's a mother. And she's a kind of-- she's a sexual being. The album is quite explicit actually. And I think maybe there's a kind of reclaiming of sexual identity and sexual politics there. It's trying to happen.
LUDOVIC HUNTER-TILNEY: Yes, I think that's right. I think there's the idea of being able to be these different personalities within one person, that you're not just going to be a mother, and not the lover and all of these things. As you mentioned, coming from the sort of parts of the American population which is sort of among the most oppressed, black women. I mean, is also among the most sexually objectified too. And so the ways in which you can take ownership of that and turn it around, much as Madonna did although for white women all those many years ago. You know, you can see how it's in that tradition. It is something-- there is something which is not purely about sort of putting a show on for the male gaze. And I suppose actually they weren't, you know, obviously, that many men there either.
GRISELDA MURRAY BROWN: To gaze. No, ownership seems to me a very important concept here, ownership of one's body, ownership of kind of material possessions, ownership of houses, all of that kind of Katrina, the politics that are happening there. But I want to ask you also about kind of musically this is quite an interesting album. It's sort of mixing genres. It's not sort of straight R&B.
GRISELDA MURRAY BROWN: It's the album I like most. I think it's her most sort of complete album, in terms of-- she has always had lots of really great singles and songs. But I mean, this particular album is the one which I've taken most satisfaction with her overall work. I think it was thought through and considered. It's got lots of different types of songs. I mean, it goes from or sort of where wild Amazonian hard rock [? climax ?] on the record, has Jack White on it. It goes from that to sort of much more gentle ones, and then also sort of textured R&B. And it's-- and "Formation," the lead single, has got this great sort of very minimalist hook, which really, like a siren, a call to action. So the music is very satisfying. I think there is also a side to her which-- I mean, it's the mercenary side to her, which when she was singing, you know, she would go and sing them, the big emotive ballads. She'd often go off to the VIP areas and serenade those who had spent most money on their ticket. She'd give him this great display of feeling.
GRISELDA MURRAY BROWN: There's Beyonce the business.
LUDOVIC HUNTER-TILNEY: There's Beyonce the business. But there is the daring side to her. And the two do go together. And the daring side in the live show means that she doesn't just play lots of big hits all up at the top. She does devote it to the album. The big hits come later. You know, it is sort of-- it's a bold staging, albeit in a sort of very big Las Vegas sort of way.
GRISELDA MURRAY BROWN: Yeah, I mean, I think she's she's a commercial artist. She sells merchandise. She's-- the album is streamed on Jay Zs Tidal streaming service. There's definitely a kind of-- there's a business element written into the whole thing. But I think I agree. She is she's an exciting artist, and she's evolving in a way that I think is interesting.
LUDOVIC HUNTER-TILNEY: Definitely. She's-- and the way that she manages to sort of translate this to really a quite different setting, Sunderland on a rainy evening, feels really quite a long way from this sort of subject that "Formation" is about, it's about her, her upbringing in Texas. You know, and it's just like, there's close to 50,000 people who are really responding to it. It's really very, you know, it's inspiring, really.
GRISELDA MURRAY BROWN: Yeah. Great. Well, on that note, I think we'll leave it there. Thank you, Ludovic.
LUDOVIC HUNTER-TILNEY: Thank you, Griselda.