As we noted on Twitter: The sheer number of iron-clad NDAs that people had to sign, in order to rehearse this piece without a peep about her pregnancy leaking before Feb. 1, is astonishing to imagine. Part of me hopes the pre-pregnancy storyboards just involved her coming out in sweatpants and singing a medley of Adele songs before being all, “IS THAT WHAT YOU WANTED, VOTERS?” before dropping the mic.
By the time this publishes, even at the early West Coast hour, I suspect the Internet will be thick with think pieces about Lemonade and “Formation” losing two Grammys to Adele’s “Hello” and 25. Even Adele seemed shocked and disappointed, to the point where she allegedly broke her Grammy in half to split it with Bey. (As of this writing, there was already some backlash over whether Adele’s on-stage address of Beyonce was tokenism; I found a Twitter perspective on her reference to what the album meant “to [her] black friends” which anchored that casual usage in UK/US cultural differences, but the user has taken her account private. Our friend The Madam Editor had noted something similar on her timeline — in essence, that “black friends” is not dismissive there the way it’s often inferred to be here, and that it should be okay for Adele to acknowledge that the album was made for black women and spoke to them on a level that transcends the experience white people may have had with it.)
Grammy Night loves to churn out winners that underscore its Lite FM sensibilities; excepting Beck’s win in 2015 (over, yes, Beyonce among others), the last decade or so of “Album of the Year” winners is littered with Mumfords and Swiftys and U2. Beyonce, in fact, has never won that particular award. In fact, other than Ray Charles’s posthumous 2005 Grammy for an album of duets and Herbie Hancock’s win in 2008 — for a Joni Mitchell tribute record, of all things — the last African-American artist to win “Album of the Year” was OutKast in 2004, for an album that, like Norah Jones’s the year before it, benefited from catchy and inescapable singles that dominated the airwaves. Now, stronger and better voices than mine will do this topic proper justice; my perspective can only be myopic, at best, and I cannot and do not presume to think my understanding of this scenario is absolute. But it’s undeniable that the elephant in the room is whether Lemonade was punished not just for being political, but for being so deeply grounded in race and refusing to play to the peanut gallery.
Beyonce is a polarizing person. Some people aren’t into her; some people worship her. Some people just like to rock out to her on the treadmill, or might like her better were it not for the force of the global obsession, or simply don’t think about her at all. Still others fall into any one of a hundred other Bey buckets, or wish they could reshape her to fit into the box of their choosing. There are infinite levels of Beyonce. But whether you want her to dress better or tone it down or turn it up, love her music or leave it, the scope of Beyonce’s influence is undeniable. And what she means to an entire community — “community” is actually too small a word — cannot be underplayed. When Beyonce won earlier in the night for Best Urban/Contemporary Album, a category by the way whose title sure seems like a dated and poor race-based filing system, Beyonce said:
“My intention for the film and album was to create a body of work that would give voice to our pain, our struggles, our darkness and our history. To confront issues that make us uncomfortable. It’s important to me to show images to my children that reflect their beauty, so that they can grow up in a world where they can look in a mirror—first to their own families as well as the news, the Super Bowl, the Olympics, the White House, and the Grammys—and see themselves and have no doubt that they’re beautiful, intelligent, and capable. This is something I want for every child of every race, and I feel it’s vital that we learn from the past and recognize our tendencies to repeat our mistakes.”
Lemonade wasn’t here to play the radio game. It wasn’t about breaking itself into bite-size chewable chunks. It was experiential; even leaving aside the visuals, it was a fully formed poetic roller-coaster. Beyonce could’ve rested on her laurels for the rest of her career, and churned out album after album peppered with new versions of “Crazy In Love,” but she didn’t. Instead, she turned her pedestal into a pulpit, and made something very specific for the people she wanted to reach most — people whose culture and history have woven the fabric of America, only to have that be stitched over by those who seek to diminish their significance. And that kind of specificity is a creative risk few artists dare to take — and the kind of thing one would hope a night like the Grammys to reward. Lemonade didn’t have to be for everyone, because it wasn’t meant to be, and that was a huge part of its courage — but it’s also the type of record that challenged perceptions of what being for everyone really means, because something shouldn’t need to be aimed at you to affect you. Adele’s 25 is competent and relaxing, but it’s also a recognizable and unsurprising entry into her canon — which even Adele would tell you. Lemonade recast Beyonce and recontextualized her influence, and should’ve won for what a deeply personal, revelatory, and brave tour de force it was: instructive, incisive, inspiring, immersive. Not winning a Grammy won’t diminish what it meant to the people it touched, but it also makes you wonder if there are people it should have touched who let it pass them by.