Surely you’ve heard that Beyonce released a surprise album on iTunes this past Friday at midnight. She shared the news to her 8 million Instagram followers and it’s already the fastest selling record in iTunes history. Fans were delighted; others, not so much. Target, for instance, has decided not to carry her physical album once it’s released later this week. But herein lies the brilliance: Beyonce doesn’t need Target. And she decided she was going to release this album exactly the way she wanted.
I remember her talking on her documentary Life is But a Dream about how she misses the way people used to experience music- as an album, as a complete set with a theme and a vibe to it and an arc from song to song. It reminded me of a few years back when some die hard Beatles fans were so upset by the release of the One album (comprised of all the number one hits) because it took the songs out of their album context. Yeah, maybe some Beatles fans take their love too seriously, but I see their point. It was like retroactively making the Beatles play by the same rules as Justin Bieber. Wasn’t part of what made the song good the role it played in the album’s “story” arc? Sure, those number one hits were catchy and radio-friendly, but they were kept from being shallow because they were held by the fullness of the album itself.
This will show my age, but I remember the countless hours as a teenager spent trying to put together kick-ass mix tapes. There was an art to it, and those who could give their friends a truly artful mix tape were the cool kids. Every mix tape had a theme, and we would find new and interesting connections and layers of meaning to songs we already knew just because they were placed after that song, or because they were chosen to be on the tape given to us by our new boyfriend. The songs became multivalent because they played somewhere other than the radio alone. We were always doing musical hermeneutics, musical midrash, interpreting songs this way and that way, layering meaning upon meaning.
Man, I miss that.
Recently I hauled myself to Target to purchase the second Justin Timberlake album, because Target is smart and they convinced me to do something I haven’t done in a decade: purchase a physical CD. I did it because it was the only way I could have ALL the songs. And at the time, this annoyed me to no end. I cursed Target silently as I unwrapped that plastic and fiddled with the annoying flap-over CD stickers to open the case. But then, that smell: that smell of new CD filled the car, and I heard the sound of the CD rotating into the player, and I drove around for a solid week listening to the album from beginning to end. And I thought, when was the last time I enjoyed an album like this?! How long has it been since I experienced that exciting pause as I waited for the next track to begin to play, brand new to my ears?
I know many of you do this all the time digitally (and still make great playlists, too, with far less headache than fiddling with cassettes!) but it made me realize that I mostly live from single to single, waiting for the radio or my husband to tell me what to hear next. Even when we have a new album playing through the house, I only pay attention when a song catches my ear. I have stopped, for the most part, listening to the full product. Lord have mercy, I have become a Twitter-ized, soundbyte-programmed, captive-to-the-desires-of-the-industry radio listener. And that’s a shame.
Beyonce thought so, too, and that’s why she decided to do this album her way. She decided to leverage her influence to encourage us to hear her album the way she wanted us to hear it- in full, with visuals. She says she sees colors with music, and she gives us this way of seeing those colors, too. And the thing is, it’s pretty amazing. Her new album is an immersive experience. Like it or not, it’s not typical.
I, for one, think we need more of those. Much of our culture operates like the Krispy Kreme conveyor belt: sending a herd of practically identical items under a frosting machine one after the other. The fact that Beyonce used her influence to reject the conveyor belt of a music industry co-opted by the money-making single and instead create a space for her art to be experienced in the way she intended? Well, big props to her for that. Much respect.
And the fact that she had ZERO pre-release hype? Also genius. It would have been antithetical to what she was trying to do with this album to have done otherwise. The point was to give us this album so we could experience the thing itself: not just the next hit song, not just the hype, not the Leno appearance. By releasing it the way she did, she was able to make our response to the album more about the album and less about the hype- and that is no small feat.
Think about it: hype nowadays is driven by the industry. (Pick the industry: music, publishing, television, Christian everything.) Someone determines what the next big thing will be and the industry throws lots of money towards making sure it IS the next big thing. And yeah, the public has a role to play, but we usually eat what they put in front of us because it’s easy. And, they tell us how to eat it and when to eat it and with what utensil, too. Beyonce circumvented all of that by dropping it out of nowhere. Nobody could ask “What’s the best new track?” and just go download that one song. Nobody could tell you what to hear, or whether it was any good or not, or the three best songs. We were forced to download the thing and see for ourselves.
That’s nostalgic for me, a good reminder of the “experience” of hearing an album. But imagine what this is like for young people who have probably never downloaded an entire album without knowing the hit tracks. Beyonce just made them go retro. She gave them not only the gift of a surprise album, but an experience that for the most part has been lost on their generation. I think the second gift is even better.
So sure, now the hype will start. Now Beyonce will be everywhere, showing up on late night TV and in commercials, probably. And that’s great. And sure, the way she released it created its own kind of hype, but I think that’s brilliant, too. Bonus points for doing something with integrity but still being a masterful promoter.
The bottom line is this: Queen Bey did this album her way. And yes, that’s because she is in the stratosphere of mega-stars who don’t need Target. But she still could have taken the easy road and done things by the book and made plenty of money and splash doing it. The fact that she distributed her album in a way that was aligned with her biggest intentions? Well, that’s why we call her the Queen.