My big misunderstanding of Beyonce, or: The Austrian view

Martin_Canine NOTE: Whatever I say about the Austrian mentality doesn’t reflect my point of view, I just observed and analyzed how my country handles and regards things such as gender and race, and concluded why it caused me to have been so oblivious to Beyoncé’s creative vision. The things I say apply to a majority, not to every individual.

I first noticed “Formation” was seen as a brilliant piece of music in early 2018 when I made my list about Rolling Stone’s Greatest Songs of 2016, two years after the song was released, and also two years after I first heard it. I thoroughly enjoyed “Lemonade”, and among it also “Formation”, which serves as the closing track, but I would have never seen it as anything different than an experimental hip hop anthem on an album that draws from a variety of musical influences, from gospel to psychedelic to country to avantgarde, and yes, also hip hop. In the meantime it seemed to have hit America, or at least their critics, much like “Rise Like a Phoenix” hit Austria two years before, as not only Rolling Stone but also a gazillion of other magazines and websites, and not only those who go for the most popular songs but also some seriously music loving ones, named it the greatest of the year, often accompanied with texts starting off with sentences that basically say “As if it wasn’t obvious which song would take the number one spot”. “Lemonade” ranked in my list of my favorite albums of 2016, with the album song “Freedom” being in my top ten songs of said year. To me, it was clear that this track would be the core piece of the record: with a massive church choir, psychedelic organs, a guest verse by the biggest rapper of the time, lyrics about breaking chains and Beyoncé’s most powerful vocal performance on the album, there was no doubt it was the most spectacular moment of “Lemonade”, the one everybody remembers. And obviously, other people from German language countries thought the same, as popular German music critic website named it the ninth best song of 2016 as the only Beyoncé song on their list. But apparently, the US put their attention on a completely different tune: “Formation”.

Those who followed me for a long time probably know my opinion on Beyoncé: I think she has one of the greatest singing voices of her generation, sharing the throne with Christina Aguilera, both having the caliber of a great soul diva of the 60s. It always shows on songs such as “Listen”, “If I Were a Boy” and “Broken Hearted Girl”, which are big emotive ballads. Also, some of her live performances rank among the most stunning soul vocal deliveries I have seen - say what you want about modern pop music not being about talent anymore, this woman can sing damn fine. There’s also this very nice Bond-like song “A Woman Like Me” she performed in the movie “The Pink Panther”, in which she also co-starred (but which was unfortunately never available for purchase). Up to this point, I still agree. But now comes the point where I changed my view.

For a long time, much of her music didn’t get through to me at the level it could. The thing is that for going full soul style and enchanting with her huge voice, she has way too little ballads or traditionally orchestrated pieces to show off her vocals - which Christina Aguilera did have. The way it was, she was “just” a decent pop singer to me who could be more than that. There was no reason to treat her differently than other pop singers, such as Shakira or Sarah Connor, which are absolutely pleasant in their respective genre, maybe for pop standards they had even more irresistible hits than Beyoncé. But here is where I missed the big bang: for quite some years, she has become a visionary artist, with avantgarde ambitions and, most importantly, a strong focus on the identity of a black woman. Over here, nobody realized this change of focus, and even I, who listens closer than most, had no clue of the dimensions her music had in the meantime. I can’t keep up with all the gazillions of albums released every day, and after having been disappointed by “4” (which German critics also commented on harshly by the way), I didn’t get back to her until 2016. It was far too easy to overlook her self titled album, actually. It wasn’t among her most successful works and sparked no hit single over here - but in fact this record might be the most important of her career in the respect that it marks a massive turning point. Knowing what she was capable of nowadays, I needed to listen to her discography again, and maybe reconsider, in order to understand the transformation, and why I was too blind to see it.

“Dangerously in Love” came out when she was still a part of her former group Destiny‘s Child, and it shows in the music - which isn’t bad. It’s her most Contemporary RnB inspired record, in the way R. Kelly and Aaliyah albums are. For a long time I wasn’t such a fan of this genre. I didn’t get the idea of “smooth” music, I needed a poppy bang or fully dramatic emotive ballads - but in the meantime I also acknowledge and enjoy this style, maybe even more than the big bangs. Very, very good production and good singing vocals make this decent. Occasionally Beyoncé sneaked in a huge pop anthem, such as the album’s most famous moment, “Crazy in Love”. Yes, this is enjoyable - 4 out of 5. I was still very young when this album was released, and haven’t heard it until years later.

At age 10, I first heard of Beyoncé when “B’Day” was released (before I already knew some individual DC songs but didn’t realize it was her singing), and back then I became hooked on some individual songs, but I didn’t stick to her like I did with some other artists back then. Looking at it retrospectively, this is BY FAR Beyoncé’s poppiest record and was probably the reason why I thought for a long time that Beyoncé wouldn’t make proper use of her singing talent. As a child, I didn’t care for such things, I just wanted a catchy song. Basically, when it comes to the pop genre that hasn’t changed much, I just look at the songs on many more levels. And now I see when a singer could do much more but doesn’t. “B’Day” has the most upbeat songs and the most conventional radio hits - and no contemporary RnB like its predecessor. From the cover to the funky vibe of “Deja Vu”, everything about it screams summer record. On some songs this works very well, and they indeed leave an impression, others are simply… “nice”, nothing more. No complete miss. The hidden track “Listen” is the highlight, and in terms of her singing, it’s an absolutely mind blowing masterpiece - Aretha Franklin level. This record perfectly shows the problem I had with her for such a long time: the hidden track is a 100 out of 10. A song worthy of the 60s divas of soul, but instead she goes for an album full of decent, but not amazing pop songs rather than a whole LP full of music this big. 3 and a half out of 5. Hey, it’s not bad for a pop record - she just could be better than that.

Then “I Am… Sasha Fierce” arrived when I was 12, which was the age I started to think about the world a bit more, and already did realize I had certain preferences - this year, 2008, was a bit of a turning point for me, I developed opinions of my own and started exploring older music and movies by my own. Back then, I really liked the album very, very much, and this time it kind of stuck with me. Retrospectively, ten years later, this is her best pop album. One disc she fully devotes to her singing, containing only well thought and perfectly performed ballads, with the other disc being really catchy pop tracks that contained a bit of hip hop swagger, a bit of nice electronica, some nice earworms and an overall fun feeling. It’s almost perfect. 4 and a half stars.

With this expectations, I happily bought her 2011 album “4” and… was heavily disappointed. HEAVILY. Around that time, many pop stars I liked traded their personality for David Guetta’s and Pitbull’s stomping house pop style and sounded interchangeable and all the same. Now Beyoncé released an album that doesn’t give in to this trend, but instead it’s messy, unfocused, has no songs that get stuck in your ear, only one song focusing on her soul singing (“I Was Here” which is the highlight), some tracks that have nothing going on (“I Miss You”) and some that have way too much going on (“Countdown”). “Party” (sorry, Kanye, you know I usually love you as a producer) and “End of Time” are simply disastrously chaotic. I lost interest in her. She just wouldn’t deliver anything as great anymore, I thought. My opinion of this album hasn’t changed much - just that I notice that “Run the World (Girls)” may be an early concept drawing of “Formation”, a not yet fully developed idea anthem of identity with a hip hop beat. 2 out of 5.

Time passed. In the meantime other artists came that took her place in my pop heart: Adele. Lady Gaga. Conchita Wurst. Lana Del Rey. While “I Am… Sasha Fierce” still ended up in my CD player every now and then to my full enjoyment, I never checked if she had anything new in store. Then, several pop artists started to adapt a more experimental, artful and mature style, and decided to aim for more than just a catchy radio hit. “Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz”, “Purpose” and “Anti” all positively surprised me with a varied and often surreal sound. And when I heard Beyoncé would soon release such an album, my ears perked up. A voice like hers combined with this new trend might end up good. We’re already in 2016 at this point in the story, I was already a young adult with a diverse music taste and would soon create an account on TheTopTens.

My thought was “hmmm... maybe this new art pop wave will help Beyoncé to reach a new level of quality”. That’s exactly what happened, but I failed to recognize her as the trend setter, instead I thought she was successfully jumping on the bandwagon. It took me almost two years to figure out her stand in America’s music scene and her role as a pop culture icon. But don’t blame me, blame my country. Her biggest hit was the Shakira collaboration “Beautiful Liar”, which peaked at number 2. Other successful singles were “Crazy in Love” (number 6), “If I Were a Boy” (number 3) and “Halo” (number 6). It’s the latter song that has left the biggest impact: ten years later, it’s still heard on the radio a lot - and it perfectly fits our image of Beyoncé as being a great singer of pop songs. No more, but also no less than that.
Neither “Beyoncé” nor “Lemonade” sparked anything near a hit single. “Drunk in Love”, number 2 in America and Rolling Stone’s best song of 2014 (actually it’s from December 2013) and “Formation”, which peaked at number 10 in the US, was certified platinum and has over 100 million views on YouTube, in addition to being RS’s top song of 2016, both didn’t chart at all in Austria. So far, none of her albums topped the Austrian charts, only “Dangerously in Love” and “Lemonade” entered the top ten, at number 3 and 9, respectively. Don’t get me wrong: she’s a household name, and her music and voice are well known, but she’s not THAT big of an icon. And the Austrian and German media aren’t constantly following her every step. She gets interesting for them as soon as she releases new music, which is then promoted through advertising posters, in news announcements or by prominently placing the record in the “new” section of your local store that sells CDs - or through the internet, of course. When people over here buy one of her albums, they expect no more than either some catchy tunes or beautifully sung ballads. Also, she is still associated with Destiny’s Child, who were essentially a 90s girl group and have little to do with what Bey is currently doing.

The thing is, when we Austrians look at Beyoncé, we don’t necessarily see a black female who became one of the wealthiest stars of her generation despite all the odds, what we see is a pop singer who has a great singing voice. The same can as well be said about Justin Timberlake, who is a white male. But terms like “white male privilege” are yet to establish over here - it all takes a bit longer in Österreich. Maybe it’s even odd to some Austrians how the pop music of Beyoncé or Rihanna mixes with hip hop, as the target groups are very widely different. The mainstream listener may consider hip hop too hard and edgy.

I think part of why we fail to “get” Beyoncé’s newest output so much is due to our very limited knowledge about how it’s like being a minority in a country as big as the States. Of course we hear about the police brutality, but that’s essentially about it. We don’t really see the details and the background for it, we see a bunch of idiots shooting at black people and that are despised by everyone who hears about it. In Austria, things are often not as complex. Being a racist over here means you hate other races, being a sexist means thinking women are inferior. That’s it. America gives more attention to the details. In Austria, you will find sexualized images and all kinds of stereotypes, but nobody gives a damn, usually not even those who are supposedly the “victims”. The Austrian mentality is that it all comes down to how it is meant, not necessarily what it shows. A large part of the female citizens of Austria roll their eyes when hearing what other countries make a fuss about. And now comes the most controversial part: on carnival and other instances where you wear a custom, blackface, redface and yellowface are extremely common, and have never been questioned. The Austrian mentality says “it’s not meant as an insult, in fact, we even dress up like you because we like pretending to be you guys”. I am not saying this is good, and I know that it sounds very politically incorrect, but looking at it neutrally, this is the way Austrians think. Germany is already addressing these “micro aggressions”, as it was dubbed, but Austria never did - and it probably won’t all too soon, because Austrians are extremely proud of their culture, and if you point out that this is morally wrong, the people’s response would probably be: “you are trying to take away something that we have always been doing for decades, if not centuries, we won’t allow this!”. We live in a small nation and many people of our country don’t really care for what’s happening abroad.
I however do. And that enriches my life a lot. This is why I can see the different approaches between nations, and can decide what’s the way to go for. Austria is probably not sensitive enough, and maybe America is just a bit oversensitive. What Beyoncé stands for is so foreign to us that we miss the big picture.

Back when she was still part of Destiny’s Child, she already had her feminist anthems, which also applies to her first four solo albums, but this was all pretty clear from our culture’s point of view: she’s an independent woman who can keep up with the men and sometimes does what’s not expected of a female. That’s what we get. We do like the image of a strong woman, and of people who don’t fit into the norm. But with her self titled record, and later on with “Lemonade”, she went for dimensions deeper than that. She laid open her identity specifically as an African American woman. And this is something that Austrians don’t immediately think of when they think of Beyoncé. Let’s start with the term itself: Americans know that “African American” applies to Americans whose forefathers were brought from Africa. But… do you know that scene in “Brüno” (the movie where Sasha Baron Cohen plays a gay Austrian in America) where the title character says he has “traded” a child from Africa, and refers to the parents as “African American”, which causes a black woman in the audience to be upset because African Americans are in the US, not in Africa. Surprise: Austrians indeed use “African AMERICAN” (“Afroamerikaner”) for every person of a darker skin color, no matter where they are. There’s a simple reason for that: Austrians don’t get the idea why they needed to use the word in the first place. The German version of the n-word, “Neger”, was very commonly used until the very end of the 20th century or even the beginning of the 2000s, but it was used absolutely neutrally, not as an oppressive term or insult. When around the turn of the Millennium the American culture became more prominently featured in our media, the term “African American” was simply adapted as the right word for it, because obviously some people seemed to care. In reality, that wasn’t really the case. From my personal experience, several Austrian black people often felt uncomfortable that their friends now felt the need to call people of their skin color differently than they did for the last centuries. So naturally, it was only temporarily. Nowadays, both terms are outdated and people who are of African descent are simply called black (“schwarz”), which is pretty much accepted as the right term.

We use terms we hear in American songs or used in the German dubs of American movies as completely normal English, we rarely question the origin or social background. Genius says about a line in “Formation”: “ “Slay” is a term first coined within the African-American gay community that has become wildly popular amongst the rest of the nation meaning to “succeed in, conquer or dominate something.” ” To us, this is simply an English language term for having succeeded, because we have heard it in English language music in this very context. Let’s look at another line. Here’s what Americans hear: “My daddy Alabama, momma Louisiana”. Now here’s what Austrians hear: “My daddy America, momma America”. Of course we know that in history Southern States had their issues with slavery, but having an American singer say where her parents come from doesn’t tell us a story. Yet this very line was the subject of many euphoric reviews of the song. Let’s look at Austrian stars of this decade: Conchita Wurst, Andreas Gabalier, Seiler und Speer and most recently, Cesár Sampson. Conchita Wurst and Cèsar Sampson sing in English, Seiler und Speer and Andreas Gabalier sing in thick Austrian dialect of German. Cesár Sampson is black, the others are white. Wurst and Sampson are from Upper Austria, Gabalier is from Carinthia and Seiler und Speer are from Lower Austria. But actually, nobody cares for all that. They are all equally seen as Austrian artists. Now, when Beyoncé raps about her parents’ origin what we hear is: well, they grew up in different states that happen to rhyme. The song has been widely linked to the Black Lives Matter movement, and the music video was seen as a comment on black pride, police brutality and bad government decisions. The flood in the video was seen as a reference to Hurricane Katrina. In the meantime, I even had to google what said disaster was. Obviously a hurricane that caused major damage in the 2000s - I don’t think this left an impression on Austrians. Lots and lots of disasters happen every day in various countries and they all get reported on, this one wasn’t saved in Austria’s memory. It would be really nice if someone from the States or nearby would tell me what impact Katrina had and why Beyoncé would address it.

To Americans, “Formation”, both in song form and as a video, must come off as a huge statement - lyrically, a black woman from the South who made it to the top and built an empire despite everything being in her way. People can’t believe it and think she cheated, but she succeeded through her music, and even now, with the world watching, she is proud of her roots. And she uses her music video as a platform to criticize those who have the power to get away with great wrongs.

You know what I first thought this song was mainly about? Attacking conspiracy theorists. She starts off with “Y’all haters corny with that Illuminati mess” later one she uses what sounded to me like two homophones (“get in formation” and “get information”, and “illuminated” and “eliminated”). My first impression was it’s a fun rap inspired track in which Beyoncé addresses crazy people by saying “nope, I didn’t need help by some shadow organization, I indeed am that great all on my own”. And… wow, was I wrong. And to be honest, I thought the video was just trying to look cool. I missed a gazillion of references to very specific aspects of American society and history.

The thing is, when Austrians or Germans address racial or political issues, they do it differently. The song’s tone would be darker and slower, and in minor key, they would give a very passionate vocal performance, they would address the problem much more universally - and instead of showing pride for who they are, they would rather spread the word “we’re the same, just our racial features are different”. You want to get people, you need to get sentimental. The tone Beyoncé chooses is more common with LGBTQ or feminism anthems, because these are groups usually associated with being soft, and a badass uptempo tune would be right (except of course if you’re Conchita Wurst, then totally go for the dramatic ballad).
Maybe one of the reasons why I didn’t get what the song wanted to tell me is because I didn’t expect a song that sounds like this to mean something deep. I wouldn’t guess that on an album full of expressive melodies, the fast paced sassy hip hop song is the biggest statement.

Now, in the meantime I have heard Beyoncé’s self titled album, but not often enough to give it a proper rating or review. It’s definitely a strong work that’s not only as experimental as its follow way before it became a thing, it’s also a deeply feministic piece of music that also explores the joyous fields of the female sexuality that are sometimes forgotten or even frowned upon by other feminists.

And as for “Lemonade”... back in 2016, I listened to it, really liked its variety of styles, loved Beyoncé’s vocal delivery (although she’s not often as soulful as previously, she always seemed to find the perfect tone for each song) and thought that it’s a really creative art pop album. On another website, I wrote mini-reviews of albums I recently heard, and awarded it 4 stars. Back then, it also ranked eleventh in my year end ranking. One and a half year have passed since then, and I figured that what I based these 4 stars on were about 20% of what this album had to offer. I rated it purely on aesthetics, and didn’t think that it may could have had something deeper going on. To me, Beyoncé was still a pop singer, when in reality, she was a fully developed artist with an intelligent vision and concept that digs her claws deep into the flesh of society. It’s not solely “Formation”. Upon listening to it nowadays, I started to realize that Beyoncé pours her heart into the music. The ballad “Sandcastles” wasn’t her newest show number to demonstrate her singing and songwriting ability, how she sang it was very, VERY real, and she felt the lyrics, they tore her apart in this very take of the song. Take a close listen and you can hear the tears in her eyes. In contrast, on “Don’t Hurt Yourself” she really is THAT mad. It all unloads on here. And “Daddy Lessons”... is just as big of a part of how she became who she is now as is the record’s closing song. “Lemonade” is pure Beyoncé. Maybe we can even call it a concept album, containing her feelings, her origin, her way up, her current state, and her words to the world. It is her beautiful dark twisted fantasy.

In late May 2018, I give it a full 5 out of 5.