TMZ just kicked off an Internet freakout by posting surveillance footage showing Solange Knowles, sister to Beyoncé, apparently punching and kicking her brother-in-law Jay Z in an elevator at The Standard hotel during this weekend's Met Gala in New York City. I find myself utterly unable to look away from online reaction and media coverage, and it doesn't seem like I'm alone. “I want to know every single thing about this without shame,” tweeted the writer Roxane Gay.
The video is gossip fodder, but it’s also more. Or at least, that’s what I tell myself as I watch the #WhatJayZSaidToSolange jokes scroll by. So far, I’ve got four explanations—or maybe four self-justifications—for the significance of this odd scandal.
1. As Divine Tragedy
Jay Z and Beyoncé aren't just famous people. They are icons—of hip-hop and R&B’s cultural and economic rule, of the modern marriage in which the wife is as powerful as the husband, of the idea that commercially successful music can be critically lauded, of the American Dream made real for two people of color, of some indefinable notion of “classiness” in comparison to other celebs, and on and on. Beyoncé, remember, was just named the most influential person in the world.
Her little sister Solange, a singer with her own following, has come to represent other things. One of them is, of course, the stereotypical drama that people imagine to be inherent in show-business families, where one sibling must compete with the other. But she’s also a torchbearer for a kind of counterculture. Solange is the hipster sister; she covers Dirty Projector songs and her producer is a Pitchfork darling.
So you have these sort of symbolic figures, the kind who give credence to the common interpretation of celebrity culture as a modern-day manifestation of the same desires that fueled Greek mythology. The Knowles-Carters are gods not necessarily because people worship them (though plenty of people’s fandom is so fervent as to resemble worship) but because many perceive them—fairly or not—to embody abstract ideals.
Getting a glimpse into what appears to be a truly private, personal moment for these three is alluring enough. But then you have Solange appearing to angrily attack Jay Z and being restrained by a bodyguard, as Beyoncé stands more or less composed off to the side. All of this is happening at one of the most glamorous celebrity events in the world. And, as there’s no audio, there’s an irresistible mystery: Why did this happen?
This is epic-level drama. This is the stuff of fan fiction. This is as good as Game of Thrones.
2. As Human Tragedy
Then you remember: These are real human beings with real inner lives and real relations. Whatever happened in that elevator was undoubtedly painful and sad. You can find plenty of speculation already; most of the non-jokey theories involve loved ones betraying one another, or substance abuse, or mental illness.
That inherent ugliness, of course, is a big part of what’s fascinating. There’s almost comfort in it, as with reality TV—it’s the kind of drama we each personally have known in our day-to-day lives turned into a collective, pass-the-popcorn viewing experience. You can’t defend that impulse, really, when you remember that mass attention can only make life more difficult for the people you’re paying attention to. But I don’t know how well you can fight it.
3. As a Culture-War Kickoff
What’s in the video inevitably will be interpreted in relation to those abstract ideals that Beyonce, Jay Z, and Solange are seen as standing for. Already, people are raising the notion of a racial element to the discussion around the video, with the music critic Brandon Soderberg worrying that some will use it to vilify those involved as conforming to "ghetto" stereotypes.
Gender relations will be at issue. Some commenters have praised Jay Z for not hitting Solange back; others have said it’s screwed up that anyone would need to praise a man for not hitting a woman.
As for political implications? Well, Jay Z and Beyoncé are famously friends of the White House. It’s probably only hours until we hear from Bill O’Reilly on this.
4. As Evidence We’re Living in the Panopticon
It’s not surprising that the gossip site TMZ has sources at the Met Gala, given all the celebrity hijinks guaranteed to happen there each year. But there may be no one in media more in control of their images than Beyoncé and Jay Z, and the parties involved with throwing the Met Gala have a lot to lose with a leak like this. (The Standard Hotel put out a "shocked" statement, saying it has launched an internal investigation.)
A couple weeks ago, TMZ brought down Clippers owner Donald Sterling with a recording of a private conversation between him and his girlfriend. But this video is an even bigger get. It makes you wonder where they—the Internet-enabled scandal-reporting complex—don't have eyes. Writes J. Tinsley at Uproxx, “Pac and Biggie’s murders would have definitely been solved had [TMZ] been around in the ’90s.”