The Stakes of Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’

She’s sidestepping traditional distribution once again, but there are risks to playing coy about what she’ll be debuting Saturday night on HBO.

USA Today Sports / Reuters

Beyoncé’s next big release is called “Lemonade,” and that’s about all the public knows about it. Last weekend an esoteric trailer announced its existence, triggering competing rumors/speculation about it being a feature-length music video, another “visual album” like 2013’s Beyoncé, a dramatic film, or a behind-the-scenes documentary. Whatever it is will be broadcast on HBO at 9 p.m. Saturday—a time slot that asks her fans to incorporate her into their going-out plans for the weekend, and that tells members of the media that if they want to skim some clicks off of Beyoncé coverage they’ll have to pull an off-hours shift (an HBO representative’s uncharacteristically mysterious reply to my inquiry about advanced screeners was, “Sorry—there is nothing available to screen.”).

What seems likely is that “Lemonade” will be another effort in Beyoncé’s ongoing reinvention of celebrity best practices, and that it would be unwise to bet that it won’t be an effective one.

Until a month ago, the last time Beyoncé gave a traditional face-to-face interview with a print journalist was for the January 2013 edition of GQ, which revealed that her Manhattan office features a “long, narrow room that contains the official Beyoncé archive, a temperature-controlled digital-storage facility that contains virtually every existing photograph of her.” At the time, this revelation was greeted with a certain amount of horror—the sign of a Type-A narcissist, the kind of thing fabricated for literary satires of the digital era—and perhaps that negative reaction was the reason she stopped sitting for profiles.

But now the GQ article now seems like a fitting, perhaps intentional, farewell to traditional media. Amy Wallace’s story included lengthy quotes about Beyoncé’s self-critical tendencies—she watches footage of each of her concerts to write feedback notes to her crew the next day—as well as her desire for the kind of independence that pop stars rarely achieve. “When I was writing the Destiny’s Child songs, it was a big thing to be that young and taking control,” she said. “And the label at the time didn’t know that we were going to be that successful, so they gave us all control. And I got used to it. It is my goal in life to be that example.” The control she referred to was not only about creating her own art; it was taking charge of its distribution and marketing, too. She showed off her exhaustive personal archive to inform the press that she’d found a better way of promoting her work—all your pesky questions can go in a box to the left.

Beyoncé was influential then—GQ’s headline: “Miss Millennium”—but few could have guessed how much more influential she would become. A self-produced documentary for HBO, an impeccable Super Bowl show, and the unannounced and hugely acclaimed Beyoncé release—featuring an elaborate music video for each of its songs—followed. After a relatively quiet 2015, this year has seen a new surprise in the single “Formation,” which promoted another Super Bowl performance, another quickly sold-out tour, and a clothing line further bolstered by an Elle story touted as her first major interview in years—though it was conducted by what appears to be a handpicked member of the inner Beyhive. All of these maneuvers have asserted that Beyoncé is her own media machine capable of directly addressing the public, have savvily used controlled scarcity to maintain her ubiquity, and have breezed past distinctions between music, visuals, commerce, and art.

But the hype for “Lemonade” also owes to a yet more crucial part of Beyoncé’s appeal lately, which is her consistency. Anytime a chorus of “yaaaas” breaks out following a Beyoncé action, there’s typically a counter-chorus of people wondering if the praise is all sycophancy. It’s not. The way each frame of the “Formation” video offered a viscerally arresting image but invited further analysis for meaning—and triggered debate on topics typically outside the bounds of popular music—is typical. The song itself, which cuts through rest of what’s on the radio and takes a few listens to fully unveil its glorious pop potential, also demonstrates Beyoncé’s expert sense for how to balance novelty with familiarity. There are few if any other mega-musicians today who reliably serve up such a satisfying product every time they release something.

Which means there’s risk in her decision to let the public’s imagination run wild about “Lemonade” for a week. There’s potential for a masterpiece; deliver much less, and her brand could take a serious blow. The rumor that “Lemonade” will be a behind-the-scenes documentary like Beyoncé’s last HBO production, 2013’s Life Is But a Dream, would seem dubious based on the trailer alone—as far as anyone can guess, there are not sudden explosions behind the scenes of Beyoncé’s  life. The safer bet, I think, is that Saturday’s broadcast will indeed be an “album” of music videos, and the fact that any album could conceivably be “released” on HBO would be an innovation that suits the great category-collapsing celebrity of our era. It’s not TV, it’s not music, it’s Beyoncé.