Yet this year something different happened. The Kardashian-Wests, along with their friends Beyoncé Knowles and Shawn Carter, a k a Jay Z, represent a new class of celebrity supermarriage, rooted in the business and art of memoir-making through rap, pop music, and reality TV. Their forte is selling their lives as aspirational myths, yet a close look at two of the most influential albums of 2016—by one spouse in each couple—reveals an unexpectedly complicated picture of imperfect yet committed monogamy. On Lemonade and The Life of Pablo, Beyoncé and Kanye give voice to the struggle of reconciling marriage with cultural forces and personal urges at odds with it—forces and urges both stars’ careers have until now often exemplified.
Some of pop music’s bedrock stereotypes about sex and gender can be summed up in the dichotomy between Jay Z’s and Beyoncé’s defining hits, “Big Pimpin’ ” and “Single Ladies.” “I thug ’em, fuck ’em, love ’em, leave ’em,” he boasts. She flaunts her hotness, taunting the guy she wishes had “put a ring on it.” But in the years since the two stars started dating (sometime in the early 2000s), Jay Z’s lyrics have aimed to graft his previous playboy swagger onto a relationship—“I used to bag girls like Birkin bags / Now I bag B.” Beyoncé has all along tended to leverage her bombshell status into songs about being sexy for one man alone, as when she performed an erotic dance before an audience of just Jay Z in her video for “Partition.” In 2014, six years into their marriage, the two promoted their worldwide “On the Run” tour wearing ski masks and toting guns, extending a metaphor they had introduced more than a decade earlier in Jay Z’s song “ ’03 Bonnie and Clyde”: monogamy as outlaw chic.
Marketing the traditional as transgressive would seem an ideal tactic for the marriage-advocacy mission, but Beyoncé and Jay Z’s message had a ways to go to win over the missionaries. As recently as the 2013 release of Beyoncé’s self-titled album, she was portraying domestic bliss with enough pornographic gusto to offend the likes of Bill O’Reilly, who denounced her for encouraging out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Beyoncé’s routine also tapped into a more modulated complaint about Hollywood: Escapist pop just doesn’t lend itself to conveying, as Reihan Salam wrote in National Review, the “cultural knowledge that marriage can be both difficult (and disciplining) and satisfying.” The happily-ever-after glow, or glittering-prize aura, that crowns star unions like hers—and romantic comedies, and reality shows like The Bachelor—has a way of fueling fantasies no reality can live up to: not what a fragile institution needs.
But Beyoncé stunned audiences this year with a marital portrait that, while drawing on escapist conventions, made a point of subverting them. As the first few minutes of Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade unfolded on HBO one Saturday night in April, viewers took to social media to express shock: She seemed to be announcing her divorce. “Are you cheating on me?,” Beyoncé asks before she erupts in anger, smashing car windows with a baseball bat and later throwing her wedding ring at the camera. The music offers a taxonomy of breakup-song tropes: from glassy-eyed denial (“Hold up, they don’t love you like I love you” in the muted reggae of “Hold Up”) to hot rage (“Who the fuck do you think I am?” over Led Zeppelin samples in “Don’t Hurt Yourself”) to cold hauteur (as when she sneeringly identifies a presumed mistress as “Becky with the good hair” in the hypnotic “Sorry”). But as she vents, she seems to reevaluate the philosophy of romance implied by her previous public striving to be #flawless (the hashtag that went viral in the wake of her feminist anthem “Flawless”). All the shimmying and sweating to global domination doesn’t, it seems, make for marital serenity; loyalty cannot be ensured through perfection of the self alone. “Know that I kept it sexy, and know I kept it fun,” she sings. “There’s something that I’m missing.”