Assuming you haven’t been living under a rock since the Super Bowl, you may have heard that Beyoncé has a new album out. Remember how she marched a bunch of armed women onto the field in February and then threatened to kill all the cops? Except that she actually didn’t do that at all? I remember it, mostly because I had no interest in the guys in the helmets. Then she released the video for “Formation.”
No fucks given.
I like singles, but I’m an album listener. That’s why I’ve been listening to nothing but “Hamilton” since December. So when Beyoncé released “Lemonade,” a bittersweet, empowering story of betrayal, fear, fury, self-doubt, and eventually, redemption–and released it with an hourlong film, scored by the music and interspersed with monologues–well, step aside briefly, Aaron Burr, Sir. The Queen has entered the building.
The music is potent on its own; coupled with the movie, it should be studied in film classes.
The Wall: It’s the Fat and Psychopathic Wife’s Fault
Which brings me back to my own freshman college experience, when we studied Pink Floyd’s double-album opus “The Wall.” As an 18-year-old, I loved “The Wall,” for all the reasons I listed above: it was dramatic, theatrical, had a narrative arc, scenes playing out, majestic music, and even a movie to go with it. Animation! Symbolism! Nazis, I think! PAIN!
Watching it in a freshman class, during “What Shall We Do Now,” a friend of mine said, “This guy has some issues with women.” She was not impressed, and seemed insulted.
I didn’t want to think about that theme in “The Wall.” I loved the music too much. I loved that the movie was so dark and animated and like nothing I’d seen before. Emily was less impressed. She saw the misogyny inherent in every scene. I didn’t want to.
I watched it again a few years ago, and found myself so disgusted with Pink, the melancholy, suicidal rock star protagonist, that I was pissed off at my 18-year-old self for days. Little bits of the album and movie kept coming back to me: his abuse at the hands of his evil schoolmasters, whose “fat and psychopathic wives would thrash them within inches of their lives.” His mother, who lost her husband in the war and then became overprotective of him. His wife, who apparently got tired of his boo-hooing and left him. So he turns to his groupie, and then trashes his hotel room when she tries to cozy up to him.
That’s the fat and psychopathic wife on the left, FYI.
His mother, his wife, his groupies, his schoolteacher’s spouses–they’re at the root of all his problems. The women in his life are too mean, too loving, too distant, too empty-headed, too something or everything to satisfy him. And when he hits rock bottom, when he overdoses to numb his pain, and his manager busts in to force him to go on with his life and put on his concert like he promised? He decides to become a fucking Nazi. Women drive Pink to become a Nazi.
This what we call “very subtle symbolism,” class.
This is the story of “The Wall.” Pink blames the women in his life for everything that goes wrong, from his miserable schooldays to his failed marriage to his overdose to his eventual embrace of fascism and violence. People die and are persecuted because Pink’s women didn’t love him enough in just the right way.
It’s like a textbook for MRAs. And I studied it in college as an example of existentialism in 20th century America.
Lemonade: Is It My Fault?
“Lemonade”‘s protagonist doesn’t entirely disagree with Pink: throughout the album, she constantly asks some version of, “What did I do wrong?” In “Love Drought,” she asks it so many times she even says “Oh, I already asked that. My bad.” She apologizes for asking what she did wrong. She kept it sexy, she kept it fun. She’s been committed, she’s been focused. She’d give up being a star for the sake of saving her marriage and family. She gives him life, but he’s her lifeline. Which part wasn’t right? Tell her and she’ll fix it.
Of course, it’s not all self-doubt. Before “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” her enraged guitar anthem, she asks, “Why can’t you see me? Everyone else can,” before rolling into “You ain’t married to no average bitch, boy.” He has power, but so does she. But even this is tempered by Malcolm X’s assertion that the “most disrespected…and unprotected… and neglected person in America is the Black woman.”
All of it piles into a rage focused on this one man who took advantage of her vulnerability and power to betray her. In this number, she accuses him of all the same things: You didn’t love hard enough. You didn’t try hard enough. “If you hurt me, you hurt yourself.” The message? You need me.
I don’t think wearing the Egyptian symbol of life is a coincidence.
She closes that number with “If you try this shit again, you gonna lose your wife.” Which is the first clue we get that she’s considering giving him a second shot. She’s willing to forgive. But not until after he lives life without her for awhile. Not until after she’s spent time with her sisters. Not until she’s thought about her relationship with her father, trying to figure out how she got here.
That’s when she comes back around to examining herself. How much can she take? How can she fix it? What did she do to make this happen? This, I believe, is the clearest commonality between “The Wall” and “Lemonade,” and also a pretty goddamn clear illustration of something men and women seem to have in common: It’s the woman’s responsibility. If it doesn’t work out, it’s because she did too much, or not enough.
What did I do wrong?
The difference, of course, is in the ultimate result. In “The Wall,” his perceived abandonment justifies violence and taking over an entire nation of people; he’s been so crushed that his only recourse is to crush others. When he’s brought to task for his crimes, a judge in the shape of an ass sentences him to “be exposed” before his peers. To “tear down the wall.” And so the wall falls–the wall he’s built to protect himself against all the pain in his life–falls. And little boys are left to pick up the pieces.
The next generation will fix it?
In “Lemonade,” she picks up the pieces herself. After the pain of suspicion, anger (and she does get angry, hoo boy; but she only hurts things, not people), testing her independence, she decides in “Sandcastles” that her marriage is worth more than the betrayal, and begins to re-forge her bond.
In the haunting number “Forward,” she leafs through photos, presumably of her marriage in better times; then we witness grieving women holding photographs of Black men. They’re the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner: men whose women–mothers, wives, sisters–will never get them back.
Will she abandon this man in her life because of his sins? Will she move forward, without him, and raise her daughter without a father in her home? Or will she move forward with him, so she doesn’t join the grieving women? Black men are an endangered population in America; will she cut off her care of the one who is most precious to her, because he betrayed her?
In the next number, she moves from the dark place of grieving to join women in 19th-century-style dresses. As her sisters look on, she stands alone on a stage, singing “Freedom,” with its Doors, Civil-Rights-era-style keyboarding and the refrain, “I break chains all by myself/Won’t let my freedom rot in hell/Hey! I’ma keep running, ’cause a winner don’t quit on themselves.” Meanwhile, we witness visions of Black women in the South, dancing a haunting ballet, eating together, standing stoically together in strength.
Freedom, I can’t lose.
I can’t watch these two scenes back-to-back without crying.
How It All Ends
“The Wall” ends with “The Trial,” and the man being shattered by his society’s expectations of himself–he’s not strong enough to expose who he really is without being broken down into dust. The women in his life forced him to feel emotion, and, terrified of it, he built a wall that would protect him from the depth of his feelings. The wall metastasized into violence against others; his self-protection branched out until he destroyed anyone who even glimpsed his true self. He’s a human firestorm, consuming everything in its path until he consumes himself and is destroyed.
Tear down the wall.
“Lemonade” ends with “Formation,” where this Black woman–who, like Pink, is a superstar on whom millions pin their hopes and expectations–is not destroyed. Like Pink, she’s experienced pain, the endless drip-drip-drip of sexism and racism on a daily basis. Like Pink, she’s channeled that pain into art. Like Pink, she comes face-to-face with her rage.
Unlike Pink, though, she does not believe she’s alone. She’s supported and surrounded by women who have been where she’s been. Because she’s a woman–a Black woman–she knows she is not the first, and not the last. She can make or break men. She is who she is, and she has made her own decisions, and fuck anyone who doesn’t like it.
I hope men study “Lemonade” the way I studied “The Wall.” I hope they see the enormous responsibility women place on themselves. I hope they experience the beauty, symbolism, and visuals as the film it is, not as “eye candy” or a long music video.
Approve or disapprove of her journey and ultimate outcome, but at least listen. Try to understand it. Because that, in my opinion, is the difference between “The Wall” and “Lemonade.” “The Wall” is about sinking deep into one’s own pain to the exclusion of anything else.
“Lemonade” is about empathy. It’s about exposing the gray areas in relationships. It’s about taking down walls, exposing wounds that can be healed by sunlight. This is what the 21st century holds for us, I hope: understanding that our pain is not unique, that we are not alone, and that looking outward, not inward, is how we save ourselves.
Pink feels the weight of the world, and tries to crush it. Beyoncé feels the weight of the world, and she carries it.
Pink builds a wall; Beyoncé makes lemonade.