Beyoncé and Rihanna are two megastar pop queens compared so frequently and so predictably that I wouldn’t dream of pairing them if both hadn’t released excellent, acclaimed, engaging albums within months of each other — albums defined by two performer-specific vocal styles that imply opposite messages about control, distance, and subjectivity. But they also differ in that Beyoncé is treated as, and for the present moment presents herself as, a rock hero, that great critically canonical figure jousting with Meaning and Significance, and Rihanna isn’t/doesn’t. Two years ago, an eternity in the music industry, the big scandal in rockcrit concerned an article by Saul Austerlitz in the New York Times called “The Pernicious Rise of Poptimism” in which the disillusioned critic accused a bunch of other critics of having embraced megastars to the exclusion of everything else. Maybe pop stars deserve some attention, reasons Austerlitz, but for real music critics — professionals, paid to uphold good and proper standards of taste! — to actually like, say, Beyoncé or somebody like her, well, that’s going too far. The poptimist/rockist/generalist/whatever debate existed before the article and continues to rage, and I don’t wish to revive a rather tedious discussion over genre categories when we should really be talking about modes of critical reception and how they impact the music, how the music presents itself, and how we hear it. But Austerlitz’s name did become something of a shorthand for that discussion, and the article did spark lots of argument, if only because many disagreed — disagreed first with a silly dichotomy that reduces taste to ideology, and second with the censure itself.
Austerlitz’s article was indeed a hissy fit by the type of middlebrow whose mediocre taste in indie-rock is partially what inspired the poptimist reaction to begin with, but he did articulate a useful insight: he’s not wrong to observe that pop stars have started getting more respect than they did, oh, ten years ago. Most critics don’t focus on megastars exclusively, or even cover that many megastars at all (hello, Selena Gomez made a fantastic album last year). It’s not that all our present rock heroes happen to be megastars, but that the most critically acclaimed major artists right now also happen to be the most culturally iconic celebrities. For this historical development we can thank certain workings of celebrity culture and the social media hype machine. It’s a small, well-tended, exclusive and obscenely wealthy club to be sure, rappers and divas mostly (rock hero is a mode, not a genre), but then again, how many self-conscious major artists do we need, and how many celebrity icons? When self-advertised poptimists complain about rockism, an ideology so stigmatized it’s a wonder adherents even exist anymore, they’re not saying that they don’t like rock; they’re complaining about the critical tendency to overstate and the intent to canonize. Then they turn around and canonize their own rock heroes, which may be a relief insofar as their choices oppose racism, sexism, and the class contempt of anticommercialism, but hardly departs from the supposedly toxic rockist ideology. How many self-conscious major artists do we need, and how many celebrity icons? Austerlitz was complaining that megastars have replaced mind-numbingly dreary indie bands in the canon. I’d like to complain that the canon exists, and that it inspires a rather dreary stance, the stance of the rock hero, that looks upon canonization as something to aspire to. Wouldn’t you rather listen to Beyoncé the sexy, self-possessed diva than Beyoncé the most prestigious, iconic megastar currently making music?
Beyoncé is the most prestigious, iconic megastar currently making music, with a massive fanbase quite committed to battling and abusing anybody who dislikes her online, and a critical following just as enthusiastic as those for rival rock heroes like Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West. Her self-titled album (and corresponding videos), released as a total surprise in 2013, redefined the megastar album release strategy and turned the secret surprise release into a norm, Beyoncé the album to dominate pop radio for a whole year afterwards; her new release, Lemonade, out since April, has proven her most acclaimed yet and garnered rave reviews from Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, Spin, The Guardian, The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, etc, etc. (One factor that set Austerlitz off was the critical reverence that her Beyoncé earned, now surpassed by Lemonade.) Without sacrificing pop credentials or commercial appeal, she makes ambitious, socially conscious music that addresses themes like gender, race, and American identity. Rihanna does too, less explicitly maybe, but her fans receive her on more modest terms. Her new album, Anti, out since January, is indeed her most self-consciously artistic project, and the critical response reflects that, but she’s inevitably described as a pop star trying something new, an established R&B/dancehall fixture branching out, and not, say, “the rightful heir to Michael Jackson and Prince” (Greg Tate’s Lemonade headline in Spin; Jackson, another child star who grew up in public, is indeed a terrific parallel for Beyoncé). I was struck when BET, in June, published an editorial called “Sooo… Can We Admit That #Anti > #Lemonade?” — an opinion so controversial, apparently, that after much outrage they actually removed the piece from their website. I wish I could have read it; as of now I’m not even sure who the author was.
The relevant split isn’t rock vs. pop (both are “pop” artists) but expressive vs. functional, always the key distinction in how pop music presents itself. This is a limited and overstated dichotomy, but it does inform the music, and how we hear the music. For the two artists aren’t just received differently, they also code differently: Rihanna, content with remaining a Very Famous Pop Star (and a conventionally received Object of Desire), stops short of the musical grandeur and dazzling displays of performative autonomy with which Beyoncé invites us to worship her as an icon. By Rihanna’s standards, Anti departs from straightforward pop hookery in favor of a colder, slower, harsher electronic template, but this kind of softcore erotic electronica has also in the past year become something of an alternative radio staple, and Anti still presents itself as conventionally received pop music — as formalized genre exercise, and hence self-consciously functional product. Lemonade reads like a rock album (in mode and presentation, not genre) — Queen Bey voicing her feelings and reaching grand heights of pain, crafting a weighty song cycle about, to quote the Tidal release page, “every woman’s journey of self-knowledge and healing,” hiring esteemed indie-rock producers to add sonic edge and dissonance, making grand proclamations about love and marriage and empowerment, and generally edging out from the conventional Object of Desire box. Who the fuck do you think she is, you ain’t listening to no average megastar, boy.
The supposed catalyst for Beyoncé’s “journey of self-knowledge and healing” was husband Jay-Z’s infidelity. Cheating men have been a favorite theme of hers ever since she was one of Destiny’s Children, but Lemonade goes overboard; besides perhaps the grand finale “Formation,” pretty much every song is at least an indirect response to an unfaithful husband, and several address him directly. I hope I don’t have to clarify why, contra the outcry of outraged fans, it doesn’t really matter whether or not the real-life Jay cheated on the real-life Bey — whatever we know from the album plus the tabloids is ancillary to the way Lemonade imagines/constructs an abstract unfaithful husband for Beyoncé, singer as centered subject, to dis and rage against and cry over and reconcile with. To treat the album exclusively as a deeply personal outpouring of emotion in response to private pain, or for that matter a gleefully calculated device meant to scandalize and stir up gossip, would ignore just how well such a move was timed to coincide with her ascendance as pop’s reigning feminist icon and how naturally Lemonade the Pain Album proceeds from Beyoncé the Sex Album. Her present theme and/or inhabited pose equals a neat solution to the dialectic Ann Powers proposed in NPR’s The Record “between the role of the pop performer, whose commercially driven mandate is to stimulate desire, and the feminist thinker, who seeks to illuminate how desire is shaped by sexist stereotypes, including the idea that women are primarily sexual.” By playing the spurned wife, Beyoncé has it both ways, venting an extraordinary amount of negative emotion from shock to sadness to anger to plain frustration, all directed at the male oppressor, all within the explicit context of a sexual relationship. The unfaithful husband insults both the feminist thinker’s autonomy and the pop star’s desirability; throughout the album, Beyoncé merges both roles, united against a common enemy.
Lemonade isn’t a catchy sweet chewy glitzy fluffy gleeful glorious slice of erotic pop sparkly like Beyoncé. Nothing on the new album delights like “Blow” or “Rocket” or “Partition” or “Drunk in Love.” Instead, Beyoncé hires a posse of acclaimed indie-rock names (Jack White, Ezra Koenig, James Blake, etc), in addition to her usual crew of superproducers (Diplo, Mike WiLL Made It, the artist herself), to augment her fizzy, synthy neosoul style with rock drums, folk guitar, blues samples, distorted organ, country acoustic, and a brass band, producing a diverse set of musical puzzle pieces, building blocks, that add up to an album mainly unified by the increasingly throaty burnish of Beyoncé’s voice. Song cycle is the operative mode here — each song performs a different emotional state in her progression from heartbreak to outrage to reconciliation and everywhere in between, while just as many songs feel more like fragmentary ingredient-exercises than discrete entities unto themselves. Thematic focus aside, there’s a scattered feel to Lemonade that inspires nasty thoughts about high-status guests and too many producers; on the other hand, each musical setting does feel appropriate to the particular nature of the emotional exercise, like the bluegrass strumming and assembled horns on “Daddy Lessons,” in which her father teaches her to take out roguish men with a gun, or the organ-soaked blues-rock pounding of “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” in which she snarls fierce threats at her roguish husband. The irresistible “Hold Up” rides an ironically perky Andy Williams sample plus relaxed bass as Beyoncé relishes and recoils from the melody simultaneously; the equally irresistible “Formation” builds a swaggering club banger from squelchy synthesizer, sharply percussive synthesizer, and a defiant choir of multiple Beyoncés backing, commenting on, and undercutting the lead singer. My favorite is the one song everybody else either hates or ignores: “Sandcastles,” the corny, shameless piano ballad in the middle. Sorry — I love the way she says “sandcastles,” the way she says “promise,” the way she moans “no no no no noooooo”.
That critics like her upbeat material while dismissing her ballads represents to me a distortion of what she’s about, because Beyoncé’s big, powerful voice makes her an ace ballad singer like few other megastars currently topping the charts, and because corny, shameless emotional overkill has always been her specialty. Recall the poignant “If I Were a Boy,” in which she sang the verses in her normal register while screeeeeeeeeeaming the chorus. Lemonade wouldn’t work as an album if she hadn’t performed each respective emotional state with all the requisite heart and soul — if she didn’t audibly wail her guts out while berating her husband, audibly gulp down the tears while putting on a brave face, audibly soften and sweeten her voice while kissing and making up — but that doesn’t mean she’s feeling things the way she sings them, or even that she wants you to think so. A vocal style that pulls emotions out of a hat and inhabits them in an exaggerated representational performance is a vocal style that must be calculated to the extreme if the approach is to succeed at all. She nails every performance on Lemonade, injecting her resonant singsong with simulated surges of feeling while always keeping calm, always in control. In this she continues to project the same fantasy of an Empowered Autonomous Superwoman that she’s always sold her fans. If she can endure an ordeal like the one portrayed on Lemonade and stay in control, never slipping up, never showing weakness the way we mortals would, she must be a goddess, an inspiration, Queen Bey herself.
Anti, which projects a surface impression of slick pop control, is the work of an artist freaking out and breaking down in a sweaty, nightmarish panic attack, which doesn’t make it the work of a rock hero. Compared to the even slicker, hookier R&B/dancehall style Rihanna made her name with, the album would appear a blatantly difficult art move until you turn on the radio and hear plenty of hard, glitchy electropop erotica in a roughly similar vein (The Weeknd, Bryson Tiller, even FKA Twigs on the alternative stations, though Rihanna’s sprightlier than all of them), whereupon the record stands as an adjustment to present commercial fashion. She’s always had a dark side — note, in past hits like “Umbrella” and “Rude Boy” and “We Found Love,” the persistent melancholy, like she’s seen more than you ever will and holding back her feelings because there’s just too much to let loose — without ever coding expressive the way megadivas tend to. There’s just too much distance in her voice, too much restraint, too much blank thousand-yard-stare for her to effectively simulate the illusion of felt authenticity that enables the megadiva rock hero, who must specialize in constructed sincerity. Nor do rock heroes, even the megastars who currently sit atop the Rock Hero heap, make concessions to commercial fashion no matter how surreal commercial fashion has gotten. Rihanna’s illusion is that of functional pop product, harsh sound or not, Anti reads like a pop album, like a utilitarian pleasure machine, which fits her chosen role as the conventionally received Object of Desire.
Just because Anti sounds at home on the pop charts doesn’t mean it sounds generic. Even by the standards of functional pop product, there’s nothing like its cold electronic surface. Clinical, metallic, sharp, agile, the album is antiseptic and atmospheric simultaneously, keyed to a set of wobbly drum machines under techno synthesizers clicking and sliding around in minimal progressions that provide chord color without quite coalescing into solid hooks. There’s a sly, sexy, downtempo feel to the album with distinct cognates in organic neosoul and digital trip-hop, except that Rihanna’s sonics are cleaner; musically, in the grain of the keyboards, these songs make explicit the vague melancholy she always conveys vocally, declining the pro forma cheer that usually accompanies expert formalist craft. The harshness of the sound and its respective wounded aura hardly disqualifies Anti from pop product mode. A function of mechanical, robotized distance, the melancholy is rarely expressed in words or even tunes, existing between the lines, implied by the blankness of the presentation. There’s no reason a song like “Love on the Brain,” a sweet upbeat love ballad complete with spiky plucked guitar chords and electronic mock organ, shouldn’t sound like the cheeriest little ditty ever to steal your heart, but it doesn’t. It feels drained of affect, possibly due to the singer’s emotional state but also because those guitar chords are so straightforward and repetitive and predictable. While some of the breakup songs and especially the rejection songs feel more explicitly painful, the whomping bassline and giant guitar riff on “Kiss It Better,” descending keyboard glitter on “Yeah I Said It,” skittering drum pattern on “Desperado,” and staticky guitar pretending to be a keyboard pretending to be a guitar pretending to be an infinite loop on “Woo” produce similar effects. Her vocals don’t quite.
Rihanna has one of the most distinctive voices on the pop charts. Even when she does features for other people’s hits, you can’t mistake her thick, spiky, spicy, ethereal, indescribable cadence. Slurring her words slightly, she avoids the breathy and the throaty for something sharper and more nasal, a voice that admits no vulnerability and cuts like a siren, a voice that sings even the tender love songs with stark, unfeeling authority. Add Auto-Tune to such a voice, manifest not in the goofy bleeps and trills that correct off-key singing, but rather with a thin layer of electronic film coating the larynx of a trained professional with perfect pitch, and you’d make her unstoppable, a tank. Recall “Umbrella,” her breakout hit from 2007, and just try to find an inconsistency, just one, in the grain of her voice — affectless, flawless, these are of a piece. Anti repeats this strategy up to a point with the proviso that small cracks have started to appear, quite deliberately, in the vocal polish, which is no small difference. Maybe she’ll swallow a word, maybe she’ll strain a note, most often the Auto-Tune itself will sputter and curdle, dropping into her voicebox all sorts of digital vibrations and rhotics the human voice would have trouble producing alone, and the result is a startlingly aching and lyrical vocal portrait of flawlessness frayed at the edges, formalist craft starting to break down, a distancing strategy starting to fail, a singer starting to question her self-alienated self-mastery. Given the album’s clinical perfection otherwise, the tiniest irregularity can feel huge, because to Rihanna, it is. This is how the affectless express emotion.
Check “Needed Me,” in which Rihanna rejects the man who needs her and might feel bad and might feel nothing. Online lyric sites call the song a feminist empowerment anthem, which might make sense if the rejection were triumphant rather than dazed, apathetic, blank; if the repression resulting from her cold, polished surface weren’t eating her alive. Shifty, scrunchy, buzzy keyboard and a strangled electrowail caught between keyboard and vocoder back vocals containing miniature hooks in nearly every line, little shreds of drawl or gargle or gasp. She sings two verses and two choruses with politely distant fatigue — ”Whoohoohoohooh youoohoohooh nee eee eee eee eee eee eee eee eee eee eee eee eee eee eee eeeded me” — and then, during the fadeout, starts moaning in a high whimper so quiet you might miss it. It’s tender and intimate and scared and shocked and frustrated and mechanical and pro forma all at once. Imitating the synthesizer, she’s also breaking from a straitjacket.
Naturally, Rihanna isn’t actually scared or shocked or frustrated any more than her Auto-Tune is malfunctioning. It’s a representational performance, as calculated as Beyoncé’s. Who’s in control?