I’ve been spending time with Beyoncé’s Lemonade album and film this week. It has been much-discussed in the months since its launch, and with good reasons apart from Beyoncé herself’s place as in the current pop culture pantheon. This album, and in particular the track “Formation”, speak to the position of black women in America; it draws on history as far back as the Civil War and as iconic as speeches by Malcolm X, but also articulates the need to stand up, in formation, as individuals and as a group together as is being done with Black Lives Matter and other groups. For anyone interested in the interrelationship between music and culture, the album and film present an overflowing storehouse of rich references to historical and current black (and specifically female) culture in the US. It’s an education and a reminder of how pressing this issue continues to be.
Professor of Performance Studies Diana Taylor believes that that performances are storehouses of meaningful symbols, revelatory of a culture’s underlying values (building on ideas of the anthropologist Victor Turner). In her book The Archive and the Repertoire she looks to performed repertoire as the prime site of cultural knowledge. She writes:”Performance makes visible (for an instant, live, now) that which is already there: the ghosts, the tropes, the scenarios that structure our individual and collective life. These spectres, made manifest through performance, alter future phantoms, future fantasies […] It provokes emotions it claims to only represent, evokes memories and grief that belong to some other body. It conjures up and makes visible not just the live but the powerful army of the always already living.” (Taylor, p.143)
If anyone needed convincing, “Lemonade” is powerful evidence of the truths that can be revealed through musical (or any) performance. In the photo above, some of Beyoncé’s background performers dance in face and body painting by Laolu Senbanjo. It’s one of many striking images in the album’s accompanying film. Senbanjo’s original art draws on his Yoruba background in Ilorin, Nigeria and points to the syncretic cultural roots in the Southern states (Beyoncé is from Texas but reminds us “My daddy Alabama, Momma Louisiana” in the song “Formation”). Visual references such as this are counterpoint to the many of the rich musical references on the album: A prisoner’s work song (recorded in 1947 by Alan Lomax ), New Orleans jazz…but also 1960s mainstream pop music (such as the key use of a quote from Andy Williams’s “Can’t Get Used to Losing You).
In this album and film, Beyoncé and her collaborators have surely conjured up enough “ghosts, tropes and scenarios” for years of scholarly, journalistic, activist and general discussion.
Taylor, Diana. 2003. The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.