In politics, an “October surprise” refers to a news event occurring just before an election, usually publicized with the intention of influencing voters—they’re game changers. While she’s not a politician (yet), 2013 was the year in which Beyoncé came to truly feel like the Queen of the World, dominating public consciousness with everything from the lip synching controversy at the presidential inauguration to the public scrutiny by Congressional Republicans of her trip to Cuba in April (it was in fact a legally sanctioned “cultural exchange” expedition). Beyoncé’s life was surprisingly political, and she seemed to be both everywhere and to influence everything in 2013—but weirdly, despite playing the Super Bowl and going on a world tour, she was releasing no new music, and so far as anyone could tell, had no plans to anytime soon.
But last December, Queen Bey did something unexpected and, truth be told, unprecedented to cement her position at the head of the class of current pop divas. In the file-sharing, celebrity-stalking, 24-hour-news-cycling world we now live in, Beyoncé did the seemingly impossible by recording not only a 14-track album but 17 accompanying music videos without anyone really noticing and without a single leak. The eponymous Beyoncé appeared at midnight on December 13, 2013 (a Friday the 13th, no less!) with no publicity and limited availability. The “visual album” also had to be purchased in its entirety WITH videos for its first week, a risky move given that digital music sales had decreased throughout the year, as consumers seemed increasingly unlikely to buy $.99 singles, let alone an album for $15.99. But the surprise album release quickly came to dominate both social media and news cycles, and Beyoncé rapidly became iTune’s fastest-selling album of all time. The most obvious impact of the album may be in terms of how it changes music marketing, as countless commentators have now speculated that the new “no publicity” strategy will become an often-repeated tactic.
But I want to reflect on the album as an album, to think about how Beyoncé’s “December surprise” will invigorate “the album” as an art form in 2014 and, hopefully, for years to come. She changed the game of pop music, demonstrating that seeking to be an artist and not simply a singles-generating machine can be a viable way to exist in contemporary culture.
At the end of 2013, a slew of big name female pop artists released highly-anticipated new albums that failed to generate the kind of sales they were expected to deliver. Miley Cyrus’s Bangerz, Katy Perry’s Prism, and Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP all produced sales right around the 250,000 mark in their first week: good, but not stellar. And Britney Spears fared worse; her Britney Jean sold just over 100,000 copies and debuted at number 4, the lowest-selling and lowest-ranking debut of her career. Many critics proclaimed these numbers signs of “the death of the album”, and maybe the death of music as a commercial product altogether. But why did Beyoncé succeed where so many of her peers failed?
One major distinction between Beyoncé and the other big-name pop divas with new albums this year is that she had a distinct vision of her album as a project, not merely a package. There is a sense of progression, of vision, of coherence in Beyoncé; in the album’s logic, it becomes clear how the artist can alternate so seamlessly between self-assuredness and shame, between boastfulness and vulnerability. There is tonal and musical diversity among its tracks, but unlike the scattershot approach most notable in Perry’s Prism, where she seems to be trying every musical style in hopes that something will work as a single, Beyoncé presents an artist in all of her complexity and contradiction. Indeed, the album is most like Gaga’s ARTPOP in that it proceeds like an argument about the role of art, though Gaga’s self-awareness dulls the emotional edge Beyoncé wields like a surgeon with a scalpel.
One can’t help but feel after listening to the album that despite its polished production, Beyoncé is giving us access to herself as an artist rather than a product in ways no other major pop diva is willing or able to do. The opening track, “Pretty Hurts,” covers familiar terrain in its critique of female beauty culture, yet it sounds personal rather than platitudinous. The video contextualizes the song within the world of beauty pageants, but instead of preaching about depression or eating disorders, a second theme for the album—female competition—emerges here, as our heroine is as distraught by what the beauty myth causes women to do to each other as what they do to themselves. The ironic braggadocio of “***Flawless,” which includes an excerpt from a lecture entitled “We Should All Be Feminists” by Nigerian-born author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, also plays upon this theme by creating a hard-as-nails persona intended to compensate for feelings of inadequacy. Other themes, such as the joys and difficulties of intimacy, the demands of a career, even postpartum depression appear throughout the album, and Beyoncé clarifies that this emotional frankness, though not often if ever heard in pop music, is key to the expressive artist.
There can be no doubt that the “anti-marketing” strategy employed for Beyoncé will be repeated (frequently, if it proves successful for another artist). But the legacy of the album, I hope, will be that albums are important—that thinking through a collection of songs that mean something as a whole, that makes a statement, does something that cobbling together a collection of potential singles cannot. The album is not an outdated medium, and Beyoncé game-changing surprise release has found a way to make it new again for a new year.
Zachary Lamm: Has an album’s worth of hairography to master.