Beyonce's 'Lemonade' Shows People Are Finally Taking Women Who Write About Their Lives Seriously
Like the rest of the world, I spent Saturday night having an eye-opening experience, going from shock to disbelief to total awe while watching Lemonade , Beyoncé's visual album, on HBO. As I watched the singer go through those 12 gorgeous, heartbreakingly honest songs, each one seemingly revealing something intimate about her life, I felt an appreciation for her that I hadn't before. I saw her suddenly as less the icon, and more a singer-songwriter doing something brave and, of course, respectable. She's using music to talk about her life, deal with pain, and process her emotions, despite the criticism this action typically receives.
Although countless women have gained success by writing about their own lives — Stevie Nicks, Joni Mitchell, Janelle Monae, Mary J. Blige, and Taylor Swift, to name a few— few, if any (Adele might be the exception), have been able to do so without encountering enormous criticism. The common thought seems to be that if a woman writes songs about her emotions, especially when pertaining to romance, the result is trivial, not to be given any respect; it's not "real art" if all you're doing is complaining about a boy or crying over a silly break-up.
Wrote SocialiteLife in 2010 about Swift's tendency to write about her life, "It's time to switch subjects. Maybe write about how rough your twenties are going to be or how you wish you’d gone to college. We’re sort of over your boy drama." Or, as a 2012 headline on The Stir put it succinctly: "Taylor Swift Needs to Grow Up & Stop Writing Songs About Exes." Even the New York Times weighed in about Swift's active dating life in 2013, asking, "is America’s reigning golden girl, sweetheart, country-pop crossover star and breakup-song specialist going through a quarter-life crisis?"
The idea that women who write about their love lives aren't making serious music has no merit, of course — one only has to look at the financial success of the many female singers who write about their lives to see that the criticism isn't valid — but it's held strong for decades, even as stars like Swift and Adele have reached enormous levels of fame. In the past, some women have called this double standard out (male singers are rarely, if ever, shamed for writing love-centric songs or openly discussing their emotions). Most notably, Swift, who's been the subject of perhaps the most massive criticism for doing just this over the course of her career, has voiced her frustration on the matter. Speaking to the Australian radio show Jules, Merrick & Sophie in 2014, Swift said,
"The most important thing for me is maintaining artistic integrity, which means as a songwriter I still continue to write about my life. You're going to have people who are going to say, 'oh, you know, like she just writes songs about her ex-boyfriends,' and I think frankly that's a very sexist angle to take. No one says that about Ed Sheeran. No one says it about Bruno Mars. They're all writing songs about their exes, their current girlfriends, their love life, and no one raises a red flag there."
She was completely right, and yet two years later, the double standard seemed to be as strong as ever. When Gwen Stefani's This is What the Truth Feels Like was released in March, for instance, reviews, while largely positive, focused more on the songs' tabloid-friendly subject matter than their musicality. Wrote Us Weekly , "[Stefani's] third solo disc is primarily one giant pledge of devotion to new love Blake Shelton." Swift's 1989, meanwhile, was dissected — like all of her prior albums — for the men who inspired the songs, with Rolling Stone noting that " 1989 sets the record for fewest adjectives (and lowest romantic body count) on a Swift album."
Only Adele has truly managed to evade this type of criticism, and that's perhaps due to the fact that she keeps her personal life extremely private. With so little known about the singer's romantic and family life, the press can't analyze her songs the same way they do for someone more open about those subjects, like Swift or Nicks, and when people listen to Adele, they can hear her music without obsessively wondering about the songs' inspirations or her history with men. That's not to say that a star with a more public life like Swift deserves the scrutiny she gets; no artist should be subject to more intrigue over their dating lives than their music. But it does show that, the more private a female star is, the more likely she is to be treated as a serious artist, not a tabloid figure who happens to write songs.
Releases by male artists like Kendrick Lamar or Ed Sheeran don't tend to get this type of criticism; the Billboard review of Sheeran's 2014 album x , for example, had little mention of the singer's personal life despite the intimate nature of his songs, instead focusing on the album's themes and technique. Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly, meanwhile, is a deeply personal album, dealing with the artist's feelings about subjects ranging from police brutality to depression. Yet when it was released in 2015, it received nothing but praise for its intimacy, with Rolling Stone writing that "the heart worn on his hoodie's sleeves" is what makes the album, full of "vulnerability, doubt and self-loathing," so remarkable. In other words: when men write and sing about their personal lives, it's worthy of acclaim and respect, but when women do the same, it's criticized and called trite.
It's an unfair trend, but thankfully, Lemonade is not following the lead of its female-led predecessors. While it's too early to know all the criticism that could potentially come Beyoncé's way in the wake of the album's release, the reactions so far have been enormously positive. The reviews of the album itself are strong, yes, but more than that, people are commending the singer for doing what so many other female artists have been criticized for doing — turning the most personal, romantic details of her life into song. Witnessing a female singer receive unadulterated praise for using her personal life as material is truly thrilling to see.
Of course, it's frustrating that it's taken this long. Even Beyonce, the singer's acclaimed 2013 album, gained as much notice for the songs' sexual references and nods to her life with Jay Z as it did for its quality. And the change is likely not permanent; I can't imagine that when Swift, for instance, releases her next album, she won't receive seemingly equal amounts of praise and criticism for writing about the events in her life.
Yet for now, a woman writer — and not just any woman writer, but the most powerful one in music, who co-wrote every song on Lemonade — is earning a lot of respect for doing what so many others have done before her. Lemonade may become a massively popular album meant to be heard by millions, but it's also just the latest (and best) example of a woman simply — and brilliantly — turning her diary into an anthem.
Perhaps with Lemonade, people will finally start to take women who write about their lives seriously, and stop criticizing them so heavily for doing what male writers have done without issue for decades. After all, if anyone can bring upon real change, it's Bey — and in this regard, Lemonade might be her most effective album yet.