Beyonce Knowles is a force of nature. When she releases an album, be it in the dead of night without any warning or on a premium cable special keeping America glued to their televisions through a Saturday night, the Earth’s tectonic plates shift. Few pop-cultural events arrive prepackaged with such a tremendous air of momentousness to them as this past Saturday’s unveiling of her new studio record Lemonade, which found the biggest name in pop transcending the need for PR altogether. The world would be her advertising department, and word-of-mouth would be her guerrilla promo campaign. She talked a big game about running the world on 4, and when she left the industry’s petty rules behind her, she actually started to follow through on the threat.
Not even a week out, and her colossal Lemonade has already been written about dozens of dozens of times over. In the search for a fresh critical perspective on Beyonce’s electrifying present, we must turn to her distant past. In 2001, when she was merely the most charismatic member of the R&B group Destiny’s Child, a young Beyonce Knowles took the title role in a made-for-TV movie titled Carmen: A Hip Hopera.
A modernized reimagining of Georges Bizet’s opera, this hilariously dated film has been all but forgotten in the wake of its star’s inescapable recent output. But a bit of reflection on this odd footnote in Beyonce’s career unlocks a new understanding of the work she’s done since, and of the savvy moves she’s made to attain her nearly peerless level of stardom. Her layered take on Carmen presages her later route to ubiquity, foretelling her future as a shrewd performer blurring the lines between the personal and the professional to her own benefit. Nobody gets this huge by accident, and while Lemonade amply proves that Beyonce has no patience for games when it comes to her men, she’s an expert at playing the game of fame.
Considering the public’s constant, near-obsessive scrutiny of every Beyonce factoid and tidbit, it’s bananas that we’re not all bringing up Carmen all the time. It sounds too good to have been true, and yet it so magnificently was: Could we have really all missed out on an over-the-top soap opera playing out 16 bars at a time with the vocal stylings of early-aughts iterations of Beyonce, Mos Def, Wyclef Jean, and Li’l Bow Wow? The fashion alone qualifies this film for preservation in the National Archives, with zeitgeisty Kangols, bejeweled baseball caps, and feather boas practically timestamping every frame “2001.” The style is of a piece with its era as well, tossing crude greenscreen and lyrics superimposed onscreen into the mix.
In it, our chanteuse portrays a gifted and irresistible wannabe-actress by the name of Carmen Brown. She dreams of escaping Philly for the greener pastures of Los Angeles, where her golden pipes and beauty will earn her a one-way ticket to the A-list. But her tendency to leave a trail of admirers everywhere she goes often places her in harm’s way. A seductive nightclub routine casts a spell on Sgt. Derek Hill (Mekhi Phifer), who instantly becomes infatuated with her beyond all wit and reason. He’s tasked with bringing her to the station after she gets in a fight with a jealous woman up in the club, but she’s able to coax him into her home under a flimsy pretense, and then reduces him to putty balled up in her palms.
The performative aspect of Carmen’s schtick mirrors Beyonce’s present self-presentation, and also embodies its hazards. Carmen knows that the most expedient path to success calls for a little show-womanship, and so she assumes a role when she appears onstage, sportingly playing the elegant sexpot the audience wants her to be. To the audience, she makes no distinction between the woman she is onstage and off, allowing them to conflate the two and amplify their own devotion to her accordingly, hitting feverish puppy-dog highs as with Derek. But this becomes a double-edged sword for Carmen, as the attention she garners can often verge into the unwanted. The love affair she strikes up with Derek ultimately sends the both of them on the run from the law and things only get worse from there.
By foregrounding her highly mediated version of her personal life in her professional music career, Beyonce Knowles has similarly forged her own celebrity. When Lemonade dropped last Saturday, most of the breathless appraisals focused on its defiant stand for black womanhood, and especially the rocky emotional journey outlined on the album’s 12 songs. The understanding was that the various accounts of infidelity, forgiveness, healing, and empowerment correlated to their singer’s own life and her well-documented marriage to Jay Z. Articles speculating on the identity of an unnamed “Becky with the good hair” and weighing the odds on whether the warning concluding “Don’t Hurt Yourself” (“if you try this shit again / you gon’ lose your wife”) heralded a divorce between the power couple cropped up like weeds, and had about as much value.
Beyonce has always been deceptively guarded about her personal life as she playacts the dramas for which the public ceaselessly clamors. She does few interviews, and in those she does take, she’s always sweet and personable — more the archetypical Texan girl to bring home to Mom and Pop than her alter egos Sasha Fierce or Yoncé. In playing it close to the proverbial vest, Beyonce allows for the public to project the scandals she creates through her songs onto her interior life.
There’s a studied, calculated quality to Beyonce’s enactment of candor and realness; consider her video accompaniment to “7/11,” which offers the outward appearance of a casual, loose and spontaneous shoot around a hotel complex she’s made home along with her fleet of backup dancers. But even though the video captures her at play among her Christmas gifts, sipping out of Solo cups with her pals, and twirling around on a balcony, the video masks its own elaborately-produced nature.
The choreography between Beyonce and her dancers has clearly been drilled again and again, and the complex editing schemes out this as a highly technical accomplishment. Even when Beyonce pretends to let her hair down, she knows she’s still onstage. Lemonade‘s many controversy-baiting nods to personal issues show that the artist hasn’t lost one iota of her skill at courting public interest.
Just as Carmen Brown’s many admirers like to believe they can tap into an emotional link with the singer through the “honesty” of her highly personal performances, Beyonce’s legions of fans feel a closer-than-usual kinship to the idol when she clues them in on her issues, even if they’re part of a text. New albums from Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Kanye West, Rihanna, and their ilk drop with such earth-shaking force because they all feed into a larger media-created narrative, each like a new installment contributing the next wave of developments to an engrossing plot. (Not to bring everything back to Marvel’s sweeping revolutionizing of modern media for better and for worse, but the Pop Star Connected Universe is more reliably entertaining than most anything on TV these days.)
Beyonce gamely plays the fiery phoenix ascending from the ashes of a mortifying affair on Lemonade, and lets fans take it as seriously as they might want to, even if that means a few unflattering misconceptions about her private affairs. But as she brags on album-closing banger “Formation,” “you know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation.” Carmen started the conversation 10,000 years ago in 2001, and with Lemonade, Beyonce kept it going louder.