Friday, December 13, 2013

Master Class: Beyoncé’s “Visual Album”

It was the mic drop heard ‘round the world.

Beyoncé’s sudden, stunning announcement that she had not only recorded an entire new album while on tour, but released it at the exact moment it was announced, in the absence of any advance publicity and nary a clue of its existence, made the news rounds late last night and into this morning. As expected, social media exploded in mass hysteria. For music lovers, this was the equivalent of an atomic bomb, consuming and destroying everything in its path. Imagine if the Beatles went on the news unannounced in 1968, carted in a crate of LPs, said “this is Abbey Road. It’s available as of right now. Enjoy,” then left.

Today, the “normal” process of promoting music these days is for artists to Tweet the existence of a single, whether or not it was already sent to radio or made available. Publicists work overtime to ensure maximal exposure for their client. In the late twentieth century, we waited with bated breath for the radio to play a newly-announced song, or hope and pray that a bootleg would make the rounds and we’d pass them around on cassettes or white-label CDs. I remember the promotion behind Madonna’s radio premiere of “You Must Love Me” from the then-to-be-released Evita, which was met with a collective shrug from the record-buying public. People waited for the product from the superstar. It was expected that we would accord it respect. Nowadays, artists are at the mercy of the public, each trying to command attention over the sound and fury until such time that everyone was talking over one another, and the audience stops caring. Justin Timberlake and Lady Gaga did this more than once this year, and both attracted negative publicity (in Justin’s case, it didn’t hurt his album sales, but in Gaga’s situation it was decidedly more detrimental). The artists didn’t let their music speak.

Beyoncé’s masterstroke is that she pushed the entire work directly into the marketplace. Why just Tweet that there’s a song available in advance of an album and making videos in a rush after the singles were pushed out? Here are some ways in which the new album has radically subverted the rules of the game, and reflects how we consume and discuss music. This is not an evaluation of the disc’s artistic merits (lack thereof), but an exploration of how we regard this particular artist in the celebrity ecosystem.

Go directly to the marketplace. There’s this terrific article in The Guardian explaining that Bey went directly to the audience. It’s the equivalent of her showing up in the middle of a crowded mall, setting up a kiosk, and quietly waiting for people to appear and buy out her stock. There was no advance publicity, no built-up anticipation. One could argue that Beyoncé’s been on tour for most of the year and that would be publicity enough, but she never betrayed the fact that this album was being made at that time, let alone released. We would have expected an album at some point in the future, but traditionally it would not be in the middle of the tour, and certainly not while she’s still promoting material from her last album two years ago. It’s even more rare that she chose to do so during the all-important fourth quarter of the year, when people buy music in greater numbers than the rest of the year due to the holiday rush.

Silence = respect. Consider the multitude of artists who contributed to this album: Frank Ocean, Justin Timberlake, Pharrell, Timbaland, Sia (the most unexpected collaborator of all) and her mercurial husband Jay-Z. She’s stacked the deck with tremendous talent and not a single one of them have breathed a word. It’s a testament to how she is so respected that she commands such respect. Virtually every other artist has had a track “leaked” (intentionally or not), but nothing was said here to anyone. Perhaps they didn’t even know, and assumed it would be released a year from now, after the tour? This release was so sudden and unexpected that for once, Wikipedia didn’t have any information on the album – not even a page – within an hour of the disc’s release. Given how so many celebrities plead for “privacy” and yet are photographed leaving their yoga class, here is a request truly met and accorded respect.

Silence is louder than Tweets. While the likes of Madonna, Gaga and Miley madly try to get people to pay attention by espousing on everything and nothing at once, we hear relatively little from Beyoncé. Even her self-directed (and deceptively “intimate”) documentary Life is But a Dream conveys little substance of her private life. Contrast this with Mariah Carey, who has been on TV almost every day this week broadcasting from her well-appointed Manhattan home. What has Bey said about this? Absolutely nothing, other than a Facebook post, and singular pictures on Instagram and her Tumblr. She’s busy with her tour, you see, and tending to motherhood. For someone everyone talks about, it’s curious that Beyoncé herself says so little, yet what she did with the stealth album drop said a lot.

The single does not command the marketplace. It’s no secret that there’s not much money in purchasing music. The public buys the singles they want at a fraction of the entire album cost. Single purchases far outweigh album sales, and committing to downloading a full disc is a greater commitment from the public. (The real money is in tours, anyway.) By dropping the album with no advance publicity and not identifying one particular song as “the lead single”, the sudden onslaught of new music is too much for her public. We can’t just buy the one single and wait two months for her to announce the next one: there is no single. This way, we have no choice but to listen to the entire work and determine for ourselves what the standout tracks – should there be any – truly are. Consider that Lady Gaga’s “Applause” was met with derision and relatively mixed reviews in advance of her latest work. Despite being a hit single, her latest disc artPOP is selling respectable but hardly spectacular numbers, by superstar standards. For the press surrounding her Vegas show, the once-indomitable Britney Spears’s new platter has anemic sales. It can be argued that the lead single hurt the album by tainting its image prior to release. Beyoncé went through a similar situation when “Run the World (Girls)” was met with a relatively soft commercial reception prior to the release of her 2011 album 4. By dropping the entire disc at once, she neatly sidesteps this negative publicity, and compels us to return to old patterns of buying entire albums.

Image control. Beyoncé is not the first artist to release an entire video album accompanying each track (including non-singles) with a clip. That would be Annie Lennox, who did so for 1992’s landmark Diva album (for which she won the Grammy for Best Long-Form Music Video). However, the release of the disc as a concept “visual album” with bonus videos, feeds into our fascination with Mrs. Carter. To keep herself in the conversation by saying so little, we then look into her Tumblr and Instagram to determine if any of the images in the videos were silently released in her sites. Did she leave clues? Was she hiding a secret in plain sight, and nobody caught on? And therein continues the virtuous cycle: Bey’s killer instinct and business sense helps her understand when people are weary of celebrity, and when to back off. The combination of the album and video compilation maximal release is both manifestation of ego and maximal output all at once, forcing the viewer and listener to judge the work on its own. Not for nothing is she supreme in imagecontrol.

Confirmation of iconic status. Beyoncé is also not the first artist this year to do the stealth album drop. That would be David Bowie, whose The Next Day turned out to be one of the year’s very best discs. The difference is that Bowie preceded the disc by shipping a single to radio, then released the album a few months later, with little to no other publicity accompanying it. It still hewed more closely to the "traditional" publicity pattern than what Bey did. Only an artist with a captive audience would dare try it. There are a few who may pull off this trick, and Bey proved she is one of them. What's breathtaking about her strategy, more so than Bowie's, is that she dropped in the midst of her tour, a time that is so exhaustive and all-consuming for her professionally that one would not imagine she would have the time or energy to create an entire new work that some artists take an entire year off to produce. True to form, the album crashed on iTunes several times due to the overwhelming sudden demand.

The music itself. Is it any good? Is it bad? Is it great, or both? At this point it becomes a moot point. All the emotion surrounding anticipated new music and its actual release have been truncated and amalgamated overnight into the span of just a few short hours. The stealth drop of the album has neatly sidestepped all of the discussion by presenting the music as-is, compelling fans to buy it and completely avoiding the tide of potentially negative publicity (and yes, it’s pretty damn good). The videos clearly have ambition, scope, scale and budget to carry out her vision. It is a celebration of the artist and her life, confessional and dramatic. Perhaps this is the wave of the future, pop music as grand opera?

In any event, I’ll be spending copious amounts of time studying this work, deciphering clues and gaining insight into at once the most public and yet enigmatic musical artist working today.