Launched on the internet with no promotional fanfare, Beyoncé's new album has enabled the star to define herself on her own terms
The music industry is not what you might call shy when it comes to mimicking recent successes, so identifying big pop's key trend for 2014 simply requires a glance back at 2013 when, in the year's closing stages, Beyoncé stormed over the horizon with the year's defining moment. With no warning, she released her long-overdue fifth album, along with 17 music videos. In an era when your average B-lister finds it hard to film the video for one song without the friend of a backing dancer leaking news of the shoot, Beyoncé pulled off a modern miracle by quietly shooting 17.
This didn't happen while nobody was looking, a factor David Bowie had in his favour when he staged his own unexpected comeback last year. Beyoncé somehow managed to release a surprise album when the entire planet was waiting for a Beyoncé album.
This album's 11th-hour manifestation – even its uppercase title, BEYONCÉ, looked like someone jumping out from behind a bush with a klaxon – meant that it was too late for inclusion on most end-of-year lists, but as well as leapfrogging music critics, its release depended on precisely zero airplay, hinged on not one TV appearance, and was not even teased online. News of its availability may have been disseminated by mainstream media but this album's release strategy was styled as a courageous leap into the unknown by a superstar who breaks boundaries while other musicians joylessly reinforce them. A press statement noted that "stripped of gimmicks, teasers and marketing campaigns, this project is truly about art before hype", which seemed like a direct shot at Lady Gaga's sprawling, messy and ultimately ineffectual ARTPOP album campaign. The decision to release an expected album in an unexpected way paid off: fans went into meltdown and BEYONCÉ shifted 430,000 copies in one day, in America alone.
So will 2014 see artists of various shapes and sizes chucking albums into the ether and hoping for the best? U2, Adele, Madonna, Rihanna and One Direction are due to release albums in 2014; they and others may try to emulate Beyoncégeddon, but most will fail. Beyoncé's major triumph was not to release an album with no marketing, nor even to tap the "no marketing angle as a marketing angle" angle, but – to employ the favoured imagery of many Beyoncé fans – to snatch the wig of victory from the scalp of defeat. Behind the scenes her album had actually been due for release in the spring, but never materialised, and producers and writers continued to work on new songs.
Beyoncé's gift to 2014 is a masterclass in both exerting and relinquishing control. She controlled a shambolic album project, and she kept its release under wraps. At the same time, she loosened her grip on the one thing the music industry has clutched to its heart while everything around it changed: the idea of the monolithic album release. Compared with Beyoncé's lightning strike release plan, two of 2013's other big pop albums – Katy Perry's Prism and Lady Gaga's ARTPOP – seem ridiculously quaint. Katy Perry announced her album with a gold "Prism" lorry driven through the streets of LA; Gaga began teasing hers in 2012. Both came with endless preview videos, advance downloads, sneak peeks and assorted nonsense – and both underperformed.
The gift and the curse of being one of the digital age's defining popstars, as both Gaga and Perry are, is that while you can let between 40 million and 50 million Twitter followers know you've got an album out, the majority of those fans belong to a generation who find the concept of buying music completely ridiculous. It's noteworthy that both Eminem and Justin Timberlake scored huge first-week sales in 2013: their fans grew up purchasing CDs, and owning music. Perhaps, in 2014, fans and commentators must also relinquish control, recalibrating their understanding of success to move away from sales.
In any case, if there's one thing digital natives do understand, it's the concept of the Pop Moment: the trending topic, the Gifable glimpse. The trick for artists and labels in 2014 is to decide, with pinpoint precision, what it is fans want, or what they don't yet realise they want.
How to get a measure of this? Let's have a look on Twitter, you might think. Let's see what the fans are saying! Actually, you don't want to know what the fans (or stans, as more demented supporters have been known since Eminem's song about obsessive admirer) are saying. "Most of you probably already know that transvestite creature Lady Gaga is about to release a music video," began one recent missive, purportedly circulated by Miley Cyrus fans, although perhaps created by a third fanbase wishing to discredit both Gaga and Cyrus in one fell swoop. "Smilers, we can't let that … cunt steal Miley's Vevo record! All of her Aids infested stans are going to be tweeting the video link and giving blowjobs on Craigslist in exchange for video views!" Despondent Gaga fans might kill themselves, the note surmised, which would put an end to the problem.
The putrefaction of fan communities is something artists rarely acknowledge, and reining in grotesque fanbases is another type of control artists should exert in 2014. But as Beyoncé showed, controlling artistic output is vital in setting the agenda, and it's possible to do this in such a way as to ensure that however much of a bang you make, music is audible above the noise.
Above all, she – and Bowie – put excitement back into a music industry whose employees are frequently as bored as its consumers. Bored by modern tropes that are as staid in the launches of credible BBC Sound Poll type acts as they are for YouTube teaser-obsessed returning superstars. Bored by one-size-fits-all marketing campaigns which frequently fail for all but the most generic of Mother's Day X Factor releases. Bored by clutter.
Though the manner of her own recent offering may lead other artists to think they too should attempt a surprise release, Beyoncé's real lifeline to 2014's returning megastars is the message that however complex your music may be, seek clarity in your vision. If you know something's going wrong, keep quiet and rethink. And if you want anyone to care about your comeback, you need to have gone somewhere first. Then, if all that fails, maybe try jumping out from behind the bush with a klaxon. Bono, it's over to you.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © Youtube