As the 2016 presidential campaign grinds past April and lurches toward convention season, it’s a true blessing to have cultural moments like a new Beyoncé album to distract from how tedious, worrisome and contentious the whole process has been. I can try to forget that the nation teeters on the brink of electing an undulating orange sphincter as president while I watch Bey work through her own, far more personal nightmare scenario: her husband’s infidelity. If Beyoncé can get past the trauma of being cheated on, America should be able to survive beyond November. Beyoncé is the ultimate survivor, defined by her strength in the face of adversity. Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, might need a bit of that resolve if she’s going to get through the next few months.
Hillary knows a few things about the trauma of a husband breaking his vows and the subsequent necessary self-healing. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that Hillary ran into the woods or demolished a load of cars with a baseball bat when she heard the news that her spouse – the leader of the free world – violated her trust. Instead of releasing an album of caustic rebukes and introspective malaise accompanied by an epic short film, she dropped a memoir called Living History in 2003. It was Lemonade without Serena Williams, Zendaya, explosions, dozens of costume changes, and highly woke intersectional feminism. In truth, it was a book by a rich, old white lady, but close enough.
In Living History, she explained that her commitment to Bill was tested, but not broken because their connection was too strong, that they’d been through too much together to throw it all away. She managed to explain her decision and own her feelings without looking weak in the process – like a miniature, whiter Beyoncé. The book did wonders for her poll numbers and helped her cast aside the political negatives associated with Bill’s betrayal, but eventually, he came out of whatever Axe body spray-scented lair he was hiding in and started campaigning for his wife as she sought to fulfill her career ambitions, whether we all liked it or not. During the 2008 Democratic primary, Bill spent much of his time talking down to Barack Obama, further cementing his reputation as a southern-fried narcissist. He called Obama’s record a “fairy tale” and compared his campaign to that of Jesse Jackson’s failed candidacy in 1984 and 1988. He looked and sounded out of touch and more than a little sad.
Seeing Jay Z in Beyoncé’s HBO special is the pop music equivalent of Bill Clinton popping up on the trail to mansplain his way through a stump speech. When Jay came into the narrative, his face was met with teeth grinding, face-palming and a varied collection of expletives from my wife. “I would have dumped his ass,” she said as it became apparent that this new record was not being delivered in a sealed manila envelope via process server. There would be no epic divorce announcement, just a melancholy realization that it’s easier to get through life with a partner. In my wife’s eyes, Jay’s appearance and the themes of reconciliation explicit in the final act of the narrative grant him absolution from his crimes. Never before have I seen her so perturbed by something expelled from the creative womb of the Bey-gemony.
The choice to “stand by your man” is surely not an easy one. When Hillary Clinton gave Bill a second chance, her supporters labeled her brave, but her detractors claimed it was a cynical choice dictated by her political ambition. The conventional wisdom was that she couldn’t be divorced and ascend to the presidency. With Beyoncé, her decision to stay seems out of character for the singer who brought us Single Ladies and Flawless. Forgiveness isn’t very fierce at first glance. She smashes up a car with a baseball bat: it’s logical to ask why she wouldn’t choose to do the same to her husband’s genitals. That this woman so many revere and shower with acclaim would follow a path that appears from the outside to be against her best interest drags her down to our sordid level. It’s a bit like the Greek god Zeus disguising himself as a human and living on Earth for a laugh. Actually, it’s more like Superman II, wherein the Man of Steel relinquishes his power (and, by default, his responsibility to defend humanity) in order to carry on a romantic relationship with Lois Lane. Instead of a holographic representation of the feminist will to power, Beyoncé appears as real flesh and blood – fallible, sentimental and ruled by contradictory impulses. What is Beyoncé if she’s not a meta-human avatar for every young woman to aspire to?
There’s still something of the otherworldly in Beyoncé, though, because she was able to perpetrate the most elaborate diss in hip-hop history in almost total secrecy. Her husband is now one of the most hated men in the country thanks to this album. If she had dumped him, would it have been all that much worse than what she already did, exposing his crimes to the world through the magic of song and dance? I can’t imagine listening to Jay Z perform Big Pimpin’ without either laughing or booing (or both at the same time). How does one portray an unflappable media mogul and ex-gangster after being torched to such an extreme degree? Well, maybe Bill Clinton knows. You never saw the man touch a saxophone after his impeachment hearing, did you?
The real trick of Lemonade is that Jay Z might appear to kiss Beyonce’s ankles and look forlorn, but he doesn’t speak. He doesn’t rap. He doesn’t sing. He’s been muted. His voice is irrelevant and unnecessary. He exists only to atone, a voodoo doll for every woman’s righteous indignation over being deceived. Anything more would be in poor taste. He forfeited his right to posture when he scorned the most popular music act on the planet. I think many on the left would be thrilled if Bill Clinton took his cues from Hova for the remainder of the campaign. When he chastises young people and Black Lives Matter protesters, you kinda wish he would go back to the pick-up artist convention he stumbled out of.
Beyonce spent years allowing herself to be defined by Jay Z, so much so that she named one of her tours The Mrs Carter Show, in reference to her legal married name. She’s only recently overtaken him in cultural stature as his albums get lazier and hers more complex and artful. Lemonade is a perfect expression of her internal fortitude and a declaration of personal agency, even if the end result for her relationship is something akin to the status quo. Beyoncé does not need Jay Z to help her sell records any more than Hillary needs Bill to help her win the White House.
At the end of the clip for Sandcastles, Beyoncé sits alone at a piano, contemplating her decision to renege on her promise to leave Jay and try to make the marriage work. It’s affecting because it’s framed as her choice. She’s the engine moving the story to its bittersweet conclusion. He doesn’t win her back as much as she has processed the moment and settled on this solution. Hillary made her peace with what Bill did to her and her own “Becky with the good hair” has been able to reclaim her own sense of self in the last few years too. It might be time for another Lemonade moment for Hillary though. Even if America is surprised to see Beyoncé rendered so raw and flawed, but the version of Hillary Clinton we seem to want is not far off from that. We want the one who cries, who struggles and who perseveres through it all – and who does it without her philandering husband getting in the way.
This article was written by Dave Schilling, for theguardian.com on Monday 25th April 2016 15.37 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010