by Christine Jay, special to ClevelandClassical.com
Beyoncé — aka Yoncé, Queen Bey, Queen B, Sasha Fierce, M. Carter — the name brings to mind a myriad of hits spanning several decades. But she is also a symbol of feminism, free speech, and downright personal freedom in general.
I will echo what many have said and no doubt will continue to say: Queen Bey slays — like no other popstar. Extreme innovation in the way she delivers her artistic product is the engine and the key to her empire, something that has yet to be unlocked in the Classical world.
Such innovation was clearly on display on Saturday, April 23, when Beyoncé’s most recent studio and visual album, Lemonade, was released via Tidal, a fledgling audio and music video streaming service, along with a one-hour film of the album that aired on HBO. Social media, especially Twitter, erupted with reactions to the film and to the music itself.
Yoncé’s choice of HBO to premiere her visual album was part of an excellent strategy, given that the network’s highly successful Game of Thrones was to launch its sixth season the following night. (In June 2014, Giri Nathan wrote in TIME, “Game of Thrones just surpassed The Sopranos as the most popular show in HBO’s history, with an average gross audience of 18.4 million.”) The network also owns HBO GO, the streaming service for all its shows. With internet or cellular data, anyone can stream Game of Thrones, wherever, whenever. Fans were already itching to do so anyway since season five of the series ended in June 2015 with an epic cliffhanger.
The strategy didn’t stop there. Beyoncé’s husband, rapper and entrepreneur Jay-Z, also owns part of Tidal, the exclusive streaming platform for the premiere of Lemonade — at least until April 25, when both the album and film were made available for purchase on Amazon and iTunes, stirring up a hornet’s nest of controversy. Then Pandora began streaming the album’s audio tracks on April 27. Beyoncé and Jay-Z seem to be navigating the murky waters of today’s music streaming and recording services just fine.
Mrs. Carter’s innovation extends to the artistic content of her Lemonade film, as well. Of course, music videos are hardly a new endeavor. They have their origin in 1940s musical shorts such as Disney’s Silly Symphonies. The millennials out there probably all remember watching MTV and VH1 music videos in the morning, but today such videos are only available on YouTube and similar sites. VH1 cancelled their music video mornings in 2015, ending a dynasty that began in 1985. May it rest in peace.
Beyoncé’s Lemonade, however, is no mere has-been music video that traces the narrative of a given song; it is visual art with a voice. Issues of race, her husband’s infidelity, feminism, and the Black Lives Matter movement are fundamental components to the film. And after watching its 57 minutes, viewers acquire visual and aural memories, reference points, and even nostalgia for her music — before even hearing the audio tracks by themselves. Rumor has it that Lemonade will be submitted by HBO for an Emmy Award. A visual album up for an Emmy? Great Scott!
While this is all fantastic for Queen Bey and her brand, this conservatory student can’t help but notice that this sort of innovation doesn’t occur in the Classical world. We mostly play music from the past, thriving on interpretation and knowing exactly what to listen for in a frequently programmed piece.
Indeed, ‘culture’ and etiquette, drive the classical concert experience. No applause between movements. No immediate audible reactions. No cell phone usage. We pride ourselves as slaves to the concert experience to the point of discomfort. (Isn’t it uncomfortable not to check our cell phones for more than an hour? What if the world changed without us to notice!) Have our technological, societal norms turned us into masochistic classicists?
Where is our Beyoncé?
Could the Classical genre learn something from Queen Bey in such areas such as visuals, film, and marketing?
The pop star’s financial success allows her to promote herself and innovate freely. For example, Queen Bey’s On the Run Tour, which traveled to 19 North American cities, topped $100 million according to Billboard. Reports averaged $4 million per show, with 45,000 ticket holders in attendance on average. The Classical world can only hope to boast opera houses with that vast of a live audience. Mammoth houses like New York’s Metropolitan Opera with 4,000 seats — too many of them often vacant — cannot compete with the stadiums Beyoncé frequently packs on tour.
In some ways, the Classical genre has already begun to embrace the rise of our visual culture. The Met Opera in HD and the streaming of performances by several orchestras, including the Berlin Philharmonic, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, and New York Philharmonic, are a start.
But these examples don’t come close to Queen Bey’s Lemonade. They exist purely as streaming services; none of them are creating narratives for their music, and successful streaming culture thrives upon fresh material. Netflix has clearly learned this lesson, for without its critically acclaimed, original content such as House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, the platform would quickly lose its appeal.
Without writing War and Peace on why the Classical world has no clear Beyoncé figure (although she has enough nicknames to qualify for a character in a Russian novel), let’s admit that the Classical world just isn’t set up to produce a Yoncé. We consistently lack funds, and are losing opportunities to cultivate the next generation of Classical musicians because of dying and aborted arts programs.
But not all is lost. We millennials have grown up witnessing the evolution of CD players into music streaming services. We flourish with new technology and innovative thinking. We also thrive on social media, such as Facebook, which just added a livestream option in early April. We may not have the ability like Queen Bey to put a personal film on HBO, but Facebook and other free visual services are giving us a variety of options.
Maybe the Classical Beyoncé has yet to slay.
Christine Jay, who served as ClevelandClassical.com’s Winter Term Intern in 2016, is a fifth-year student at Oberlin College and Conservatory majoring in Voice, Baroque Flute and Comparative Literature. As a soprano, she has participated in numerous masterclasses and summer musical institutes, most recently singing for Alan Curtis and Barbara Bonney in the Venice Opera Project summer 2014 and the AIMS Graz, Austria 2015 Lieder program. She resides in Norfolk, Massachusetts.
Published on ClevelandClassical.com May 30, 2016.
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