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From Watermelon to Lemonade
Sobering Up with Beyoncé

“Drunk in Love” dropped along with thirteen other tracks at midnight on December 13, 2013, and promptly got stuck in all of our heads. Its freedom and ecstasy were infectious. I remember it going through my head nights after I been drinking, accompanying my tipsy train of thought. Its sexiness and freedom were infectious. But sexiness and freedom were easier then. This was during the Obama years.

The video begins with surf at night. The camera comes into focus on a woman on the beach. She’s carrying a trophy. She’s weaving as she walks. This is a woman who’s been celebrating. The instrumental is horror-movie-like at first—high-pitched violins, sudden movements. After a weird helium-high wail, Beyoncé’s voice comes in, a husky alto. I been drinking.

Part of what’s so compelling about the video—and the song—is that the initial creepiness seems to be a fake-out. Once things get going, it’s clear Bey’s having a great time. The joy in her relaxed smile, in the swing of her arms, her bouncing dance—unbridled seduction! A drunk woman is vulnerable, a woman alone is vulnerable—but here is a drunk woman alone with a trophy and reveling.

The orchestration weaves in and out, illustrating drunkenness musically, while Bey performs drunkenness with funny, innuendo-rich lyrics. Like a real drunk, she is less sensible than sensual. She argues she’s fine, only to trail off sloppily and confused: “Never tired, never tired. I been sipping; that’s the only thing that’s keeping me on fire, me on fire. Didn’t mean to spill that liquor all on my attire. I’ve been drinking [pause] watermelon.” Her recurring conclusion is always the same: “Drunk in love!” Her jumbled thoughts come to rest on “na na,” that universal nonsense lyric for THIS IS SO FUN! From the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” to Michael Jackson’s “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing),” to M.I.A.’s “Boyz,” “na na” is a performance of enjoyment, nostalgic yet aggressive—but Beyoncé’s “na na” descends in a minor third, sighing with shaky vibrato and exhausted acquiescence.

Listening to “Drunk in Love” today, I hear that exhaustion more clearly. It has been three years. Our nation is older. Our first black president—an eloquent, measured product of academia and community activism—has been succeeded by our first orange president—an incoherent, impulsive product of entertainment. Our basically progressive, judicious political rhetoric—what many of us believed was in some way the truth—has been replaced by paranoid racist-misogynist-xenophobic “alternative facts,” “fake news,” “truthiness,” and illusion. Our cultural conversation about black bodies and the atrocities routinely committed against them has (at last) become mainstream. But the glory of a beautiful black woman dancing drunk and free and safe feels like a prisoner’s dream today. We have sobered up, exchanged our “watermelon” for Lemonade.

Today I can hear what I was deaf to then: the horror movie is not a fake-out. The “last thing” she remembers, after all, is their “beautiful bodies grinding up in that club.” And then? They “woke up in the kitchen saying how the hell did this shit happen. What happened while she was blacked out? The husband tells us:

Foreplay in the foyer, fucked up my Warhol

Slip the panties right to the side

Ain’t got the time to take drawers off, on site

Catch a charge I might. Beat the box up, like Mike

In ’97, I bite, I’m Ike, Turner, turn up

Baby, no I don’t play, now eat the cake, Anna Mae

Said, “Eat the cake, Anna Mae!”

In the space of a few lines, Jay Z references not one but two out of control, abusive men. The ’97 bite is Mike Tyson. “Eat the cake, Anna Mae” comes from Tina Turner’s 1986 autobiography (and/or its ’93 movie adaptation, What’s Love Got to Do with It). The Turners are at a diner celebrating with friends when two kids come over to get Tina’s autograph. Jealous and hostile, Ike encourages her to eat some cake. When she won’t, he becomes enraged, assaulting a friend who defends her, smashing the cake in her face.

A few journalists noted this reference when the song came out, but it wasn’t made much of. Daniel D’Addario noted in Salon that it was “a particularly surprising lyric since Jay Z’s support of Beyoncé’s career success—which, much like Tina Turner’s, has surpassed her husband’s—is unconditional and seemingly freely given.” Today, that “seemingly” haunts. Jay Z’s reference, even if delivered playfully, feels like a threatening omen. Its message is not just that a celebrity marriage can be accompanied by violence. It’s that there are consequences to being a powerful woman. That the rage of men is real.

Watch Beyoncé when Jay Z raps. She screws up her face, mugging for the camera, a feminine parody of masculinity. She is confrontational, challenging. She is enjoying herself. Could it be that she’s mocking him? That she’s mocking us? Let’s remember that Lemonade came out just two and a half years later. The initial speculation it ignited about Jay Z’s infidelity and the couple’s rumored impending divorce gave way rapidly to fascination with its sophisticated references and celebration of its feminist messages. In light of Lemonade, I find a new, if cynical satisfaction in “Drunk in Love” today, beyond its catchy tune and cathartic structure: in that disturbing yet thrilling confusion between truth and illusion.


Rachel Lyon


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2017

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