Beyoncé’s Awful New Album and the End of Pop Music Criticism

Spence Kornhaber almost got there. He almost let himself admit that “Renaissance,” the new album by Beyoncé, is awful. “Renaissance” is an hour of clattering dance beats with no melody or direction, lyrics that mine the same tired tropes about loving yourself, and dull profanity.

Because it’s not possible to criticize a woke “icon” like Beyoncé, Kornhaber, a writer for The Atlantic, had to switch gears after nearly expressing the honest, and accurate view that Bey’s new album is junk. Kornhaber’s review notes that in “Renaissance” “conventional songwriting rules, polite-test paradigms, and the best practices for headache avoidance were clearly not priorities here. The songs scatter, wobble and lurch into each other while Beyoncé wavers between singing and doing silly voices, in multitrack.”

Kornhaber then quickly starts to back pedal: 

‘Renaissance’ will play, to many, as exhausting, as indulgent, as ridiculous, as childish, as oversexed, as too much. But committing oneself to pleasure as fully as Beyoncé has here takes defiance and guts—and, more deeply, faith in the preciousness of one’s own experience. Somehow she has found a way to make messages of individual empowerment, which can be so trite in pop, jolt again.

In other words, “Renaissance” is a terrible record, but because Beyoncé celebrates “individual empowerment,” we have to say it’s really a great record. 

Consider, for starters, the way Beyoncé samples a Donna Summer classic, “I Feel Love.” This is a brilliant dance track that exudes a rapturous passion that Bey’s cold narcissism evades for crude rap or power trips. For a nauseating example of academic jargon meeting musical bigotry and taking it to new low expectations, however, it is hard to beat the slobbering Beyhive at NPR.

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For those of us who love, and grew up on, great, daring and honest pop music writing, Kornhaber’s surrender is a case study in how music writing, like everything else, has become cowardly and politicized. We are a long way from the days when Lester Bangs would mock—and praise—a star like Lou Reed. Artists are no longer judged by the quality of their songs. All that matters is politics and wokeness.

Thus, Beyoncé’s train wreck is genius, while anyone with the wrong politics, no matter how brilliant, is vilified. This is why “Latest Record Project, Vol. 1,” a recent 28-track double album from Van Morrison, got savaged in the press. Morrison has come out strongly against vaccine mandates and shutting down society, which particularly hurts musicians who make their living playing live. According to the Los Angeles Times, “Latest Record Project”  “veers off in a conspiratorially cranky direction with songs titled ‘The Long Con,’ ‘Big Lie,’ ‘Why Are You on Facebook’ and ‘Stop Bitching. Do Something.’” The Guardian (“depressing rants by tinfoil milliner”) and Rolling Stone (“a delightfully terrible study in casual grievance”) blasted the record. Rolling Stone‘s Jonathan Bernstein wrote that “Morrison’s repetition sounds less like the trance-like mysticism of a Caledonia poet and more like a furious customer demanding a refund.” He concludes that the record is “a largely unlistenable collection of rants and riffs.”

Rolling Stone was once a place where critics could freely criticize the work of stars, no matter how big or politically relevant. I still remember reading hilarious pans in Rolling Stones of records by Joni Mitchell (“her lyrics are like frosting without any cake”), Jimi Hendrix, Bon Jovi (“his band is barely functional”) and Pat Benatar. Rolling Stone was modeled on Melody Maker, a great British music magazine. In the 1980s, Melody Maker hired Allan Jones as editor. In his application Jones said he thought Melody Maker needed “a bullet up the arse” and transformed the magazine into something brilliant. As revealed in his memoir Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down, Jones also went toe-to-toe with egotistical rock stars, once walking out on Lou Reed before Reed, impressed with Jones’s courage, called him back. Melody Maker would often post two reviews of a popular new record, one positive, one negative.

Now, of course, everything is narcissism, and celebrities are the avatars of our psychological problems while journalists work for the therapeutic professions and the state. 

In an absurd and sad 2018 article, Washington Post pop critic Chris Richards argued that musicians should self-censor themselves in deference to prevailing political orthodoxies. Richards describes a band that so loved a record by an R&B artist that they wanted to cover it. They finally decided not to: “A band of white indie rockers performing the songs of a black R&B singer? No way. It would be seen as cultural appropriation.” Richards writes, “As badly as I wanted to hear their covers they were right.”

Richards argues that cultural appropriation is wrong and should be avoided when it feels like “taking” instead of “making.” “When Justin Timberlake beatboxes, or Taylor Swift raps, or Miley Cyrus twerks to a trap beat,” he writes, “it feels like taking. Nothing is being invented other than superficial juxtaposition. On the flip side, when the Talking Heads echo African pop rhythms, or the Wu-Tang Clan channels the spiritually of Kung-Fu cinema, or Beyoncé writes a country song, it feels more like making. The borrowed elements become an essential, integrated part of a new, previously unheard thing.”

“We think we know this difference when we hear it,” Richard concludes, “but sometimes we don’t—so there are more questions to ask, and many of them point toward an imbalance of power.”

In other words, pop music should submit itself to the social justice Left and only play the music that is approved by the state. When it does it will be praised by the state stenographers. It is left to the truly subversive—the real punk rockers—to say it: Beyoncé’s new record sucks.

 

 

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