How do you even categorize Beyoncé’s new Lemonade album, dropped Saturday night, when Queen Bey and her bevy of collaborators have tapped into much more than her usual pop and R&B? It’s country, reggae, electronic, hip-hop, rock and jazz, too. How? How, as humans who crave labels and order and sorting, do we classify something that seems to transcend genre?
GRAMMY'S 17--And the award for best country song, rock song, pop song, record, album of the year -- #LEMONADE.— Akilah Hughes (@AkilahObviously) April 24, 2016
Lemonade is labeled as “pop” on iTunes. Metacritic has it at pop and R&B. Tidal lists it under pop and R&B. But what even is pop? What is R&B? What is genre? Why am I asking so many questions? It’s because I’m genuinely baffled about what is going on with the modern process of labeling music.
At this point, after so many years of music history, it seems like rock is pop, and pop is dance, and dance is a Justin Bieber song. Genre labels don’t feel like descriptors anymore, with fewer fans saying they’re “pop fans” or “rock fans” and instead just listening to everything that’s available to them. To me, it seems like using genre for categorization is antiquated. Does it matter anymore?
“I so deeply contest the role of genre,” says Charlie Harding, the co-host of Switched on Pop, a podcast about breaking down the musicality and politics of pop music. “The idea of claiming genre as an identity makes less sense than tradition as a sense of identity.”
I imagine the first brainstorms for Lemonade, with Beyonce sitting with a group of insanely talented songwriters and producers, dictating her vision to them: Let’s write a concept album about the complexities of marriage… but let’s write in whatever style fits the song’s emotion. It shouldn’t be revolutionary, but it kind of was.
You can tell by listening to Lemonade that Beyoncé doesn’t feel boxed in by what she’s done. Just because she’s played to traditional R&B crowds with songs like “Rocket” or “If I Were A Boy,” doesn’t mean she had to abide by traditional R&B forever. Her beginnings as an R&B artist were necessary: Her time in Destiny’s Child and her solo career, kicked off with the smash "Crazy In Love," needed to establish her place within mainstream music. We had to get to know her and her sound. After four albums, however, Bey came to a turning point when she released “Bow Down” in 2013 (a few months before the groundbreaking Beyoncé), which found Bey growling over a Hit-Boy-produced chopped and screwed beat. We weren’t used it. ...And then we were.
For an established artist to not want to grow out of their initial genre, to keep themselves in a box forever, seems constricting. As Harding points out, “The categories are dangerous because they’re so abstract.” But Beyoncé, and many other artists, already knew that, and they’re often dying to be set free.
If you think about it, the major genres don’t really mean anything anymore, and they’ve since given way to more specific titles, like baroque pop, symphonic metal, nerdcore and witch house, just to name a few. We feel the need to organize everything. Right now, there are 788 different genres listed on Wikipedia. In December, Vice published an alphabetical guide to "hipster music genres," that was mostly a joke but also featured genres that somehow were real things (shitgaze, twee, cloud rap, and so on).
Pop music is perhaps the blandest genre term out there, because it just represents a cross-section of what is popular. If you turn on pop radio, you’ll hear a little bit of hip-hop, a little bit of alt-rock and a little bit of EDM.
Sharon Dastur, senior vice president of programming integration at iHeartRadio, says genre is merely a marketing tool by record labels. “They know what songs will work with that artist’s core audience through research and Shazam and sales,” she says. Beyoncé will still be considered pop on the radio because she’s Beyoncé. Beyoncé is something that we all have in common, and therefore, popular. "[Pop] radio can play whatever they want," Dastur adds, "but you want to play music that listeners are familiar with and have been exposed to."
But people get weird once you start to define music as "pop." Pretty soon, fans will start questioning the genre label for Lemonade, but this goes right along with Harding’s beliefs as genre as identity: sometimes, you just have to let it go.
No one knows this better than the folks over at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, who get tweets, letters and public statements from rock purists who don’t think artists like N.W.A or Madonna should get inducted (ahem, Gene Simmons, looking at you). For Todd Mesek, VP of Marketing & Communications for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, rock, like pop, isn’t really a genre anymore; it’s an attitude.
“For us, to limit the definition would be a mistake,” Mesek says. “We think of [rock] like a river that’s flowing. It comes from jazz and blues and hip-hop and folk and R&B and country and bluegrass and gospel, and all those kind of genres that came before rock 'n' roll. There’s places where it overlaps. On the other side, there’s a place where it overlaps with EDM or hip-hop.”
Beyoncé’s music does the same thing, sampling those who came before her and pulling inspiration from disparate contemporary sounds. In this way, Beyoncé is an innovator, and a rock star. And I can't wait for the day she's inducted when she's eligible for the Rock Hall in 12 more years.
In the same way that people get angry about rappers getting inducted in to the “rock” hall, I remember getting a little salty about Lorde, who wrote one of the best pop songs of this century (“Royals”), and subsequently accumulated five rock nominations at award shows run by Billboard, iHeartRadio and MTV in 2014. Even Lorde herself was confused at the time.
OMG i am the black sheep of both my categories hahahaha— Lorde (@lorde) July 18, 2014
Just like the heads of these award shows, a lot of us still don’t know what to do with newer artists who don’t fit into the tradition of what we know. Look at Twenty One Pilots, whose “Stressed Out” mixes in rap, rock and pop, while cruising along on both modern rock and Top 40 radio. How do we peg these guys?
If we’re talking about categorization, Billboard has been sorting music via charts for decades. Keith Caulfield, co-director of charts at Billboard, confirmed the idea that genre is merely a marketing tool, based on the idea that, if you like a few R&B songs, radio stations and record labels can safely assume you’ll like another R&B song. But when it comes to defining what R&B is, Caulfield says that Billboard doesn’t have a set definition.
“It’s sort of by second nature,” Caulfield says about identifying genre in a song and then placing it in its relevant chart. “It’s not like I have to dig out a manual each week…You just know.
“Now, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t those cases where it can be a little bit weird,” he continues. “It can be like, ‘Hmm, this particular pop song that is full of rap—is that a rap track? Or is it a pop track?'”
That brings us back to Lemonade, which sounds full of those weird cases. With the gruffness of “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” the rock ‘n roll attitude of “Freedom” and the yawning blips of “Forward,” it’s easier to shut down genre altogether and just stop trying to figure out what kind of music this is.
“Some people would say a bird chirping is music and a dog barking is not,” says Harding, laying down the idea that everything may be art, depending on how you look at it. It all changes based on the background you bring to it.
So, when listening to Beyoncé’s Lemonade, there’s no need to define it, or each piece that composes the whole. Just look at it like the art that it is—something that is so uniquely Beyoncé’s, but something that also belongs to us now. And it’s okay if we don’t understand what it is quite yet.
Photo: Robin Harper/Parkwood Entertainment