If you have Internet access and a pair of working eyeballs, you should know by now that sex sells.
In the unlikely event that you still require convincing, however, consider this: on Monday, Apple announced that the album that Beyoncé unceremoniously unveiled last week sold 828,773 copies in three days. Featuring 14 new songs, 17 elaborately produced music videos, and roughly 90% of its titular artist’s naked body, the eponymous work was hailed as “impeccably constructed and calibrated” by Variety, termed “excellent” by Sasha Frere-Jones at the New Yorker, and declared sonically addictive by me, who has been listening to it to the exclusion of all else since Sunday. The melodious feat now sits comfortably at number one in 104 countries and is currently dominating the “Most Recently Played” lists of approximately every sentient human I know.
Critical acclaim and stunning commercial success are not the album’s only achievements. Since the moment of its unorthodox release, Beyoncé has been heralded by insiders as a certifiable game changer. Taken as a pioneering example, the record has the potential to catalyze a systemic revolution in the music industry. But while its formal elements unquestionably challenge tradition, its content is subtler in its commitment to flouting convention.
As the blush-colored stamps peppering its track list indicate, Beyoncé is explicit. Think: NSFW, pornography-adjacent explicit. Not one for understated innuendo or veiled euphemism, the album positively reeks of skin and sex. On it, the same singer who proclaims herself a “grown woman” and reminds detractors that she’s more than “just his little wife,” also growls: “Driver, roll up the partition please /I don’t need you seeing ’yoncé on her knees.”
Still, such evidence and the rather controversial lyrics that her husband contributes to “Drunk in Love” notwithstanding, I find myself not only mesmerized by but also deeply admiring of Queen Bey’s latest offering.
Time.com’s Eliana Dockterman is similarly awed. In a review of the record, she writes: “With her new album, Beyoncé has become the embodiment of modern feminism for a generation that has been reluctant to claim the word.” Like so much of Beyoncé’s music, “[m]en and love are a focus, but she makes sure to let us know that those songs are also about empowerment.” That is, even within the confines of an unapologetically normative account of domestic life and despite the album’s literally breathtaking raunchiness, Beyoncé espouses a brand of female sexuality at last befitting its millennial audience.
You might remember that some months ago Miley Cyrus purportedly set out to deliver the same. She promoted an unabashedly X-rated product, performed in a uniform of latex and leather no more revealing than the ensemble Beyoncé wears in “Rocket,” and tried very, very hard to assert an equally deliberate artistic vision. Given such theoretically damning parallels, it should be harder to explain why I am so captivated by the woman who croons “Let me sit this ass /On you,” but so horrified by Miley’s mandate to shake “it like we at a strip club.” And yet the difference between Beyoncé and Bangerz is obvious. In every respect, one of them knows what it’s doing. As far as I can tell, even as the self-styled Mrs. Carter embraces an identity at least partially defined by her husband, she remains as independent as ever.
Assuming you agree, has Beyoncé earned her reputation as a role model? Does a song like “Blow” jeopardize her status or cement it? Is it even fair to distinguish between Cyrus and Sasha Fierce? Finally, how awkward is it going to be when Baby Blue comes across a metaphorically dusty copy of this audio file lying around?
Let’s Talk About It.