Hey Ann, Carl, and Chris,
It’s an honor to be here with some of my favorite critics. I feel like Pharrell, hanging out on Mount Olympus.
Chris, you brought up Daft Punk, who are still some of my favorite robots. Six months later, I unabashedly love the overblown retro odyssey that is Random Access Memories. And though there was tons of advance hype for the Daft Punk album, the music itself was secreted out in only the most infinitesimal of doses—15-second commercials at Coachella and during SNL, these tiny sonic teasers that left fans begging for more. Minimalist billboards depicted only a robot helmet and the Columbia logo.
The mysterious robots are also, as it happens, labelmates with Beyoncé—the reigning Queen of the Stealth Album Release—on Columbia Records. David Bowie, who released his admirable surprise album The Next Day earlier this year, also has a deal with Columbia; his album was released under exclusive license with the label, too. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that all three of these “comebacks”— orchestrated with varying degrees of stealth—were working with the same label.
I thought back to a scene in the Beyoncé documentary Life Is But a Dream—produced and directed by Beyoncé, of course—in which she demos a new song for a giant roomful of record label execs. Everyone in the boardroom bobs heads with the music, before bursting into raucous applause. It gives you a staggering sense of the enormous corporate machinery behind Beyoncé. It may have been Beyoncé’s idea to create her album in secret, but this was also a deliberate strategy, one that was just as architected and elaborate as Streamline and Interscope’s seemingly endless publicity blitzkrieg for Lady Gaga’s Artpop.
We’ll get back to this. But first, let’s talk about The Album. The Album as an Event. The Album as a grand, career-defining statement. While we’re at it, let’s talk about Thriller.
Daft Punk and Beyoncé both prominently name Thriller as an inspiration for their latest colossal albums. As I wrote in May, Daft Punk went so far as to literally “sample” vintage Michael Jackson on Random Access Memories by hiring MJ’s classic lineup of session musicians: the duo used the guitarist Paul Jackson, who played on Thriller, and John J.R. Robinson, a drummer on Off the Wall. They rocked MJ’s look, right down to the sequined blazers, and the glowing cursive script they used for the cover.
“Thriller reshaped sound,” enthused Thomas Bangalter in an interview with Time earlier this year. “It reshaped everything.” Guy Manuel de Homem-Christo said that Thriller was his “first impactful memory,” remembering “I was 7 or 8 at the time, and I really embraced it all, the performance and the package and music and horror film …”
Beyoncé, meanwhile, was 2 years old when Thriller was originally released. But it had a deep impact on her, too. “I remember seeing Thriller on TV with my family,” Bey has said. “It was an event. We all sat around the TV… I miss that immersive experience.” Thriller was a truly global phenomenon; Michael Jackson was the first American pop star to become a household name in India, for instance. (Bollywood is still ripping Thriller’s dance routines, 30 years later.)
So how do you recreate the Thriller experience now? That’s quite literally the million-dollar question for record labels, who long for those halcyon monocultural moments when tens of millions of people worldwide turn their heads in the same direction, glued to the same thing. Bey’s overpowering synthesis of music and visuals is her tribute to Thriller. It was MJ’s Gesamtkunstwerk, the total work of art, the video, the dancing, the music, the outfits, everything.
Matching that accomplishment is an admirable ambition. But let’s also talk about the conservatism inherent in this idea of the album. This concept of the album in 2013 as a grand statement is so old-school, it’s practically ancient. “People don’t make albums anymore,” Bey laments in her documentary. “They just try to sell a bunch of little quick singles and then they burn out … people don’t even listen to a body of work anymore,” she says.
I understand what she means, but I find it really… strange to hear, especially after a recent visit to the U.K., happily absorbing the energy and chaos of London, where music seems to mutate on a weekly basis in clubs. The No. 1 song the week I was there was a vocal remix of Storm Queen’s amazing “Look Right Through.” It’s straight-up dance music, house music, and it was ruling the charts. Who cared about The Album? The ephemeral nature of the single is part of what makes it so thrilling.
Beyoncé and Daft Punk share a lot beyond a record label and a mutual interest in keeping Pharrell employed. It’s this concept of craftsmanship, of what “real music” is, of making an album “built to last” as if it’s a Volvo, when most of us just want to hop in a cab and get to the next party. As grandiose and admirable as Random Access Memories was, I’m guessing that “Get Lucky” will be what people remember in 10 years, not the album as a whole.
Beyoncé is a fabulous album too, though I’d argue that the obvious single, the Jay Z collaboration “Drunk in Love,” is one of the worst songs on it. But hey, I like “Pretty Hurts.” I dig “Rocket” (though, as others have pointed out, I hope D’Angelo gets royalties) and the Janet Jackson-rockin’ “Blow” and the rest of it. I like the big, expensive production. I’m down with sampling Nigerian feminist writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. But something about Beyoncé’s amazing flawlessness always unsettled me. Even when she’s brutally angry, even when she’s singing her heart out, it’s … utter perfection. To me, there’s more angst and grit on the Mary J. Blige Christmas record.
And I’d have more time for Beyoncé’s self-empowerment message if she wasn’t also shilling for Pepsi. In a damning essay in the New York Times at the beginning of the year, Mark Bittman wrote that Beyoncé is “part of an effort that promotes a public health crisis.” At that point, Beyoncé and Jay Z were worth a whopping $775 million, and presumably Bey could have done without the $50 million she reportedly received from the Pepsi deal. She also endorsed Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign, designed to encourage kids to eat healthy and exercise, making the deal seem even more hypocritical. “Beyoncé has now become the world’s most prominent spokesperson for poor diets, obesity, and its health consequences, and marketing tied to the most vulnerable populations,” wrote nutrition and public health expert Marion Nestle. Jay and Bey’s net worth has only increased since then; Forbes notes that Bey’s surprise album means that 2014 will be her most lucrative year yet.
But hey, even if you don’t like Beyoncé, you can’t argue with her tour de force of an album. It’s unstoppable. I’m pretty sure Beyoncé doesn’t care what music critics think; she’s probably too busy lounging on a fabulous yacht with Jay Z, in between selling out stadiums. According to the latest sales figures, Bey has sold 828,773 albums in just three days. Ann, I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts on the powerful women of 2013.
I woke up like this,