There’s a moment in Bjork’s video for “Black Lake” when it looks like she’s about to get swallowed up by the mouth of a cave. As she thrashes her limbs around the dark, cavernous space, it’s hard not to find yourself sharing her claustrophobia, a feeling that renders you, as well as Bjork, unable to breathe. She eventually escapes, but the total blackness outside looks equally overwhelming. She beats her chest in frustration and lies upon the rocks, waiting for the sun to rise so she can see the light of day.
When I watched Beyoncé’s audio-visual masterpiece Lemonade a year later in April, a familiar sensation crept over me. There she was, her limbs suspended in a room full of clear water, her eyes blank to the point of looking dead, with that feeling of claustrophobia intensifying with every second she remained submerged. Like Bjork, she eventually escapes, the water crashing around her ankles and spilling onto the street outside, but it’s hard to feel relieved; instead the scene feels manic, as if there’s chaos waiting for her just around the corner.
Beyonce's Lemonade has been heralded for many victories: the way it tackles the systematic oppression of black women, its innovative approach to pop, and its bravery in repossessing the privacy stolen from Beyoncé by the tabloid media. But aside from those qualities, when I listened to it for the first time in April, I couldn’t help but overlap it with Bjork’s Vulnicura.
These albums are bulldozers that demolish every single expectation of what a heartbroken female musician looks, sounds and acts like. They bear none of the self-consciousness that comes from the male gaze, they wholeheartedly reject the passivity that is expected from female popstars, and they drag the listener kicking and screaming through the actual reality of heartbreak in painful detail, exposing the true brutality of grief in all of its furious, unapologetic glory. Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago this ain’t.
When listening to these albums, most of us probably recognised the isolation and chaos within the context of our own lives and relationships. It’s the feeling of spending hours sobbing into a soggy pillow in a lightless room, unable to envision a normal life beyond dating a particular person. It’s the rising nausea as you check your phone every five minutes, wanting to simultaneously smash it in half and stare at the screen devotedly. It’s the unwelcome sizzle of paranoia, unable to differentiate between intuition or irrationality. “Are you cheating on me?” Beyoncé asks after she bursts from the water in the Lemonade film, her voice deceptively smooth. It’s a question that a lot of us have asked someone at some point in our lives.
But despite the universality of heartbreak, the terrain in which female popstars find themselves on has, historically, been rocky. In music, it has always felt like broken hearts are inherently gendered. Female artists who dare unleash their emotions are often labelled “confessional” singer-songwriters, while their male counterparts are seen as “lyricists”. “Confession is somebody trying to beat something out of you externally,” said Joni Mitchell, who herself released quintessential heartbreak album Blue and has rallied against a "confessional" label her entire career. “You’re imprisoned. You’re captured. They’re trying to get you to admit something. To humiliate and degrade yourself and put yourself in a bad position.”
It’s not just labels we’ve seen traditionally attached to female artists, but limitations too. The pain of Lemonade and Vulnicura is loud, ugly and shameless, but they are groundbreaking exceptions to the pop rule – it’s no secret that a lot of society still finds women who show these emotions as threatening. When women are angry, they are supposed to be sexy too, like Taylor Swift in Red. When women are hurting, they are supposed to be dignified with it, like Adele in 21. And when women are depressed, they have to be so with the utmost poeticism, like Amy Winehouse in Back to Black.
When women do unleash, there's the expectation that they must direct it inwards, towards themselves, in an act of romanticised destruction, like Lana Del Rey in Ultraviolence. When it’s expressed outwardly, it’s considered too aggressive to be normal. Rest assured, if a woman had written Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP, she’s more likely to have been labelled “unhinged” than given awards, and if a woman had released any of Drake’s tracks, you can bet your house she’d be castigated as “too needy.”
While there are many brilliant albums that deviate from this – such as Alanis Morrisette’s Jagged Little Pill, where she spits every lyric with absolute venom – they are often held at arm’s length, because women are taught to appeal to the male gaze. As the Booker Prize critic and novelist John Berger wrote in Ways of Seeing: “Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women, but also the relation of women to themselves.” One quick glance at any lyric on Kanye’s The Life of Pablo (”I made that bitch famous”) shows that, even in 2016, this stifling patriarchal construct is alive and well, and pop culture has a long way to go before it shakes off this boring lens.
From the very first line of Bjork’s Vulnicura – which translates to a "Cure for Wounds" (Vulnus + Cura) – she dives head first into her personal abyss, made all the more potent by her refusal to make it easy to swallow. “Show me emotional respect, I have emotional needs, I wish to synchronize our feelings,” she sings in “Stonemilker”, her voice shaking over sinking violin strings, like words spat through a stream of tears as her (ex) lover slams the front door. Never once does the track reach a crescendo, but instead propels itself along, as if Bjork is trapped in an obsessive cycle, agonising over the same thoughts repeatedly.
By the time the record reaches “Black Lake”, the album’s longest song, she sinks into despair. “Our love was my womb, but our bond was broken, my shield is gone, my protection taken” – perfectly articulating the stone cold shock of somebody packing up their belongings and amputating from your life forever. But as the deep strings of the track begin to swarm with jittering electronics, she releases her anguish: “You fear my limitless emotions, I am bored of your apocalyptic obsessions. Did I love you too much? Devotion bent me broken.” By refusing to make herself more palatable or “less emotional”, Bjork is rallying against the old-fashioned stereotype of the “hysterical female” by reclaiming it. Just like the image on the cover of the album, Vulnicura reveals an artist with her heart gaping wide open, uninterested in repressing her emotions to appease accepted norms.
In many ways, this is a sentiment that defines Lemonade also. However, while Bjork has always pushed boundaries, including the mainstream’s vision of womanhood, Beyonce has, in the past, worked very hard to appear unimpeachable. As Kat George explained in Noisey last year: “She’s sexy without being sexual. She’s a mother who is blindly loyal to her man, devout in her beliefs, and consistently impeccable in her public image.” That’s what made it both startling and powerful to see her reject all the above to embrace the staggering ugliness of a broken heart.
Nowhere is this clearer than in “Hold Up” – a scene now memed to the Moon – that sees Beyoncé striding, goddess-like, in a sunshine-coloured dress while wielding a baseball bat that reads “hot sauce” (a eye-wateringly brilliant nod to previous track “Formation” where she told us “I got hot sauce in my bag”). As she smashes her bat into a row of car windows to the open-mouthed shock of passers-by, she sings: “What’s worse, lookin’ jealous or crazy? Jealous or crazy? Or like being walked all over lately, walked all over lately, I’d rather be crazy”. Her words take direct aim at the language used to describe emotional women by embracing it. This isn’t the passive, solitary grief of classic Beyonce tracks like “Listen” or “Halo” – this is unapologetic rage and destruction: the kind that wants to bludgeon through the straight-faced restraint, unleashing the carnage beneath.
She doesn’t stop there. In “Don’t Hurt Yourself” her words are delivered with a scratchy-voiced squawk. “Who the fuck do you think I am?” She spits, “You ain’t married to no average bitch boy, you can watch my fat ass twist boy, as I bounce to the next dick boy.” This isn’t the Beyoncé who didn’t speak a single word in public for nearly three years. She peppers her lines in swear words and refuses to pacify her sexuality. “I smell that fragrance on your Louie V boy,” she continues over the firm thwack of drums. “Just give my fat ass a big kiss boy, tonight I’m fucking up all your shit boy.” Her no-fucks-given attitude feels directly attached to her anger. Why should she be the “perfect” wife if her husband is far from being the "perfect" husband? Why should she turn the volume down on her sexuality if her husband is turning the volume up on his? She essentially destroys the notion that a woman should feel pressured to accept injustice quietly, like a “good girl”.
When listening to Lemonade, it’s hard not to swivel your eyes towards Jay Z, who seems like the logical explanation for Beyoncé’s perfectly executed wrath. After all, we have seen the infamous elevator footage, we have read the headlines, and we have noticed a ring-less Beyoncé at the Met Gala. But the pain captured in Lemonade spills far outside the personal sphere, and exists much deeper than her husband. Instead, it is intimately bound up with what it means to be a black woman in America, and the social and cultural heartbreak that has historically come hand-in-hand. Because of this, Beyoncé’s anger is rendered twice as potent. As Ijeoma Oluo wrote in the Guardian: “A black woman who shows her anger is quickly scorned. ‘Black men have so much to deal with already,’ people say, ‘it is your job to support him and help him become a better man.’ The meekness expected of us stands in ironic contrast with the strength required to navigate this world as a black woman.” For Beyoncé to reject the passivity that is expected of her and fully embrace her own fury is not just powerful because she is a woman, but powerful because she is a black woman.
Bjork’s Vulnicura isn’t a reaction to a systematic racial oppression, but it’s important to note that, as a 50-year-old woman, her music holds political power also. We still live in an era where older women are supposed to be “dignified” or act “appropriately”. Lest we forget the public reactions to Madonna every time she appears on stage behaving in any way other than quiet. In Vulnicura, Bjork pays absolutely no attention to the ageist tropes and expectations that blemish the industry like acne, and asserts her own voice accordingly. “My throat was stuffed, my mouth was sewn up, banned from making noise, I was not heard,” she wails in “Mouth Mantra”, as if she’s breaking a long vow of silence. The very existence of Vulnicura stands in direct contrast to the idea that any women, young or old, of any race, should ever feel or be invisible.
These two albums may be worlds apart, but there is also something about them that hits the exact same spot. The eye roll-inducing stereotype of the “hysterical female” might feel old fashioned, but the sentiment still lingers today like a bad smell. As Alison Stevenson wrote for Vice earlier this year: “For centuries, women have been urged to repress their emotions in order to placate men… owning the thing we have been conditioned to fear most is the first step. To accept hysteria is the only way to eradicate it and any new form it may take.” To be hysterical is to be genuine.
Bjork and Beyoncé have shunned “likeability” in favour of purging their feelings into a fully-realised piece of art, stomping all over everything society tries to tell you a female popstar should be. Neither artists have chosen to sugarcoat their grief, waterdown their sexuality, or pacify their mania, and for women in the modern pop landscape, that is a most radical act of defiance.
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