In December of 2013, Beyoncé changed the game by not only releasing her entire album on iTunes without a debut single release or promotion, but turning her eponymous fifth studio album into a visual album, meaning each song was accompanied by a music video. We aren’t talking a standard green-screen music video where Beyoncé stands in front of a camera and belts out a soon-to-be hit such as “Pretty Hurts”, “XO” or “Drunk in Love”, but she went on location for each music video (17 in total), from Coney Island, New York to Rio de Janerio. Even the dancers featured in these videos had no idea what they were getting involved in and told TMZ that Beyoncé’s handlers confiscated their cell phones and other communication devices, even requiring them sign strict confidentiality agreements. This is what Beyoncé had to say about the album:
“I see music. It’s more than just what I hear. When I’m connected to something, I immediately see a visual or a series of images that are tied to a feeling or an emotion — a memory from my childhood, thoughts about life, my dreams or my fantasies. And they’re all connected to the music.”
As for the content itself, Beyoncé’s music videos have a strong setting and narrative that represents the lyrics of the song. For example, “Pretty Hurts”, a song about society’s obsession with outer-beauty, she plays the role of a beauty queen, in which every part of her body (along with other contestants’) is critiqued by a panel of judges (most of the video is shot in black and white which sharply contrasts what we’ve come to know of beauty pageants), followed up by the powerful warlike, all-come-together battle sequence in “Superpower”, the touching “Blue” (a nod to Beyoncé’s daughter Blue Ivy, whom she shares with husband Jay-Z), and commencing with the up-beat “Grown Woman”, in which we see a young 6-year old and then a 12-year old Beyoncé lip-synching (or perhaps dubbing) the catchy lyrics of “I’m a grown woman, I can do whatever I want.” A nice juxtaposition there by watching a baby Queen B sing her now-relevant lyrics.
The secret visual album: A pretty big feat if you think about the way music is carelessly leaked online today, from demos to full length albums finding their way onto music blogs and P2P torrents for anyone to download free of cost. Her team came up with a brilliant, well executed plan that has spurred two Billboard hits and sold three million copies within a month of being released.
I, however, have wonder if Beyoncé is undermining the importance of either singles being released from an album or the importance of music videos by producing this visual album. At one point, music videos were reserved for promotion and exposure of an artist, awaiting plays on MTV. This also calls for inquisitions about the future of music and big name artist putting out their next release. I don’t think an up-and-coming singer could just as easily, at the stroke of midnight, magically post their brand new mastered studio album on iTunes and expect it to be a worldwide hit, but someone like Beyoncé, who has worked on new music since 2012 (after 4 barely hit the mark), this could be a path others of her stature could take in the future. Demi Lovato took a page from Beyoncé’s book and recorded mini-music videos that represented the songs performed on her Neon Lights Tour that was played on the stage screen.
Others may reject this idea of visually inspired music. For example, Lady Gaga has unceremoniously taken the anti-Beyoncé route but choosing not to release a music video for top 15 hit “Do What U Want” from the album ARTPOP, claiming she was facing unfair time constraints that deterred her creative process.
Whether musicians follow her lead in the future, i.e. visually painting an entire album, I believe it is just another way we can perceive music and most importantly, this could give the listener a second chance to fully understand the meaning of each song.