When media outlets scrambled to contextualize Beyonce’s surprise album release, several publications (Hollywood Reporter and Billboard.com are a two of them) were quick to mention the antics of Radiohead.
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It’s a wise comparison: over the last six years, the British art-rock band released two records in a similarly summary fashion, albeit for different motivations; Radiohead were fed up with their major record label, opting to utilize the DIY approach to better control their music.
If Beyonce wanted to exert control over something, it was a different entity altogether: us—more specifically, the online aspects of us—the bloggers, the tweeters, the trolls.
Unlike Lady Gaga, whose bid to law low was thwarted by rumors of feuds, law suits, and all sorts of accusations (more on that in an upcoming post), Beyonce held a more disciplined tack, saying barely anything about her new record, only hinting at its release date to a fan.
It seemed like Beyonce had taken a hard look at this last year of social media mayhem and decided there was a better way to do this—that indeed, others had done it better before; she had seen the market saturation coming from miles away.
Listening to the music on Beyonce, it becomes clear she also heard the market saturation coming from miles away—at least one million people know by now that Beyonce departs significantly from both her own back catalogue and the competition.
Truthfully it does more than that: it breaks from the current hallmarks of pop music altogether—the never-evolving, four-on-the-floor rhythms (“Timber”); the pre-chorus drop-offs leading to a gallant chorus kick-in (“Dynamite”); larger-than-life synthesizers exuding dominance over your left and right headphone, just as the double-tracked guitars of the nineties did (“Hold It Against Me”); utilizing real instruments only to show off their platonic ideal, rather than their nitty gritty, more personal aspects (“I Knew You Were Trouble”); chord progressions that were barely fresh when Paul McCartney laid them out in “Let it Be” (“We Can’t Stop”); the idea, so prevalent in production today, that we can stretch the ears, but we cannot challenge them.
Beyonce gives in to almost none of that current, popular aesthetic. What’s the result? she has outsold the competition, topped charts, and made history in the digital arena.
Many have credited the secret rollout as integral in the album’s sales—even going so far to say that “Beyonce’s album success may rewrite industry rules”—but the divergence of this music cannot be ignored—it’s hard to think of another mainstream release this year that sounds so simultaneously pop-oriented and indie-rarified; indeed, the surprise rollout may not be the only similarity between Beyonce and latter-day Radiohead.
It’s an unlikely parallel to make, but there are several musical choices that lasso Beyonce to the British art-rock band. The drum sounds, in particular, often evoke the Radiohead aesthetic. Consider the thinner percussive sound of “Blow”, whose snare doppelganger can be found in a song like “Ideoteque”. Or notice how the inverted reggaetone of “XO” recalls the backbeat of “Backdrifts (Honeymoon is over)”.
Go further down this rabbit hole and more similarities start to emerge: the fade in, rhythm, and timbre of the piano on “Blue” starts to sound like Thom Yorke’s “Rabbit in your headlights” (from his collaboration with UNKLE), and Beyonce’s initial melody here hits the same opening tones of “How To Disappear Completely”.
Then there’s the production—with its palate of muted, wetter synthesizers designed to envelop you seamlessly (rather than stab your ears repeatedly), the album’s textures feel calibrated more towards producer Nigel Godrich’s bent than Will.i.am’s.
How about the through-composed song structures, which are easily the headiest on a pop release this year? Gaga may have pushed this boundary on ARTPOP, but Beyonce stretches it to a level one would never expect to hear on the charts. Her songs move and breathe as freely like the acts they are meant to describe (“Partition” is a primed, x-rated example). There’s a fearlessness to the abandonment of conventional song structure that we haven’t seen in mainstream releases since…The King of Limbs.
This drawn out comparison to Radiohead may seem a little reductive, even myopic; we certainly cannot ignore other influences, such as D’Angelo on “Rocket”, or Aliyah on “Jealous”, or Madonna (by way of Ray Of Light‘s opener) on “Pretty Hurts”.
Still, the comparison holds because it establishes not an influence but a congruence. The Radiohead analogy informs a question about changing trends: if Radiohead succeeded in upending a genre of music with its releases of the late 90s/early 2000s, what will Beyonce do to our current EDM-flavored favor?
Indeed, from both an artistic and a fiscal vantage point, the pop music of 2014 and beyond is bound to be more interesting if one of the top selling artists around has topped the charts with prog-pop.
Given that this material is so brazenly not the norm, why is it selling? The pat answer is to say, “because she’s Beyonce”. Certainly you wouldn’t be alone in that response, and it would be foolish to discount its reasoning. But the more complicated, contextual answer harkens back to conclusions drawn in discussions surrounding Lordes’ Pure Heroine: the musical landscape is changing—has been changing for years. Only now, with Beyonce’s release adding to the context, can we see the glacial pace of the change has started to accelerate.
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