Surprise is a time-honored tactic when it comes to fighting. But in the trench warfare of pop culture, generally speaking you want to let people know you're coming. With so much competition for consumers' Internet-addled attention spans these days, entertainment companies spend millions promoting their products weeks and months in advance, whether it's movies or video games, television shows or music.
But as with any rule, there are always exceptions. And Beyoncé is a big one. Without warning, fanfare, advance rumors or a boots-on-the-ground publicity campaign of any kind, Queen Bey quietly dropped a pop bomb on Dec. 13, 2013, by releasing her fifth, self-titled effort online.
And the Internet promptly went stark, raving mad.
Beyoncé's stealth release sparked a spontaneous and epic digital feeding frenzy. American fans alone downloaded 617,213 copies in just three days, the singer's best sales week ever—and it wasn't even Monday yet.
Similarly unconventional is the album format itself. Available exclusively on iTunes, those who purchase Beyoncé receive 14 audio tracks and a whopping 17 videos for those songs. The singer said of her efforts, "I didn't want to release my music the way I've done it [before]. I am bored with that. I feel like I am able to speak directly to my fans. There's so much that gets between the music, the artist and the fans."
So are there other surprises awaiting her fans as she speaks directly to them?
Album opener "Pretty Hurts" critiques societal pressure for a woman to find value in her looks. Beyoncé talks about what her mom told her ("Brush your hair, fix your teeth/What you wear is all that matters"), what TV says ("Bigger is better"), what Vogue says ("Thinner is better") and what the ultimate outcome for society is ("Perfection is a disease of a nation, pretty hurts, pretty hurts"). She then offers these alternative insights: "Ain't got no doctor or pill that can take the pain away/The pain's inside and nobody frees you from your body/It's the soul, it's the soul that needs surgery/ … When you're all alone by yourself/And you're lying in your bed/Reflection stares right into you/Are you happy with yourself?"
"Blue" exults in the joy of motherhood ("When I look in your eyes, I feel alive/ … When you holding me tight, I feel alive"). But on "Mine," Beyoncé digs even deeper, playing the part of an insecure new mom struggling with postpartum issues ("I'm not feeling like myself since the baby") who suggests to her ambivalent partner that the way to solve their hot-cold relationship problems is to go ahead and get married already ("All that I can think of is, we should get married/We should get married/Let's stop holding back and get carried away"). Then a voiceover from Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie critiques and contrasts the different messages about love and marriage that society sends to young women and young men. "Because I am female," Adichie says, "I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important. Now, marriage can be a source of joy and love and mutual support. But why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage and we don't teach boys the same?"
"No Angel" suggests that Beyoncé is doing her part to make a difficult relationship work ("You're not an angel either, but at least I'm trying"). "Superpower" celebrates tough love and perseverance. "Heaven" poignantly mourns the premature loss of a friend ("I just can't stand to see you leaving/But heaven couldn't wait for you/ … So go on, go home").
Videos elevate the importance of friendship, tight mother-daughter relationships and the damage done by an all-consuming focus on beauty (by way of beauty pageants).
Those quality concepts, sadly, must compete for our attention amid an avalanche of negative content (much of it too sexually explicit to examine here). Most of the unprintable "Blow," for example, focuses on the singer's ecstasy as she receives oral sex and coyly appropriates one evocative double entendre after another to describe that experience. "Drunk in Love" deals with inebriated sex ("I get filthy when that liquor get into me/ … Baby, I want you/Can't keep your eyes off my fatty"). Later, Beyoncé's husband, Jay Z, raps, "We sex again in the morning, your breasteses is my breakfast."
On "No Angel," Beyoncé instructs, "Stop acting so scared, just do what I tell/First go through my legs, go back on your head." "Yoncé/Partition" tells (again, graphically) of wild sex in the back of a limo that wrecks a woman's dress ("Oh, he so horny/He want to f‑‑‑/He bucked all my buttons, he ripped my blouse/He Monica Lewinsky all on my gown/Oh, there daddy, d-daddy didn't bring the towel"). And more sex saturates "Rocket" ("Do you wanna touch it, baby?/Grab ahold, don't let go/Let me know/That you ready"). "XO" finds Bey panting, "Baby, take me."
"Flawless" recapitulates much of "Bow Down/I Been On," which was released as a single in March 2013. It includes her brash instructions, "Bow down, b‑‑ches/ … This is my s‑‑‑, bow down b‑‑ches." (The song also includes 11 uses of "g‑‑d‑‑n.")
Many (most!) of the videos accompanying these sex-saturated songs are, well, equally sex saturated. They frequently show the singer (as well as other women) wearing very little, caressing herself and writhing suggestively. Two videos blur breast nudity, while several others barely avoid it. One finds Beyoncé pressed against a sheer sheet … clearly wearing nothing else.
Beyoncé's big bombshell includes some intimate, tender reflections on women's struggles with body image, the beauty of motherhood and the pain that comes when someone dies too soon. And in these moments, she hints at transitioning into an artist who has so much more to offer than merely her sex appeal.
Alas, I wonder if anyone will actually walk away from this release thinking about any of those things. Because the sex appeal here all but crushes everything else. So much so that The Daily Beast's Kevin Fallon titled his review of the album "Beyoncé Drips of Sex." He summarized, "It's intimate, raw, even X-rated, and cements her status as the most untouchable pop star alive."
Untouchable, maybe. But when it comes to ogling, well, that's a completely different thing. And that's hardly a surprise at all.