Another Take: Beyonce’s ‘Lemonade’ Is Redemptive To All Of Us Who’ve Suffered The Infidelity Of A Long-Term Partner
One could be forgiven for thinking that the road of unfaithfulness is one well-traveled by the wagon of music’s mainstream divas. Ask someone to name a few pop songs in which a cheating ex gets trashed and they can probably rattle off a score. The theme recurs so often, it is easy to mistake repetition for depth of treatment. In reality, what we usually get are tired reiterations of the same archetypal dichotomy: Player vs. played.
This drama is staged again and again with the same two antagonistic characters: Villain and victim. Its message is simplistic. The cheating partner is always a consummate liar. They are never portrayed as a complex, flawed human who is capable of weakness, but rather as a rotten-to-the-core, pantomime caricature whose love was only ever part of a ploy to destroy you. When Ed Sheeran sings, “I reckon she was only looking for a lover to burn,” in his diss track “Don’t,” he reduces his muse to a one-sided harpy whose superficial beauty was just a ruse that allowed her to visit catastrophe upon his world. When Rihanna comes for her ex in “Take A Bow,” declaring, “I know you’re only sorry you got caught,” she frames him as incapable of remorse and devoid of the conscience that makes us all human. Even Beyonce’s own earlier work is guilty of this reductionism. “If I Were a Boy” portrays her partner as a heartless womanizer who conducts his cheating with supreme carelessness. He could “roll out of bed in the morning, throw on what [he] wanted then go…” with an ease that hints at utter malevolence.
Cheaters are only ever considered through the lens of their crime, and so they can only be seen as cruelly, calculatingly evil. Thanks to this premise, the victim is only capable of appearing singularly pathetic and lovelorn, or of coldly dismissing their betrayer, in which case all nuances of experience and emotion are drowned out in a cacophony of put-downs and false bravado: “Fuck those side-hoes”, “don’t need no man”, etc. In her early classic, “Picture To Burn,” Taylor Swift sings, “There’s no time for tears, I’m sitting here just planning my revenge… as far as I’m concerned, you’re just another picture to burn.” The crime and punishment erase all other history.
In this paradigm, cheating is the cardinal sin that trumps all and invalidates all that came before it. It’s not possible that the cheater could be a genuine person with conflicting needs and desires, who made a mistake. The only permissible truth is that “you were being played.”
If you believe for a second that maybe there was some truth in the love that you shared and that cheating is simply another potential shortcoming in any relationship, you are being played. If you allow yourself to continue feeling love for your betrayer, you are being played.
This dismissive attitude is really only applicable to a casual fling with a fuckboy you’re not that invested in. The problem is that in pop culture, lines get blurred a lot and we tend to clumsily shove all types of relationship under the same heading.
Well, who cares if pop music can’t confront the spectre of infidelity with appropriate sensitivity? Pop music is shallow anyway, right?
But pop music isn’t meaningless. Beyonce has proved that by dismantling the oppression of the black female body through this album (which you should read more about from black women writers.) As the saying goes, life imitates art. The ideologies perpetuated by the culture we consume every day trickle into our personal philosophies. The crude dichotomy of player vs. played originates in overt pop lyrics and resurfaces in quiet conversations over coffee with friends.
When I discovered that my long-term partner was a serial cheater, everyone I confided in presented me with the same shallow analysis. I only had two options: Be his victim or cut him off like dead weight. This learned taboo — this bizarre unwillingness to explore the complex, layered realities of individual relationships — was suffocating and restrictive. I felt like an idiot for feeling my love continue to exist alongside my anger. I felt unable to explore my true feelings, because in the dominant narrative of our society, they are forbidden. “Don’t let yourself be played.”
Pop culture provides no language or apparatus for us to grapple with the loss of a long term partner to infidelity. As a result, we as a young generation often end up trying to awkwardly shoehorn our own meaningful experiences into the shallow, bastardized mold that pop offers us. To do so is to do ourselves a gross injustice and leave ourselves feeling forever uneasy about our own struggle — forever without closure.
With Lemonade, Beyonce has given us one of the rare templates for dealing with betrayal on a greater magnitude. In her new visual album, she lays bare her struggle with her own husband’s unfaithfulness and her ensuing emotional rollercoaster. She veers gloriously from fury, to vengefulness, to pain, to reflectiveness, to tenderness, to forgiveness. She gives full license to the spectrum of emotions, and proudly declares her right to feel all of them.
In “Don’t Hurt Yourself”, she demolishes Jay, reminding him that she is the ultimate prize and to forego her for something lesser is merely self-harm: “When you play me, you play yourself.” This echoes the sentiments of her earlier work “Irreplaceable.” This too was an anti-fuckboy anthem, dismissing a man who thought she needed him when she didn’t.
But what Beyonce does next is to break through the taboos of cheating, and diverge from the prescribed roads to redemption. The revenge of “Don’t Hurt Yourself” and “I Ain’t Sorry” is not a conclusion, as we would usually expect it to be. Beyonce realizes that the heat of fury and betrayal is only one shade in the rainbow of perspectives, individual truths and emotions that is her relationship.
She seems to empathize with Jay Z in “Sandcastles”, when she blurs the lines between his broken promises and her own: “I know I promised that I couldn’t stay, baby, but every promise don’t work out that way.” She seems to be putting herself in his shoes, and gently reassuring him that she understands how one can stumble, and be capable of unexpected things, be they great or terrible.
This small act of understanding is a feat of strength and bravery by itself. Who among us could demonstrate such compassion in the face of such betrayal?
She indulges every nuance of her experience, from the base pettiness of hating “Becky with the good hair” to the transcendental forgiveness in the concluding track. In doing so, she acknowledges that all of her feelings and identities as a woman are not only legitimate, but beautiful, poignant and worthy.
With this holistic honesty, Beyonce shatters the simplistic paradigm of played vs. player. She finally gives exquisite vocalization to all the things we feel unable to say about our struggles with unfaithfulness. She acknowledges the humanity of the transgressor as well as the transgressed. She acknowledges that a relationship marred by infidelity is not invalidated, merely scarred — it can still be the source of beauty, love and truth. She teaches us that it’s okay to still love someone who has been unfaithful to you, and it’s not weak but strong to accept that pain. It is okay not to believe it when people tell you your whole relationship has been a lie — she tells us that it’s up to us to decide.
It’s not just a matter of losers and winners – it’s a matter of understanding your own reality. With Lemonade, Beyonce transfigures our victimhood from shameful to beautiful. She gives us the option to be more than villains or victims. She is a victim of betrayal, but she is also a goddess – not because she shirks off her pain and denies its power over her, but because she immerses herself in it like baptismal water, and emerges reborn.
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