Having a bad Bey

If you’re going to jettison the essence of the song, why even bother?

On Pop

This article is taken from the May 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

There’s a rule for writing about Beyoncé, and it’s simple: you just have to say that every single thing she does is the most amazing, medium-redefining thing ever done by anyone. For a long time, it was an easy rule to follow, because doing so involved no lies.

In 2002, she left girl trio Destiny’s Child and spent a decade as the world’s premier soul diva. Then in 2013, she tore everything up with her self-titled 2013 album: dropped overnight with no warning and an accompanying video album, Beyoncé was audacious and omnivorous. The stand-out track “Flawless” sampled novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TEDx talk “We Should All Be Feminists”.

Follow-up Lemonade fed gossip because of its assumed references to her husband Jay Z’s alleged infidelity (cue lengthy dissections of who “Becky with the good hair” might be), but it was also a ferocious swagger across popular music. “Hold Up” interpolated indie band the Yeah Yeah Yeahs into a dancehall sway; the toweringly angry “Don’t Hurt Yourself” was a collaboration with Jack White and sampled Led Zeppelin.

No one else was making music like this: music that poured the whole of America’s history into your ears and invited you to shake your ass to it. There was something thrillingly political about Beyoncé, even if — when you got down to details — the actual political statements were mostly aesthetic: at the 2016 Super Bowl, her dancers’ costumes were a homage to the Black Panthers.

After Lemonade, we went six years without a Bey album proper. Her return was the album Renaissance, a homage to house and disco, conceived as the first part of a trilogy. Part two was heralded earlier this year, when Beyoncé started showing up to public appearances wearing a giant country hat. Did that mean we were about to get a Beyoncé country album?

The answer is yes, sort of: Cowboy Carter (Carter is her married name) was billed as a dive into the black origins of country music. It’s an exciting idea, and critics worked themselves into the kind of froth where words like “powerful” and “incredible” seemed appropriate.

Some wiser reviewers braved the fury of her fandom (the Beyhive) by voicing a few reservations, but only the Washington Post was willing to outright say it’s a bad record.

It is, though. For one thing, it’s too long — an absurd 27 tracks, many of which feel like little more than overindulged sketches. The fact that some songs were missing from early physical pressings adds to the sense that this is an album that wasn’t quite ready. (I don’t know, maybe it’s an idea to finish the product before you start the millinery-based teaser campaign?)

Even worse is the fact that it’s (and I hate to say this) kind of boring. Even many listens later, Beyoncé and Lemonade still sound surprising. Cowboy Carter sometimes feels like an exercise in doing the most obvious thing and then finding a way to make it even more basic.

Nothing exemplifies this more than Beyoncé’s version of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”. The New York Times reviewer claimed Beyoncé “reworks” it by “turning it inside out”. That, precisely, is the problem. Beyoncé takes Parton’s original, with its desperate plea to the other woman — “please don’t take my man” — and turns it into a hoary threat.

“I’m warnin’ you, woman, find you your own man,” snarls Beyoncé, instantly ripping all the pain and pathos out of the song and turning it into dull catfighting. “There’s a thousand girls in every room/ That act as desperate as you do.” What’s left is just a shallow brag: “Takes more than beauty and seductive stares/ To come between a family and a happy man.”

It’s shallow, because if the song’s narrator is so confident in her husband’s fidelity, why is she taking the time to threaten a woman she claims is barely one step up from the mass of groupies? On Lemonade, Beyoncé threatens to “fuck me up a bitch”, but there she’s addressing her errant man and showing him she means business. Going direct to the other woman doesn’t exactly imply a position of strength.

“Jolene” is tricky to take on because Parton’s own version is definitive, but it’s still got room for interpretation: Jack White has performed a live version with the White Stripes that sounds near-psychotic with anguish. If you’re going to jettison the essence of the song, why even bother? Why not pick a song already about challenging the sidepiece?

She could have chosen Loretta Lynn’s “Fist City”: “I’m here to tell you, gal, to lay off of my man/ If you don’t wanna go to Fist City.” Its menace is backed up by the fact that Lynn was a hardscrabble woman and very capable of handling herself in a real fight. It’s hard to imagine the refined Beyoncé landing a punch.

But the point of this “Jolene” isn’t the emotion or the story. It’s for Beyoncé to be able to say she’s covered it, and with Dolly’s approval (Parton provides a spoken intro). She’s not playing off the history of the song; she’s collecting it like a badge and waiting to collect her habitual applause. Not this time, Beyoncé, not this time.

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