Why does Beyoncé keep reinventing herself?

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One week ago, Beyoncé released a massive 27-song album, the second in the promised trilogy. In the days that followed, it dominated conversations about country music in America. I spoke with my colleague Spencer Kornhaber who writes about music Atlantic Oceanabout how the pop icon grappled with genre, the institution of country music, and her fame.

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More chaos and surprise

Laura Kelly: How does Beyoncé play with the genre Cowboy Carter?

Spencer Kornhaber: Beyoncé has reached a point in her career where she's already proven that she's the best at what she's known for: pop, R&B, and powerhouse vocals. I peaked at that 10 years ago. with Cowboy CarterShe is making a conscious decision to be an artist with greater range and ambition, thinking about art outside the context of genre.

There's a track on the album where Linda Martell says that the genre is a funny little thing, and that some people find the genre restrictive. Genre, for all creative types, is inherently in tension with the artistic impulse – so any artist with ambition, who remains true to their muse, will play with it.

That Beyoncé is more complex than posters suggest has been a clear theme of her work for years. And on her new album, there's a layer on top of that, which is her statement about what country music is, who it's for, and what it means — and she plays on people's thoughts and preconceptions, too.

Lura: Beyoncé covers a lot of detail on this album. She sings part of a classic Italian song. She covers The Beatles and “Jolene.”

Spencer: This is the second part of a three-chapter trilogy. This age is characterized for her by the desire to get rid of overthinking and perfectionism. She had this reputation of being a polished, type-A pop star, and someone who was in control of her image. During the early pandemic, I made a conscious decision to make music that expressed a lot of chaos, surprise, and absurdity.

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There's also this question: How can you extend your winning streak? You have to mix it up. The longevity of pop music — especially for female pop stars — has always involved reinvention.

Lura: Beyoncé features a number of guests on this album. What was she trying to say about country music and America by inviting the people she did to collaborate with her?

Spencer: The big conversation on this album is about race and country music. It was designed explicitly to comment on the paradox of country music: the genre traces much of its tradition to blacks and to formerly enslaved people in particular, and popular songs are still overwhelmingly written and performed by whites. Country music is notoriously not a diverse place. So she is trying to say: We're here, we do it too, and we do it like everyone else. She brings in four young black singers to cover “Blackbird,” and by adding quotes from Chuck Berry and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, she highlights black pioneers in country music.

Then she brought in Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson, two white icons and keepers of the genre. They have a lot of credibility and say they support what Beyoncé is doing so much that they'll be on her album. This may also be a message to more traditional listeners to give this a chance.

It also brought in Post Malone and Miley Cyrus, two younger white stars with a lot of appeal, who have built their careers on borrowing from black styles. They're allowed to move between genres in a way that raises many questions for someone like Beyoncé.

Lura: Beyoncé became the first black woman to top the chart painting Hot Country Songs chart for a song on this album, “Texas Hold 'Em.” Why did it take a black artist so long to reach this milestone?

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Spencer: Many people have tried. There has been a lot of activity and discussion about why black artists face so many barriers in this genre. Clearly, racism plays a role.

Beyoncé was able to do this in part because as famous as she is, she can use her marketing powers to create a buzz. This can only happen in the era of live streaming. “Texas Hold 'Em” hit No. 1 not because country radio was playing it but because fans and audiences can influence what shows up on the charts now, regardless of whether traditional gatekeepers support it or not.

Lura: At this point in Beyoncé's career, when she's become a huge celebrity, how much is she trying to attract new fans versus playing to her existing fans?

Spencer: On her previous album Renaissance, she seemed fine speaking to her core fan base and pop music fans. But on Cowboy CarterI think she wanted to make the tent a little bigger. She doesn't need to have huge real success to make a lot of money. She has super fans who will stream her music no matter what. But I think she's still hungry to conquer arenas she hasn't conquered before.

What sets Beyonce apart is that she is a true musical genius. She is a great singer and performer. But she's also a master at bringing in collaborators, bringing things together into a cohesive story, and keeping the energy going even as she switches moods and styles from one song to the next. Her music sounds like the mind of one person expressing their creativity with all the resources at their disposal. And it's great that we live in a time when someone like that is at the top of his game.


today's news

  1. a 4.8 magnitude earthquake Its epicenter hit New Jersey and the northeastern states of the United States this morning.
  2. Israel Defense Forces Investigation into its air strike on a humanitarian convoy of World Central Kitchen, killing seven people, and found that the attack was a “serious violation” of its policies. World Central Kitchen said the IDF “cannot credibly investigate its failure.”
  3. Employers in the United States Adding 303,000 job opportunities last month on a seasonally adjusted basis, according to the Labor Department, as the economic outlook continues to improve.
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Illustration by Paul Spilla. Source: Danielle Venturelli / WireImage / Getty.

Is Theo Vaughn the next Joe Rogan?

Written by James Parker

Someone is talking to you. Or is he talking to himself? A deep, wide voice with contemplative pauses and a spruce Louisiana accent. “There's this trick,” the voice says. “That's the devil over there…that's the devil, baby. That's Lucifer, brother. That's Lucifer, the one who smells the darkness.” Your whole life goes on; “I thought, Oh, I will, I will continue to pass judgment, keeping people at a distance …But then I'll get to the end of my life and I'll realize, you know what? I didn't gain anything by doing that. That was a trick. The only thing I won was to be alone.”

Theo Vaughn is not a preacher. Not officially. Officially, he is a comedian and has a podcast. But informally, it will take you there, into that biblical light, into the abyss of hell and the soul in its solitude and the rays of divine goodness.

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Stephanie Bye contributed to this newsletter.

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