In February 2016 when Beyoncé dropped “Formation” the first single from her album Lemonade, nearly all of the critics agreed on two things: the song and video were a critical success, and the lyrics and images were deeply personal.
Discussing the song in the New York Times, Jenna Wortham wrote that Beyoncé, “wants us to know — more than ever — that she’s still grounded, she’s paying attention and still a little hood.” And compared to her previous album, Lemonade feels like, “a rebuttal or perhaps an addendum to her thesis statement about who she is and what she stands for, but on her own terms of course.”
Did Beyoncé protest these assumptions? Did she try to introduce some distance between her inner life and her music? Hardly. In a gesture she surely knew would not remain private, she sent Wortham flowers and a note that read in part, “Thanks for understanding my heart.”
That critics and fans alike make connections between a singer’s repertoire and her personal life – and that performers encourage such connections - is not a new phenomenon. The urge to make such connections seems particularly strong in the case of artists like Beyoncé, who write their own songs or collaborate with songwriters. (Similar assumptions are made about Taylor Swift, for example.) But why do so many listeners make these connections and why do singers seem to endorse them, at least some of the time?
"We want to feel that singers are performing in a genuine way and conveying something true of their real lives and experience."
The answer has to do with our desire for authenticity from musicians. In the case of paintings and other works of art that are physically instantiated, “authentic” is opposed to “fake” or “forgery.” In popular music, “authenticity” sometimes means fidelity to a tradition (as in “authentic Delta blues.”) However another sense of “authenticity” opposes it to insincerity. When we stop to think about it, we realize that singers are performers who must “put on a show.” We recognize that Beyoncé and other artists might want to sing material that is “out of character” or about topics other than their own lives. Yet at the same time, we want to feel that singers are performing in a genuine way and conveying something true of their real lives and experience. Such “sincerity” is one of the forms of authenticity that we expect from singers.
Human beings are pretty good at detecting insincerity in others. For example, we can usually recognize the difference between a genuine smile (what psychologists call a “Duchenne smile”) and a fake smile. Insincere communication – or communication that is perceived by the recipient to be insincere – damages relationships. The hypocritical apology, the disingenuous compliment, the reluctantly given invitation – all of these can be sources of tension between people. They can even end friendships.
Singing is both a performing art and a form of interpersonal communication. A song can feel like a personal communication, even when the listener is just one of many in a crowd. When singers perform, elements of genuine self-expression are mixed with elements of artifice. Just as we expect sincerity from the people we deal with in ordinary life, we expect some level of sincerity from performers. We want to believe that their self-presentation on-stage and in their music is consistent in important ways with their genuine selves. We want to believe that Beyoncé, despite her riches and fame, really is still grounded and “still a little hood,” just as she is in her videos. We want to believe that Taylor Swift would stand up to bullies in real life, just as she does in her song “Mean.”
Is this expectation of authenticity in communication good or bad? Is there something amiss in expecting sincere communication from pop stars? For psychologically healthy listeners, it is probably harmless. Feeling a connection (real or imagined) with popular singers might even add a dimension to the experience of music. It could enhance a listener’s enjoyment if she feels that a famous artist has had similar experiences to hers and has faced similar challenges.
I suspect that things are a little more complicated for singers. On the one hand, singers may enjoy the feeling of connection with fans, as much as fans enjoy feeling a connection to their favourite singers. Yet expectations of sincerity might also be a burden, especially if any deviation from a singer’s usual persona is viewed with suspicion. Like an actor who is frustrated by being typecast into the same types of roles over and over, a singer may yearn to do something different, whether it is to sing about different things, try out new types of material, or project a different self-presentation. Will Beyoncé’s fans continue to adore her if they come to feel that her superstar status makes her no longer approachable, no longer still grounded and “a little hood”?