Unless you live under a rock on a distant desert planet, you are probably aware that over the weekend Beyoncé released a new HBO special/video album multimedia extravaganza—one that celebrated black womanhood, intimated that Jay-Z had been unfaithful and generally snapped the internet in two before leaping about on the whimpering little internet bits. With Lemonade, Beyoncé made 2016 about her, and made herself the symbol of 2016. Through dint of her own genius, glamour, smarts and artistry, this moment is about her.
Embodying the zeitgeist is what great pop performers do. And Beyoncé is better at it than anyone in the entire history of the pop/rock era.
Beyoncé is such a huge phenomenon, and her new album is so up to the minute, that it can be hard to remember just how long she’s been at it. But she released her first album as the lead singer of Destiny’s Child in 1998. The second album, The Writing’s on the Wall, came out in 1999 and was a massive hit, with the single “Say My Name” hitting number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and fusing girl power swagger, hip-hop attitude, pop songwriting, bad ass harmonizing and gospel tinged take-no-prisoner lead vocals into a formula that would define R&B in the early 2000s.
Once she established herself, Beyoncé never let up. “Survivor” was a huge smash for Destiny’s Child in 2001. In 2003 “Crazy in Love” hit number 1 on the Billboard Top 100 and the mainstream top 40. The “Single Ladies” video became an infinitely reproduced meme in 2008, and Beyonce’s self-titled video album, released with no previous notice, established a new megastar marketing blueprint in 2013.
Depending on how you look at it, then, Beyoncé has been an era-defining musician for 17 or 18 years, without ever once dipping out of the spotlight. No career pause, no comeback. She’s just been a superstar for close to two decades.
Eighteen years is an eternity in popular music. Stars, no matter how big, simply don’t stay on top that long. Kanye and Taylor Swift rival Beyoncé in many ways, but both started years after she did. The Rolling Stones, who released their first album in 1964, had an impressively long run for a classic rock act, but by the early 80s they were transitioning into a financially successful but in no way era-defining nostalgia band. Prince, amazing and prolific as he was, really only had a decade or so as one of the most important stars of his time; in the ‘90s, his music was extremely successful and very popular, but Purple Rain was an event he was not to repeat. And 18 years after his start, Bowie was releasing Tonight—which was, to put it mildly, no Lemonade.
There are a couple of stars who you could argue have had as long a run as Beyoncé. Frank Sinatra started in 1939 with the Harry James orchestra and was releasing iconic music into the 1960s, though there were ups and downs along the way. Michael Jackson began with the Jackson 5 in 1969 and was arguably still the King of Pop through Dangerous in 1991. That’s 22 years —but there was a major career downswing in the mid 1970s. Madonna is still around and still makes headlines, though when she kissed Britney and Christina at the VMAs in 2003, 20 years after her first album release, it felt less like she was defining the zeitgeist and more like she was scrambling to keep up with it.
Beyoncé, though, isn’t scrambling. She’s discovered new and unexpected sources of inspiration (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Big Freedia). She’s experimented with new formats (an album of videos, a video album). She’s moved from girl power to confession and a more and more explicit engagement with black politics, feminism, anti-racism and womanism. Her work has become more personal, more thoughtful, more daring, while still becoming more popular and more relevant.
As a black woman in the producer-heavy genre of pop R&B, Beyoncé’s agency and initiative has often been denigrated: Her success, critics insist, is due to her songwriters or her producers, even if she has songwriting and production credits. Someone else is always responsible for her success—which, at this point, has gone past sexist and on into outright laughable. You don’t accidentally stumble into being a defining artist of your time over and over and over again for two decades. If you’d suggested in 1999 that in 17 years, Outkast, Timbaland, Björk and the White Stripes would all be less important to the music and the culture than Beyoncé Knowles, who would have believed you? But they have all, to one degree or another, faded.
Only Beyoncé remains, the most important musician of our generation, and maybe of anybody’s.