The Gospel According to Beyoncé
In his autobiography, Born to Run, rock legend Bruce Springsteen reminisces about his teenage days. He’d lie awake late into the night listening to his favourite records. He writes,
Records that ultimately held my interest were the ones […] that summoned the joy and heartbreak of everyday life. This music was filled with deep longing, a casually transcendent spirit, mature resignation and…hope…hope for that girl, that moment, that place, that night when everything changes, life reveals itself to you and you, in turn, are revealed.
His experience cannot be unique. There are lots of reasons to enjoy music, but the songs that keep us awake at night are those that transport us, speak to us and resonate with our experience of the world. This has certainly been my experience – I love music and have the utmost respect for its ability to speak to us. That is the wider context into which I want to insert The Gospel according to Beyoncé.
The purpose of this article is not to look at some Beyoncé songs and crowbar in a vague Christian message where there isn’t one. I want to engage with Beyoncé’s music for what it is. I want to ask what it tells us about the world we live in and why that resonates with people. But I also want to go deeper, exploring points of contact between Beyoncé’s recurring themes and the claims of Christianity.
A Global Success Story
Let’s start with some facts and figures. Born in September 1981, Beyoncé Giselle Knowles first found fame as a member of R&B group Destiny’s Child. In 2003, she launched her solo career with the ludicrously successful album Dangerously in Love. The lead single ‘Crazy in Love’ was the seventh bestselling song of 2003 in the UK and fourth best in the USA. She now has six studio albums under her belt, all of which debuted at number one in the US, all of which have won the Grammy for Best Contemporary R&B Album. She’s sold over 17 million albums worldwide, been featured on a list of America’s richest female entrepreneurs under 40 and was ranked number 21 on Forbes’ list of the 100 most powerful women in the world in 2016. It’s no wonder that her fans refer to her as Queen B; Beyoncé has been one of the most influential figures in the music and pop culture of the 21st Century.
So why has Beyoncé been so successful? I have to confess I came to this topic as a relative Beyoncé novice, so I’ve been looking into exactly what it is about Beyoncé’s music that makes her so popular. I started by asking people who are true Beyoncé fans exactly what it is they love about her and some recurring themes came out.
After I put out a general Facebook appeal saying ‘I know nothing about Beyoncé, please educate me!’ the most basic responses were along the lines of ‘Listen to this song, it’s an absolute tune!’ Her music is punchy, catchy and infectious. Even the most vocal ‘Bey’ detractors are sure to have found themselves singing along to her bigger hits in the car or on the dancefloor. That’s a surface level thing, but I wanted to mine a bit deeper.
Love and Empowerment
The two words that kept cropping up as I asked people about their love for Beyoncé were ‘love’ and ‘empowerment’. Beyoncé is someone who sings beautifully and engagingly about love, using every inch of her impressive vocal range to explore the minefield of human romance and all the complex mess of emotions that accompany it. In the documentary Beyoncé: Life is But a Dream (2013), she talks about how she wants to capture a sense of honesty in her music:
[I want to] Stop pretending I have it all together. And if I’m scared, be scared. Allow it. Release it. Move on.
Beyoncé's raw honesty resonates with us
This raw honesty resonates with us. When we’re feeling the sheer, unbridled excitement of meeting someone, falling in love and sharing our very selves with another person we can belt out ‘Love on Top’ or ‘Crazy in Love’. But when things go wrong we can find solace in Beyoncé’s more melancholy work. When that boy you love is selfish and lets you down you can let it all out as you sing ‘If I Were a Boy’ or ‘Broken-Hearted Girl’. When you’ve been unfairly jilted Beyoncé has got a whole arsenal of assertive songs for taking erstwhile lovers to task. There’s something inherently cathartic about singing ‘I could have another you in a minute – don’t you ever for a second get to thinking you’re irreplaceable!’
Which leads me onto the second key element of Beyoncé’s music: empowerment. I’m a pasty Irishman who works for a Christian charity – they don’t come much more vanilla than me. And yet, walking the streets of St Andrews with my earphones in and Beyoncé playlists teed up on Spotify carries with it the urge to strut! There’s something in the melody, the beat and some lyrics that are very dance-floor-shoutable that feel very empowering. What better thing to scream than ‘Who needs a degree when you’re schooln’ life’ as you enjoy a night out when you really ought to be revising? Beyoncé’s music is empowering, both for the wronged and jilted party in a break-up and for the marginalised and oppressed. Increasingly in her recent work Beyoncé has been using her status as an influential figure to stand up for the rights of women. To quote again from Life is But a Dream, Beyoncé says,
I’m always thinking about women, and what we need to hear. It’s difficult being a woman. It’s so much pressure, and we need that support sometimes and we need that escape sometimes. We’re all going through our problems, but we all have the same insecurities and we all have the same abilities and we all need each other.
Beyoncé’s music is empowering, both for the wronged party in a break-up and for the marginalised
Whether she’s doing it playfully like in ‘Single Ladies’ or making a more serious point like in ‘Run the World’ or ‘Flawless’, Beyoncé positions herself as a champion of female empowerment. And it’s not just women’s rights that Beyoncé champions, she also contributes to the discussion of the treatment of African Americans in the US. She made a big splash at the 2016 Super Bowl Halftime show, backed by dancers dressed like members of the Black Panthers movement and singing her song ‘Formation’, itself an anthem of African–American empowerment.
This sense of empowerment in Beyoncé’s music is one of the big things that attracts people to her. As one of my friends described it,
I love Beyoncé because she is known globally for being a strong female and inspires millions. She works hard and doesn't take rubbish from anyone. I love that her music always has a good beat and is always about empowering women and girls and showing them what they can do.
So, tying these two things together, we can broadly characterise Beyoncé’s work as saying,
I am worthy of dignity and respect, I have value and you should value me. And that means that when I give you my heart it really means something. You need to treasure that and you need to treat me with the value I deserve.
This goes some way to explaining exactly why Beyoncé’s music is so widely loved. We all want to know, at the end of the day, that our lives mean something. We want to feel valued and appreciated, we want to be treated with respect, dignity and value. When we give our hearts in love, when we put ourselves on the line and let someone see us for all our flaws and imperfections we want them to love us and treat us well. In fact, we’re terrified at the idea that someone would see into our hearts and then reject us. And when they do they deserve to be punished.
That’s what Lemonade, Beyoncé’s recent visual album is all about. In ‘4’ and ‘Beyoncé’ she goes to great lengths exploring how much she values love, how she cherishes it, how it’s worth working on and fighting for.And that’s why there’s such a sense of betrayal, hurt and anger in Lemonade. It seems appropriate that the main character in the album, whose husband has been playing around with ‘Becky with the good hair’, should remind him of exactly what he’s losing. She takes him to task for betraying and hurting her after the devotion she’s shown him.
‘They Don't Love You Like I Love You’
It may surprise you to find that this is where we see strong points of contact between Beyoncé and the Christian message. That image of an adulterous and unfaithful spouse is used in the Bible to describe how mankind has related to God. God created mankind out of love and he wants us to know him, relate to him and enjoy his love and care. But we’ve turned our backs on him. Like unfaithful spouses we’ve jilted the one who truly loves us and tried to find satisfaction elsewhere. And God’s heart breaks for this. It breaks as people turn their backs on him. In the song ‘Hold Up’, from Lemonade, the refrain is striking:
Hold up, they don't love you like I love you
Slow down, they don't love you like I love you
Back up, they don't love you like I love you
Step down, they don't love you like I love you
God's constant refrain is something like ‘they don’t love you like I love you’
This, in some very small way, is a picture of God’s attitude towards mankind throughout the Bible. As he sees his people turn their backs on him and try to fill the void that is left his constant refrain is something like ‘Come back to me…they don’t love you like I love you.’ In his Gospel, John records an encounter between Jesus and a woman by a well. This woman has been cast out by society because of her promiscuity. She’s been married five times, she’s been cheating on her husbands, constantly looking for satisfaction in her relationships. This lifestyle has left her as an outcast, rejected by the very people in whom she’s trying to find her validation. Jesus gets talking to her about water. And he says:
Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life. (John 4:13-14)
Jesus knows this woman’s past. Yet where society has rejected her, he offers her acceptance. He treats her with dignity. And he offers her something truly staggering. To a woman who is desperate to know real and lasting love, he says ‘I can give you that.’ He offers the same to all of us. All of us have made a pretty big mess by turning our backs on God and rejecting him. But it’s a mess that he has cleaned up by sending his Son. Jesus died on the cross to take the punishment for our rejection and he rose from the dead to show that he is the one with authority to restore our broken relationship with the God who made us. In him we can receive living water – a relationship with the God of the universe that truly satisfies and which lasts forever.
Relationships are so often marred by hurt and betrayal, but there is good news
Beyoncé’s biggest selling single is ‘If I Were a Boy’, and it’s not hard to see why. A good eight years before Lemonade, this is the song where her feminism and romanticism meet. It’s a song exploring the double standards placed on men and women, how for some reason boys seem to be able to mistreat her with impunity when all she’s done is show them devotion. Interestingly, her second biggest selling single is ‘Halo’, the chorus of which reads:
Everywhere I’m looking now
I’m surrounded by you embrace
Baby I can see your halo
You know you’re my saving grace
To the listener who finds Beyoncé’s music a guide for navigating human romance – that search for someone with a ‘halo’ – there is good news. Our human relationships are so often marred by hurt and betrayal. Even the best of people let us down. But in Jesus we find someone who sees us in all our frailty, fragility and weakness, yet offers us a quiet dignity and a love that knows no limits. That frees us to pursue life – to enjoy friendship and romance and to belt out Beyoncé tracks while knowing that our identity rests entirely secure in Jesus, the one who gives us real and lasting satisfaction.