Oh man, Beyoncé really did it this time. If you haven’t experienced her new self-titled album, the rock you’re living under must be warm and well-decorated. Beyoncé infuses experimental hip-pop, sudsy sex, arrogant feminism, motherhood, death and pop cheese in one phantasmagoric visual release.
The most exciting thing though, is the way destiny’s most blessed child avoided the fabled marketing campaign, requisite leak and weight of critical reception by releasing the surprise album suddenly through an Instagram post.
The first thing that gets me jazzed about this is the popular audience’s response. The internet teemed with instant feedback, from those who sang Beyoncé’s praises to others who created countless GIFs out of the already iconic music videos. As pop critics scrambled to publish rushed, insignificant reviews, and Target wept like a dessert-denied toddler in the corner, word of mouth shot the album past significance into phenomenon. Without reviews or anticipation to fulfill or disappoint expectations, the public was given the primary voice in deciding the album’s quality.
The internet seems to have reached its full pop potential with Beyoncé. While there are still some problems like leaking and product overflow, the internet creates accessibility that allows audiences to have their own say.
Similar to Mrs. Carter, Netflix originals—particularly Orange is the New Black—gained popularity by word of mouth. Surprise and bulk releases allow a democratized voice to decide pop art consumption and flatten the hierarchy of opinion. I personally think Orange is the New Black is completely disorganized and overwrought, and that it whores out television tropes as if its audience isn’t totally post-“Who shot JR?” and I feel comfortable saying that, because the only people whose voices matter are average viewers just like me!
The marketing process that these releases avoid has become way too bloated in other instances. Marketing and image invention during the months leading up to album releases has become as much of a release as the album itself. We saw it with Lady Gaga’s new album Artpop, which a lot of music writers think paled in financial and critical comparison due to Gaga’s focal shift from Born this Way’s fight for the outcast to a more alienating concern with art and obscurity. I don’t know enough about Lady Gaga’s audience to confidently agree. However, I do think Gaga’s loss of popularity signifies something important about contemporary pop music. The marketing campaign and the personality pop music artists attach to their albums sway public and critical opinion. Honestly, Lady Gaga’s new album struck me as just as annoying and addictive as her other ones, so I can’t logically conceive of her loss in popularity except to see it as an effect of her persona.
Then there’s the idea of an artist’s long-term narrative and how each album factors into that. Arcade Fire has released great stuff for the last ten years. Their hit debut Funeral and its equally melting follow-up Neon Bible made the band sad-kid rock icons. Next, they came out with something a little rockier and mainstream, The Suburbs, and that overrated gem got them the Grammy for album of the year. These brilliant Canadians had lived the American dream, rising through talent from the bottom to the tippity top.
This year they came out with something a little more experimental. No matter how brilliant the album was (and it was), critics were just overjoyed at the opportunity to bring them down a peg. Reviewers can throw around the album’s length as much as they want, but nobody’s going to convince me that Reflektor’s lukewarm reception has to do with anything other than preconceived notions about the narrative of their career. You can almost see the reviewer’s self-confident smirk when he or she writes about Reflektor as a comparative disappointment. The indie rock “it” kids have gotten enough praise at this point, or something equally petty like that.
The point with both Gaga and Arcade Fire is that the marketing campaign and the narrative surrounding an artist’s career attaches a sense of disappointment or satisfaction to each release. Audience expectations rely on the way these artists act or even exist outside of their music, which is sort of insignificant when it comes down to it. This is why the surprise release is so genius. Beyoncé shocked the listener out of preconceived notions and forced them to evaluate the release on its own. I haven’t heard anybody mention that they’re disappointed that she doesn’t use heavy choreography “like she always used to.”
Something similar happens in the case of Netflix Originals. Viewers watch whatever crops up on their screens, without any of those marketing or critical impositions on their opinion. There’s no running marketing or critical dialogue to suggest what the show will, may or should be, because it comes as one cohesive story. In other words, bulk releases require valuing final assessments as opposed to those based on the way something’s pitched in ads, or in episode-by-episode grading systems. The audience chooses to be in or out and can decide what they think from a blank slate instead of a narrative surrounding the show.
The untethered release gives a voice to all: the viewer, the artist and even the critic.