From Destiny’s Child to Rosemary’s Baby? The religious right’s persecution of Beyoncé and ‘Renaissance’… is it fair or even accurate?

(August 17, 2022).  Beyoncé’s latest project Renaissance fell from No. 1–where it debuted last week—to No. 3 on the latest Billboard album chart.  With its chart-topping debut, it became her seventh No. 1 album—the entirety of her solo studio output—since 2003.

That number—seven—put her in a tie with Janet Jackson as the female with the fourth-most No. 1 albums all-time, behind Barbra Streisand (11), Taylor Swift (10) and Madonna (9).  It also tied Beyoncé with Janet as the Black women with the most No.  1 LPs (Mariah Carey sits one rung behind them with six chart-toppers).

Those are all huge accomplishments indeed, feats that are worthy of celebration as I can still recall in my lifetime—during the 1980s—when a Black woman couldn’t even buy a No. 1 LP. That decade’s first new No. 1 studio album by a Black woman didn’t occur until six years in (when Sade, followed by Whitney Houston, Janet, and Patti LaBelle all achieved their first No. 1s in 1986)

But Beyoncé’s latest has come with a level of scrutiny and criticism unlike that of any of those other artists. For instance, before it even got its first chart ink in Billboard (August 13), Renaissance had undergone two song revisions: first for the track “Heated” after disability advocates criticized her use of the term “spaz,” calling it ableist; and second for interpolating a few “la-la’s” too many in the style of Kelis’ 2003 smash “Milkshake” on the song “Energy.”

Beyoncé’s ‘Renaissance’ entered the Billboard 200 chart (Aug. 13) with 332,000 units consumed. It fell to No. 3 in its second week (Aug. 20) with 89,000 units.

Bey made the changes without  hesitation and, in the end, the two gestures likely helped Beyoncé’s cause more than it hurt.  After all, the free publicity caused triple-digit percentage increases in the streams of Kelis’ “Milkshake” so they must have had at least a ripple effect on the subject Renaissance tracks as well.

Renaissance debuted at No. 1 last week with over 332,000 equivalent album units sold—that’s more than the initial projection (275k)—making it the most-consumed album released by a woman this year.  Included in that figure were 137,000 copies on CD and vinyl, which became instant collectors’ items as their tracks couldn’t be modified like the streaming versions, which means they’ll forever contain the offending lyrics most of us streamers will never get to hear again.  

But none of the criticisms prompting the two songs’ edits came anywhere close to the most shocking allegations yet… grenades that have been lobbed with a level of vitriol and religious righteousness that none of the other women—Madonna included—can claim to have experienced throughout their careers.

This pastor spent 30 minutes dissecting ‘Renaissance’ within a few days of its release

Because of the album’s imagery and racy lyrics, Bey and Renaissance have been called everything from “possessed” to “demonic” and even “satanic,” particularly by evangelical Christians and religious leaders who’ve cited the album’s lyrics as promoting a culture of extreme promiscuity, narcissism, and ungodly idol worship.  

The fact that the album also unapologetically caters to a homosexual and gender-fluid audience—with its dedication to a late “Uncle” Johnny that Bey referenced in the liner notes as her “godmother,” and with its musical nods to disco and post-70s house music, which gay men particularly love—didn’t help her case.  If anything, it doubled down on Bey’s hedonistic intentions, from the critics’ perspectives.

And then there’s “Church Girl”—Track No. 7 on Renaissance—which samples a gospel song (“Center of Thy Will”) by legendary duo the Clark Sisters, and in which Beyoncé, the “Jezebel,” repeatedly sings about dropping it “like a thottie.”  For those who don’t know, a “thot” is a slang acronym for the phrase “that ho over there,” and is usually meant to be derogatory towards women, sort of like the term Jezebel.

Of course, there are the several times throughout the album that Beyoncé’s expressions of self-affirmation (particularly first three tracks “I’m That Girl,” “Cozy” and “Alien Superstar”), sexual confidence (“Cuff It,” “Virgo’s Groove,” “Thique”) and materialism (some of the aforementioned tracks plus “Energy,” “Heated,” “Summer Renaissance,” hell most of them) are cited as examples of idolatry and promiscuity.

But the biggest indicator of her devil-worshipping ways, they say?

The Renaissance album cover itself, for which a scantily clad Beyoncé is being derided not so much for her barely-there bikini-wear, but for the pale holographic horse she’s mounted (as in sitting on, not…oh, you’ve seen the picture).  It complements three other recent pics on which Beyoncé is seen straddling a white, red, and black horse.  Collectively, they represent the four horses of the apocalypse, as described in the Book of Revelations.

Beyoncé has been known for taking pics with horses over the years, but these four prompted some fascinating—to say the least—theories

Specifically, the four horsemen of the apocalypse are Christ (or the Antichrist), Who rides the white horse, followed by the second, third and fourth horsemen—representing war, famine and death—who ride a red, black and pale horse, respectively.  

The fact that the above-mentioned horse pics were not taken in the same order as depicted in the Bible, or that Bey has also been seen pictured over the years on a brown, a tan and a blue horse somehow escapes the discussion.

As for the other criticisms—about the overtly sexual expressions in particular—it didn’t matter to the critics that the singer has been in a monogamous (at least from her perspective, purportedly) marriage for more than 14 years (a modern miracle, I might add).  Or that her three children were born in wedlock (another miracle?).  Or that she didn’t choose divorce (itself considered a sin in the Bible) when it became known that her husband had been unfaithful.

The song “Virgo’s Groove,” even with all of its sexuality, seems more like a monogamous, euphoric expression of love and passion for her husband, rapper Jay-Z, with its “you’re the love of my life” refrain, than it does a slutty invitation to random bedroom frolicking.

Let’s face it, Beyoncé has reached that level of celebrity where she can’t even cross her eyes funny without being accused of doing the devil’s work.

It’s why she’s one of the few artists whose criticizers usually start with the phrase, “I don’t normally listen to this kind of music but…” before they proceed to dissect it as if it’s been in their repertoire for years.

It’s why she’s held to a higher standard than even the most sexually explicit rappers—male or female—or even rock artists who are notorious for far worse (have you ever listened to a death metal album? It’s main purpose is to scare your parents and any other God-fearing human being who dare try).

As one of the industry’s most important artists—one who even by the most objective standards has arguably influenced more women than any other singer during the 21st century—it’s understandable why lyrics like “I’mma fuck me up a bitch,” (I know, Beyhive, different album) should get no more of a pass than, I don’t know, take any line from “WAP” by Cardi B ft. Megan Thee Stallion.

When Bey dons an outfit consisting only of a few strategically placed dangly pieces and straddles a glass horse—and that album has the potential to be consumed by millions of young girls—she deserves no less scrutiny than singer/rapper Lizzo gets for twerking with her ass out at an NBA game.

In other words, Beyoncé does and should harbor some responsibility and accountability for her actions as a role model, intentional or not (she professes in “I’m That Girl” that she “didn’t want this power”), and any responsible criticism of her latest album, both for its content and its presentation, is indeed fair game.

But to question her religion or Christianity isn’t responsible.  It’s below the bar, it’s opportunistic and, quite frankly, it’s played out.

It’s also very dangerous, especially in 2022 where any radicalized person with extremist views could decide that he’s been called upon to do “the Lord’s work” and exact his own form of repentance on those indulging in Renaissance or on the album’s creator herself.  

Strict followers of Christianity know that Renaissance—like all of Beyoncé’s albums—is secular, “worldly” music.  It’s not intended for those without an ear for it.  If listening to the album is the musical equivalent of watching porn (a stretch analogy, I know, but it’s to make a point and there are those who would have you believe it), then why would a pastor have to warn his congregation about Renaissance in the first place?  Why has it even entered his vernacular?

That would be like watching and then condemning one new porn flick out of the thousands and thousands that exist (including others featuring the same actor) because its main star happens to be well-known.

The criticism of the album’s LGBTQ+ appeal is tired too.  It’s like when people cherry pick Bible verses to illustrate some self-serving point against homosexuality while remaining silent on extramarital sex of any kind and the many babies and illnesses that have resulted. (Oh, I know, we’re not supposed to discuss that.)

Speaking of the Bible, have you ever wondered why the Song of Songs—an Old Testament writing of poems with vivid sexual expression between two lovers (and others who are observing them)—never comes up in these discussions condemning explicit sexual expression?  I recently read Song of Songs, and something tells me Beyoncé has too.  But I digress (again).

Without a proper video for any of the album’s tracks, Beyoncé released this “cliquebait” for “Break My Soul,” which topped the Hot 100 for two weeks

Admittedly, I wasn’t a huge fan of Renaissance on first listen.  But that had less to do with its sexual explicitness or her liberal use of words like “motherfucker” (opening track “I’m That Girl” repeats it at least three dozen times in a sampled refrain from Tommy Wright III, Mac-T Dog, & Princess Loko’s “Still Pimpin’”), another point of contention among its critics.  

My reluctance had more to do with the fact that I just can’t see myself at this stage listening to a house music album nonstop for an hour, which is what this album beckons listeners to do (my younger club-going self might have raved over it though!).  

But I also know there is an audience out there for it—a younger, LGBTQ-inclusive, and mostly black audience that isn’t going away…ever.  And many of them are Christians—or profess to be—who aren’t going to just disappear because a few people with a religious platform think they should…or because critics decided that Beyoncé should be the poster child for all things sacrilegious.

Beyoncé knows about that audience, her audience.  She celebrates and respects it.  It’s why she released Renaissance in the first place, because she knows that her audience, her Beyhive, is in the world and deserves to have its entertainment needs served just like any other demographic.

And like her other most recent albums, Renaissance was intended for immediate impact, an event record six years in the making that would have been disappointing had it been anything less than fabulous.  

As for the repetition in her messages, Renaissance is a true album, a monolithic piece of work whose tracks were melded together and meant to be consumed in order from start to finish, without interruption.  Despite my own initial listening reservations, I’m sure many club DJs have already availed themselves of its seamless transitions and hour-long playtime.  

Imagine if, during those sets, its lyrical content suddenly pivoted from “worldly” expressions of self-affirmation, sexual freedom, letting one’s self go, and a few of the material riches she’s been blessed with (Versace, Bottega, Prada and Balenciaga among them), to deeper topics like philanthropy, religion or politics. 

Or, Heaven forbid, her Blackness (which, for Renaissance, is implicit), an oft-visited topic for which she also gets flack.

Like them or not, the chosen themes on Renaissance are, at the very least, cohesive.  By design, that cohesiveness comes at the expense of balance.  

So when one alleges that the album is demonic or satanic simply because of the frequency with which she repeats certain messages—despite that technique being employed in dance music for decades—it completely ignores the artistic aspect of her work.  Is an album by another secular artist any less blasphemous simply because only a few of its songs go down this explicit path while other tracks include messages of love or peace or some other socially acceptable topic?

Beyoncé has been down this concept-album path before, and for it she’s received both praise and criticism, but mostly praise.  It’s how 2013’s self-titled Beyoncé album focused mainly on her neo-feminism and Black activism.  It’s why 2016’s Lemonade was almost unilaterally about her husband’s infidelity.  

And it’s why Renaissance is almost exclusively a celebration of underground ball culture, LGBTQ pride, confidence and self expression.

But is it really the work of a demonic, satanic woman who has suddenly lost her way and needs our prayer?

And do we as Christians need that same prayer for having listened to it (more than once, I might add)?

I’ll leave that to the ultimate Judge to decide.

DJRob

DJRob (he/him/his) is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.

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Beyoncé on another horse

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