Beyoncé's 'Lemonade' is the Greatest Pop Moment of the 21st Century

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Beyoncé, in a still from 'Lemonade.'

Beyoncé's Lemonade arrived tonight via HBO, and now, in its immediate aftermath, there is no other way to say it: we have all witnessed the greatest pop moment thus far of the 21st century.

I'm old enough to remember watching the premiere of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video on TV as a kid, how mesmerizing it felt, and how everyone was talking about it the next day, the next month, the next year.

What Beyoncé has done is "Thriller" times 20.

A visual album about the real-life trauma of Jay-Z's cheating on Beyoncé, Lemonade follows an adapted version of the Kübler-Ross model, a.k.a. the five stages of grief -- denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance -- around the realization of Jay-Z's unfaithfulness. Numerous references to coming home late, not being able to look his wife in the eye, Bey's regrets about her wedding ring and "side chicks" prevail. Prominently, Bey's confidence eventually takes center stage; this is a feminist album that operates on reality and not a PC narrative.

If you're aware of the Kübler-Ross model, you know that the final stage is "acceptance." This is why, even when Beyoncé sang of anger and depression in the first half, I started to believe that Lemonade was not going to be a divorce album.

Beyoncé in 'Lemonade.'
Beyoncé in 'Lemonade.'

This gave me slight disappointment. How incredible would it be, how empowering to every woman who'd been cheated on, to divorce Jay-Z on live television over his cheating -- complete with very detailed lyrics, middle fingers, expletives and "you coulda had this" shots of Jay-Z's child, Blue Ivy, and the vision of Beyoncé's body?


But Beyoncé is not beholden to all women in the world. Life is not a Tumblr post. And love makes us embrace certain sacrifices. If, for the first 40 minutes, Lemonade is a kiss-off that seems to inevitably end in divorce, then the next 20 minutes are a reminder that the aftermath of infidelity is not always easy.

Let's get real for a second. Have you ever cheated on someone? I have. It's terrible, except you're getting satisfaction in this way that you could never get otherwise, and it's wonderful, like being in love again, and goddamn, there is something that feels so right about doing something so wrong.

Realness continued, though: Have you ever been cheated on? I have, and it's terrible, but in a different and altogether more devastating way. You want to die. You are in shock, denial, anger -- all those stages of grief. You are a wreck, and will be, for at least a few years.

Beyoncé and Jay-Z in 'Lemonade.'
Beyoncé and Jay-Z in 'Lemonade.'

But even someone as strong, famous, and wealthy as Beyoncé cannot ignore the strength of real love. Something happens after the one you love betrays you. If you're ambivalent, you can let them go. But if you love them passionately, and have always loved them, you enter into a stage of empathy that, while not fully forgiving them, understands why they've done what they've done.

That's why it's so powerful when Jay-Z actually appears on camera in Lemonade. Beyoncé is welcoming him into her album, but by extension back into her life. Furthermore, Jay is agreeing to be in this video, this album, this film that in large part is a vicious indictment of his infidelity.

Add to all of this the incredible film direction. The omnipresent blackness, continued from "Formation" -- Michael Brown's mother, Trayvon Martin's mother. The many references to motherhood -- Bible pages stopping a period; the eyes of Blue Ivy. The utter poetic nature of it all. The gift Beyoncé has given to black womanhood. There are layers upon layers to Lemonade that will take time to fully unravel.

But for now, I can't imagine any pop culture moment in the last 16 years that rivals this.

There is an inherent barrier in pop music at large. It says: No, you cannot come in. With Lemonade, Beyoncé has let us in -- with personal songs, artistic visuals, incredible music and deeply intimate lyrics. She has simply given us the greatest pop moment of the 21st century, thus far.