Beyoncé has a new album, Renaissance. You might have heard it. Or you might have heard about it. It is the summer musical event, and that has everyone in a tizzy. Reviewers are gushing. Social media is lit with euphemisms from fans. And why not? The Economist notes:

Beyoncé Knowles, who now appears to occupy a cultural position somewhere between Maya Angelou, Billie Holiday, James Baldwin and St Bernadette. She had become, in an increasingly popular phrase, “culturally dominant”. Her seventh solo album, “Renaissance”, arrives not so much as a release, but as an event, heralded not just by reviews, but by reviews of reviews, previews, analyses of track titles and parsings of the lyrics.

Beyonce Renaissance

I have been listening to the album — on Spotify. Unlike the critics and reviewers, I am not having an eargasm. Except for two songs, Church Girl and Move, the album left me underwhelmed. She has done better work and will do better work in the future. (I am partial to I am Sasha Fierce and Lemonade, though Dangerously in Love is a guilty pleasure.)

I love her music too much to be upset. And life is too short to be upset over something, anything. More importantly, I don’t have a reason to be upset. After all, I didn’t drop a Jackson to buy the album. The upside of streaming is that if you don’t like something, you move on to something else.

Still, I appreciate Beyoncé bringing attention to house music and its legends. As someone who has been a house music fan since the earliest days, this made me happy. But that doesn’t mean I will go ga-ga over the album, which is a bit ho-hum, at least to my ears. My reaction is very different from that of critics and reviewers. According to Metacritic, it scored 93, and 19 out of 19 reviews are positive. Fans gave it 9.4. I understand that taste is subjective, and not everyone likes the same thing.

Beyoncé has not only got the fans and reviewers in the palm of her hand, but she is also smartly manipulating the algorithms. And it is not just the Queen Bee. Every artist needs to play this game. Let me explain

Shortly before Beyoncé’s album is about to be released, rumors start flying on Twitter and elsewhere. On the day of the release, Beyoncé (or her record company) pushed the content on social media. She has 56 million followers on Facebook, 25 million on YouTube, 4 million on TikTok, and 263 million on Instagram — that is enough to rev up the hype machine. Everyone is talking about it, and it’s trending news everywhere.

The media machine sees page views and clicks. It needs to ride this wave. News pieces roll in. Reviews roll in. Most of the reviews are good, and good reviews beget more reviews. Fans share reviews on social media. The echoes reverberate. No one wants to upset the apple cart. The Economist deftly explains:

Many superstars enjoy unquestioning critical veneration. This is driven by a number of factors—chief among them journalists’ fear of a social-media backlash.There is also the fact that the biggest stars rarely let their records go to reviewers before release, resulting in articles written on the fly, in which no one wants to be the person out of step. 

Artists have figured out that — herd mentality is good for business. As long you know how to herd the herd. The more people listen to something, the more it will force algorithms to push the songs in front of others. The engagement pushes the message on social platforms. And more people are listening. The “recommendation” gods are smiling on the album.

Regardless of what I think or feel about the album, it will soon be on top of the Billboard 100, and it is rising on Spotify charts and is already leaping up Apple Music charts. It doesn’t matter whether the album is good or not — everyone says it is, and in today’s climate, that is all that matters.

After all, everyone is getting paid: the artist, the record company, the streaming company, the media company, and the platforms. It is the culture of today. It is Renaissance 2.0!

August 4, 2022. San Francisco

A few days back, I watched with wonder and awe as a copter flew on the Red Planet. Witnessing Ingenuity take off from the Mars Perseverance Rover and send images all the way back to us humans filled me with an immense sense of joy and tremendous gratitude for technology and science. These are feelings we all could and should enjoy more regularly, and maybe we would if it weren’t increasingly difficult to recognize and appreciate our own reality.

So much of human progress takes place in increments, and the most meaningful strides rarely get much attention. In roughly the same length of time that we have gone from flying gliders to flying solar-powered copters on Mars, the average human life span has doubled — and we have hardly noticed as it was happening. 

“The story of our extra life span almost never appears on the front page of our actual daily newspapers, because the drama and heroism that have given us those additional years are far more evident in hindsight than they are in the moment,” writes Steven Johnson, in an excellent piece in The New York Times Magazine. (It is an excerpt from his 13th book, “Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer,” which will also be a four-part television series on PBS and BBC. I’m looking forward to both, the series and the book.) 

Yet, even as our progress accelerates, appreciating it becomes increasingly difficult. We live in a world increasingly informed by memes, stories, and fables. Misinformation and distrust of science are the order of the day. For their own selfish and short-term needs, our leaders willfully sow doubt in what has served us so well — science and its offshoot, technology. For example, the technology behind the vaccines created to fight the dreaded coronavirus has been nearly three decades in the making. And now it could help find solutions for many other diseases. And yet, in the media, this incredible achievement is as much a flashpoint of controversy as a source of celebration.

Sadly, the present doesn’t have the patience for progress — it is looking for a punch in the face. The world and its mouthpiece, the media is optimized around eliciting a reaction, because that is how attention can be converted into dollars. We live in a dense smog of information pollution, exacerbated by Facebook and other social media platforms, the engines of misinformation. The networks that connected us have turned communication into chaos.  

“We are no longer living at human speed, but instead, are living in a world moving and beating at the speed of the network,” I wrote in an earlier piece. “As a result, our biological makeup is being put to test. How long can we live with unending dopamine hits?”

In the post-Internet society, as I’ve previously written, time and attention are all fractionalized. We live in a world of 60-second TikToks. It has reduced our ability to appreciate the long arc of time and how it rewards us. Two hundred years ago, we were lucky if we could find a horse to ride — and now we are flying copters on the Red Planet. Imagine where we could be in another 100 years, especially if we don’t stand in our own way or allow ourselves to be distracted by nonsense. You have to believe that tomorrow can and will be better than today.

In the meantime, I recommend watching this short helicopter flight and marveling at all that made it happen — and all that is to come.

May 23, 2021. San Francisco