The idea of canonization in relation to the modern climate of digitality and information raises interesting questions about the making of history. Particularly in terms of the music industry, when inundated with content as consumers, how will it be possible to retell the story of music by determining which moments, artists, and movements were emblematic of the times? If music is meant to also reflect social climates, subculture, and realities beyond the hegemonically constructed narratives of power, how are the considerations with which music is being created dampening or amplifying these kinds of voices? These questions can be explored by examining the new expectations of the artist with regard to the kinds of multimedia content being pushed out by three of the best-selling albums of 2016 thus far: Drake’s Views, Beyonce’s Lemonade, and Rihanna’s Anti.
In releasing their music across platforms, all three artists were able to use their work to immerse audiences in a new way, allowing them to choose for themselves how they want to go about injecting themselves into the musical narratives. The digital book of images for Drake’s album were an over-the-top yet ironic and self-aware accompaniment that was aware from its inception of the ways in which an audience would be able to re-appropriate instantly the highly stylized and intensely characterized versions of Drake. The release of Beyonce’s Lemonade short film, the result of a collaboration with artists, academics, producers, activists, and other figureheads across disciplines, expanded on an album that itself was strongly driven by narrative. Finally, Rihanna’s 2016 album debuted after her ANTIdiaRY was released exclusively to mobile devices, taking the viewer on an immersive experience through eight rooms that parallel her occult rise to stardom.
It becomes impossible to contain a creative message within the boundaries of one particular form of storytelling, as emotion in any form transcends borders and mediums, sitting at the intersection of varying creative influences. But these three albums all have something else in common beyond the desire to explore these limitations—a corporate sponsor: Drake’s ongoing partnership and exclusive release with Apple music, Beyonce’s HBO deal for Lemonade, Rihanna’s release of the ANTIdiaRY exclusively with Samsung and for Samsung owners, as well as Beyonce and Rihanna’s partnership with Tidal. Often in these cases, the media giants purchase exclusive rights to the album itself, then fans are able to get the album for free through a subscription streaming service, or the artists themselves send out a free download link. While this method of distribution promotes the idea that the music is being made with the consumers’ desire to have their reality reflected in the art, it actually increasingly makes corporations central to the production of content. Perhaps, then, this is why many artists have also more dramatically begun marketing themselves as compilations of one-dimensional personalities: Drake as the emotionally conflicted rapper who toggles between acceptance of his lifestyle and nostalgia for something more simple, and Beyonce in Lemonade as a hurt wife and mother who has in recent years aligned her identity more with modern feminism. These kinds of character brands have always been necessary for musicians to market themselves, but perhaps the one-dimensionality, or the multitude of many one-dimensional personalities, has increased as an attempt to create a market niche or selling point more to the corporation than to fans.
If music is meant to reflect the social, political, and economic climate and perspective of the masses, then what does this mean for production when an artist’s work is being sold to corporations instead of people? On one hand, the possibilities for counterculture and resistance might be challenged, as the consumers of the product are no longer responsible for the paradigm shifts that occur in the arts. However, on the other hand, corporate partnerships, as we have seen with the aforementioned artists, have broadened the artist’s ability to access the resources and tools of different mediums. These large-scale multimedia music projects likely wouldn’t be able to exist without the big names involved. Additionally, they have enabled artists to access a wider audience, who in turn can inject themselves into a variety of narratives.
What does this mean then for canonization? If Kanye West is asking Mark Zuckerberg for one billion dollars for his ideas to help humanity, then will the most successful musical projects or at least the ones retroactively proclaimed as landmarks be the ones that achieve the most funding with the biggest names entering partnerships? Will musical milestones be determined by the quantity of the content or the scope of the projects rather than the social importance of its temporality? Or perhaps these types of corporate partnerships and the messages that are being disseminated through art, not only in its message but in the means of its production, are perfectly reflective of the voices of a generation immersed in a world defined by these kinds of partnerships and interactions.