Images are the dominant record of this era. We exist in and through screens. We crave being seen, and our most prescient social media apps allow for that exchange. YouTube was the foundation of our vision, a bottomless video bazaar that empowered everyday users to create what they wanted, to be who they wanted. Instagram was, for a time, a seductress, impossible to live without. Influencers have built an entire economy around the concept of being watched. More recently, TikTok has become the new frontier of cultural production, where moving images dart on our iPhones with a persuasive, almost irresistible kineticism.
As the digital age became a surreal inevitability of my daily life, social media it magnified my gaze exponentially, an almost exhaustive lens through which I peered. It is a province for me to discover and test the meaning; meaning often derived from all kinds of visual renderings. As I have written earlier, the images make us real. Memes and GIFs are the authoritative vernacular in nearly all of my group chats. There are nights when I stalk the checkered grid of hookup apps with a feverish obsession, scrolling through the possibility of what I see and the promise of everything those boxy snapshots — angled faces, trimmed brown bodies — can deliver. Even the bloated era of streaming TV has provided a well of content and images that I devour all the time. Images are all around us. It seems natural to want more, to want to find new permutations to define ourselves.
But then I listened Renaissance. And listened and listened and listened. And I get it. Her songs are meant to live in us, not necessarily as a reflection of Beyoncé’s artistic invention, but as a reminder of our fantastic possibilities despite the surrounding hardships. She was not alone in this creative endeavor. Other notable artists have attempted similar detours this year, creating music meant to be experienced on a more analog and human level.
Listening to Drake can sometimes feel like watching the History Channel filtered through TikTok. An unashamed intruder, if a keen student of the past, his six solo albums are a collage of global influences, a sucking up of local scenes, sounds and sensibilities. The most recent, Honestly, it doesn’t matter, was released as a surprise in June. Like it Renaissance, what I liked the most was the way it veered into the neon mist of the dance floor, looking for a more analog moment where digital terrains didn’t dictate so much how we interact, create and make ourselves . In Drake’s case, he drew inspiration from the club music of Baltimore and Jersey, setting the mood with the whimsical production of house luminaries like Black Coffee. Even Bad Bunny and Kendrick Lamar’s respective albums begged us to get up and move this year. Even now I feel it; the Earthquake of Bad Bunny rapping “Titi me pregunto,” his kind of summer spell, rumbling off the city blocks, the energy of New Yorkers as alive as ever. It was the sound of a city, many cities around the world, finding their way.
It has been five months since the release of Renaissanceand the demand for visuals hasn’t abated one bit. But that desire misses the point. RenaissanceThe spirit of has never been about what he could imagine entirely through Beyoncé’s eyes. We have always been her canvas, our bodies in motion, our joy realized, they were just the images we were looking for. Music—buoyant, abundantly black, and perfectly queer—has made us into our own avatars of creation and meaning, prisms of joy and resilience. Whether it’s singing the “comfortable in my skin” lines on “Cozy,” casually blurting out “unique!!” or even getting lost in the glittering production of “Virgo’s Groove” on a Friday night, that’s where the album really came to life and where it needed to be seen. Those are the images that last. Renaissancethe most compelling images of it will always be us, together, celebrating ourselves.
In March, I lost a friend to suicide and would lose my grandmother to dementia at the end of the summer. There have been other losses as well. It’s been a year where everything seemed big and dark and over. The music that called to me, that saved me, provided the inverse: it was bright and messy and deeply vulnerable. You offered clarity. She lifted the lingering fog. The year’s top musicians got us moving again, not in the office, that bygone invention of pre-pandemic life, but out into the world again, and back to the dance floor, where the kindred embrace of friends and new flames was like a summons, and the swoosh of bodies against each other a balm. We all radiate electricity and intention. All of us are rebuilding life in the dense and continuous consequences of death.