Beyoncé, Jay Z, and the Gossip Industrial Complex

Image via Beyonce's Instagram
Image via Beyonce’s Instagram

It is late July. Half of everyone you know is off Instagramming the Hamptons, and in between the weekly international news horrors and everyone’s thoughts on the Kim Kardashian game’s relation to the late capitalist era, the national obsession has been on the state of Beyoncé and Jay Z’s marriage.

The regular tabloids of note have fixated on the power couple’s presumed unraveling. Today’s news cycle brought two reports from New York’s rival tabloids, the Post and the Daily News, about Beyoncé checking out real estate in Chelsea, supposedly for when she sets out solo. Speculation about their relationship turmoil generally concludes that Bey and Jay are keeping it together for the cameras until they finish up their joint tour in September. Timelines have popped up tracing the supposed beginning of the end and unnamed sources have chimed in to confirm the escalating troubles between the two superstars even as Beyonce cheerfully posts family pictures on her Instagram account.

The gossip industrial complex has turned its beady eye on Bey and Jay’s will-they-won’t-they divorce. It isn’t hard to suss why reports on the internal mechanisms of their marriage, however half-cooked they might be, make good copy. Celebrity worship and its darker companion, celebrity takedowns, are nothing new. Beyoncé  and Jay Z are rich, famous, and pretty. They have an empire of fans and detractors. It isn’t as if they’re new players to the tabloid game.

Beyoncé and Jay Z are part of a class of celebrities that maintain a meticulously constructed, vigorously policed barrier between their private life and their professional one. They go to great lengths to maintain and polish the glossy picture of their lives. (See, for example, the minor scuffle caused when one of Beyonce’s publicists asked that “unflattering” pictures of the star be taken down from Buzzfeed.) Jay Z is never going to go on a Twitter rant. Beyoncé will never post a nude selfie on Instagram (at least not one that isn’t tactfully edited).

They are deliberate about the things they release for public consumption, a strategy that both serves to insulate them, at least a little, from the endless gossip churn, and to give the information they do dole out to the public more weight. In an age focused on transparency and process, the innards of Beyoncé  and Jay Z’s lives are resolutely opaque. Beyonce is not telling you about the team of people hired to prepare her for appearances; she is not frequently snapped going to and from the gym or hair salon. She has not embraced the Jennifer Lawrence-esque self-awareness currently in vogue, the little stumble that emphasizes her graceful glide. She is #flawless. She woke up like this.

But there was a breach in the hull of the good ship Bey-Jay in May, when footage of the first lady of pop’s sister Solange attacking her husband in an elevator leaked. Was Solange admonishing Jay Z for cheating on her sister, as many gossips of note concluded? Is this a situation that happens often? What kind of event could have possibly precipitated such a risky move on Solange’s part? What actually went on in the confines of that elevator is a mystery that will never be solved to any onlooker’s satisfaction. But the gossip queries that the couple had so expertly fended off rushed into the crack made in that carefully preserved barrier between what is actually happening and what you want other people to think is happening. And, crucially, the narrative of their relationship shifted. What was once a fairytale became a carefully orchestrated lie, an artifice that the crusading insider sources of the world were determined to tear down. They are no longer two businesspeople working on maintaining a marriage, two entertainers in the public eye. They are staying together for the money, as some sort of bamboozlement to extract the maximum amount of cash from their fanbase

Of course, what are fairytales in the first place but carefully orchestrated lies? Sure, every photo on the social media accounts Beyoncé and her assistants maintain was carefully chosen to project a message about the star. She’s fun and personable, she loves her kid but she still gets down. But every photo anyone puts on social media is meant to portray a similar message. There is a reason that the options for editing on Instagram are called “filters”—they are meant to sift out the unfavorable elements in favor of the more flattering parts of our lives.  Beyoncé and Jay Z are playing the same game that we all do when we choose to put some things in the Christmas letter and omit others. (Their game, admittedly, involves a much larger budget and a dedicated staff.) And lots of couples, even those on the road to eventual separation or divorce, stay together for a time because of financial considerations. The idea that Bey and Jay are pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes by continuing to perform together even as they may actually separate is silly. So what if they do end up divorcing? Beyonce and Jay Z are both talented and shrewd in their own right. Their fame does not depend on their coupledom. Their romantic alliance wasn’t what brought either of them into the limelight.

What Beyoncé and Jay Z are being punished for in the press is denying access to the messy sanctum of their lives, a place that they, justifiably, don’t want their millions of fans to tread. They made an important misstep in the gossip-o-sphere by indicating that there was something juicy behind the curtain, but then denying the existence of the curtain. They acknowledged, however tacitly, that there is a difference between the public and private front, that real relationships take work and real six-pack abs require sit-ups.

People love to watch empires crumble. Beyoncéfreude is real and rampant. The rumors around the fall of the house of Jay and Bey are not going to stop. But it’s worth remembering that the whole rigmarole stems from something we all do. None of us are #flawless.

Follow Margaret Eby on Twitter @margareteby


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