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How Beyonce used pro wrestling tricks to sell 'Lemonade'

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The way pro wrestling builds and promotes larger-than-life characters has been in the news a few times recently, as more talented and better connected writers and thinkers than this one have discussed how Donald Trump learned from his time in WWE and applied that knowledge to his campaign for President of the United States, or Conor McGregor cuts promos that would make The Rock proud to hype his UFC fights.

Despite having never worked with WWE or any combat sports outfit, this past Saturday a different superstar made herself the center of the global scene using some techniques which will be familiar to viewers of Raw or SmackDown.

Beyonce doesn't need anyone's help presenting herself as titan of pop culture. The former Destiny's Child frontwoman who sang "bow down b****s" on her last critically acclaimed and best-selling album was on the cover of Time's 2014 "Most Influential People in the World" issue. She can back up any of the boasts in her music by pointing to outlets like the BBC calling her the voice of a generation.

She probably didn't need any help turning speculation about her personal life into both art and a marketing technique, either. But the way she did it with Lemonade, the HBO special that debuted this past Saturday to introduce her new album of the same name, used "Reality" Era kayfabe in a way that probably makes Triple H jealous.

Here's the background: Beyonce Knowles and her husband, Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter, have been the subject of gossip and tabloid speculation since before their relationship was public. The public loves to talk about the rich and powerful - even more so when they're talented and good-looking. Like Prince William & Duchess Kate, or Brad Pitt & Angelina Jolie, Bey & Jey are constantly in the headlines and on people's lips.

The tone of the broader conversation changed, however, when security camera footage leaked in 2014 of Beyonce's sister, Solange, confronting Carter in an elevator after a swanky party in New York City. Bey herself made no moves to separate the two. Then, reports started to surface saying Solange was confronting her brother-in-law over suspected infidelity.

A joint statement asking for privacy and calling the matter settled kept the mainstream media away.  But online, people have been interpreting every glance between the husband and wife, commenting every time one or the other is seen without a wedding ring and generally being suspicious there's strife in the marriage for almost two years.

Then, over the course of 60 minutes on Saturday night, Beyonce sang, recited poetry, acted and danced in a short film about a woman dealing with her fear that her husband, the father of her child, was cheating on her.

The internet damn near split in half. Last night, Lemonade was Tweeted about more than HBO's Sunday night juggernaut, the sixth season premiere of Game of Thrones. Today, almost 48 hours later, things are just starting to return to normal, but the special, album, and Bey-Jay relationship is still on people's minds.

What does any of this have to do with scripted athletic exhibitions? Well, other than the fact that Vince McMahon would die for the kind of traffic Beyonce pulled, there are a few similarities between a pro wrestling angle and how Yonce wove what the public thinks they know about her personal life into selling a lot of albums (or, in this case subscriptions to Tidal, the streaming music service she and Carter own) and processing her feminist statement on motherhood and celebration of Blackness in all its forms.

First, Beyonce does not speak on her personal life. She controls what goes into projects like Lemonade, or the videos that accompanied its eponymous predecessor. But that's all we have to go on. Jim Cornette would admire the Knowles-Carters' commitment to kayfabe.

Like Triple H, however, they know that in the 21st century world, you can't control everything. There are too many outlets, populated by too many users, any of whose interpretation of events could catch on with a larger slice of the population.

Kayfabe, or at least the version Oxford put in its dictionary ("the fact or convention of presenting staged performances as genuine or authentic"), is slightly outdated. For everything from blockbuster movies like Star Wars, where creators have to manage the viewers' expectations, to professional sports, where almost every fan believes they know better than their favorite team's coach, communication is no longer a one-way street. Art has always had an element of conversation between artist and audience, but the audience is now louder than ever before.

In wrestling, every major angle of the last several years has utilized the "inside information" to which hardcore fans have access. We rallied behind CM Punk's "Pipe Bomb" because he was finally airing our grievances, in our language, on television. We loved Daniel Bryan, but it was the thought WWE wouldn't let him be the champ, that they'd labeled him a "B+ player", that inspired a "movement".

Roman Reigns story has as much to do with what we believe has gone on backstage as what's been presented on screen. Punk saying he was told to "make Roman look strong" is a more successful catchphrase than anything Vince & company have scripted for the current WWE champ. And it's not that we dislike Reigns; we loved him in the Shield. But many hate the idea that someone other than the fans picked him for the top. His character has now been forced to acknowledge that resentment.

Knowing that the public has been gossiping about her marriage for two years, Beyonce's Lemonade gave viewers all the fodder they needed to fantasy book her divorce. And, judging by online response, they did. Fans invested in her relationship, either as supporters or detractors, were glued to their screens. Twitter exploded, well, constantly, but especially when she removed her wedding ring to whip it at the camera during the "Anger" portion of the film, and when Jay showed up in "Foregiveness".

Would fans have reacted this way if they didn't think they were in on the story? It's Beyonce, so it's likely it would have been a success regardless. But as Vince and wrestling promoters through the years have known, the best angles are the ones based in the real world. People buy more tickets for things they can relate to, and they're more likely to buy into something they believe is real.

We'll likely never know if it is real. Even in a world with TMZ, there are still some secrets. Who knew what and when about the Montreal Screwjob, and what did Jay do with "Becky with the good hair?" And as someone who's conceived her last two albums and the short films that went with them in total secrecy... if Yonce doesn't want the truth to be known, it will not be known.

Beyond the Tweets, and the album & subscription sales, people bought into this as real. Stories are going around of people confronting or being confronted by their partners about cheating. Rachel Roy, the fashion designer with whom some fans believe Jay-Z did something on the spectrum from flirting to cheating, has had to cancel personal appearances and make her Instagram private due to harassment when folks decided she was "Becky with the good hair". Some confused souls have even gone after cooking personality Rachel Ray.

It's the 2016 version of fans trying to throw acid on Freddie Blassie in the 1950s, or Roddy Piper being stabbed in the early 80s. Scary, but powerful.

And it's the same tactic WWE used in 2005-06 to turn the break-up of Matt Hardy & Lita amidst rumors she'd cheated on her real-life boyfriend with their mutual friend Adam "Edge" Copeland into a storyline feud between Hardy and Edge.

Once you take both Beyonce and WWE's desire to make money out of the equation, it's hard to argue that her goals are a little loftier. Whether you agree with her views or not, honoring black mothers is different from giving crowds an excuse to slut-shame Lita.

But like with Trump and McGregor, Bey has taken a pro wrestling tool, tweaked it slightly and used it for her own ends.

No matter how many guest hosts they recruit to Raw, or philanthropic efforts they fund, WWE has not been able to dispel the notion that pro wrestling/sports entertainment is trashy, only consumed by the poor and under-educated.

And while they're funding movies starring wrestlers, and talking about putting smiles on people's faces, performers in other fields or parts of the entertainment business are using tricks their industry created to launch successful political campaigns, headlining events a million people pay to watch, and start conversations that dominate the internet.

Those tools are the reason wrestling is a vital performance art. They're at wrestling's disposal, they just have to get creative in using them.

Like Beyonce did when she made Lemonade.

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