Editor’s Note: Holly Thomas is a writer and editor based in London. She is morning editor at Katie Couric Media. She tweets @HolstaT. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.
Beyoncé’s new song, “Break My Soul,” is here to remind us that yes, we all feel dreadful – but since we’re all in the same overworked, underslept boat, the beat reverberating through our headphones may as well slap.
The track is Bey’s first single from her seventh solo album, “Renaissance,” and it’s precisely on-vibe for her stressed-out, post-pandemic audience. “Damn, they work me so damn hard, work by nine, then off past five,” she chants atop an agitated instrumental redolent of the hysterical anxiety familiar to anyone who’s committed to too many projects, then found themselves gasping for air as deadlines come crashing down around them.
As always, Beyoncé’s got her finger on America’s racing pulse, and in the grand tradition of burnout anthems, she’s conversely produced a song bursting with energy. Like Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure,” there’s no suggestion of stopping to rest. With a sound designed for heaving clubs at 2 a.m., “Break My Soul” acknowledges what a nightmare it is to power through amid overwhelming pressure and offers up a rhythm to keep you awake while you do.
The song marks a sharp U-turn from Beyoncé’s 2016 hit “Formation,” which exemplified the “rise and grind” mentality that dominated the 2010s with lyrics like “I dream it, I work hard, I grind ‘til I own it.” As famous for her unrelenting work ethic as her talent, Beyoncé was the perfect figurehead for that decade’s hustle culture – typified by the meme “You have the same amount of hours in a day as Beyoncé.” If you worked with Beyoncé, this was literally true: In the 2011 short film “Year of 4,” which documented the making of the singer’s fourth album, Beyoncé declared proudly: “If I’m not sleeping, nobody’s sleeping.”
Yet despite a level of wealth and celebrity that entirely insulates her from the real world, Beyoncé seems to have caught on to the fact that its inhabitants are sick of the grind. The fantasy that we’re only ever a certain number of sleepless nights away from realizing our ambitions has curdled, and we don’t want to be roused to action by the rare freaks of nature or privilege who chased their dreams and actually caught them.
When Kim Kardashian told Variety in March that the secret to success was to “Get your [expletive] [expletive] up and work,” her cranky, underslept audience raged in response. Kardashian later insisted that the quote was taken out of context, but the damage was done. The soundbite came as a slap in the face to the millions who already work hard, but whose success is obstructed by sexist, racist systems that ensure that for some, the race to the top is significantly smoother than it is for others.
This is why burnout music has to be animated and defiant. Floaty exhortations to slow down and take care of yourself would be unbearable when, for many of us, downing tools to rest isn’t a viable option. You can tell within the first 10 seconds of “Break My Soul” that Beyoncé – and no doubt everyone who worked with her – sweated blood over this record. Even if she’s moderated her philosophy on paper since “Formation,” one suspects that, in reality, producing music for a fan base acclimated to nothing but hits still requires a gritty willingness to work until the job is done.
David Bowie and Queen shared that fanaticism when they produced their 1981 hit “Under Pressure” in a haze of competition, nitpicking, and – as Far Out Magazine put it – amid “animosity, wine, cocaine and vocal battles.” Never one to under-perform, Dolly Parton wrote her iconic 1980 single “9 to 5” on the set of the film it was the soundtrack to, rapping the baseline with her nails in-between takes playing a put-upon secretary. It’s no accident that both these songs inject energy and life into the listener – it’s a much more useful outcome than wallowing in the fatigue and relentlessness of it all.
Everyone listening to “Break My Soul” understands that Beyoncé lives an enchanted life. She belts out that she “quit” her job, and we know that if she actually had, she’s already got enough money to fund a thousand retirements.
But burnout songs aren’t instruction manuals. They’re expressions of frustration that are, by necessity, created by people with far more energy and resources than the people intended to hear them. It would be agonizing if Beyoncé produced a record about being tired that actually sounded tired, complete with earnest suggestions that we all just take a bubble bath. Who’s got time? We’re powering through – so bring on the caffeinated, adrenalized beat, and we’ll yawn and stretch and try to come to life.