Beyonce Knowles-Carter is a superstar in an era where that kind of thing doesn’t exist anymore. In the wild world of the internet, pop stars with longevity are unheard of. You are as popular as your last single, as long as your last viral video. Yet Beyonce comes from the pop boom of the 90’s and has managed to cement her legacy with early incredible singles, and then protect it with incredible media savvy. Her only peer in this regard is Justin Timberlake, who also arose out of the boy band craze of the 90’s to turn into an adult superstar. But where Justin seemed to rely on marketing gimmicks and production connections to sell his latest album, Beyonce only needs herself. When she performed at the Superbowl last year, it was an event. Facebook blew up. You remember, you were there. It was the first time it seemed like the halftime show was bigger than the game. The power went out so the players didn’t have to follow her act. That show marked her ascendance to the Queendom of Pop; I remember thinking afterwards that this must have been what it was like to see Michael Jackson in the 80’s. Someone so huge, so universally beloved, yet with the talent and chops to back it up. Her tour that she announced that same day as the Superbowl is the biggest most extravagant victory lap ever taken. Bow down.
What pushed her into legend status was her album 4, released two years ago and what she’s still touring under. 4 is an incredible achievement, an album in a landscape where there are nothing but singles. When Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Katy Perry, and the rest of the girls on the charts were chasing that EDM money and trying to out-weird each other, Bey brought R&B back. She focused more on songwriting than hooks, on emotion rather than catchphrases. She connected herself to the lineage of soul singers she was brought up on and yet added enough quirk to pave the way for the PBR&B successes of guys like Frank Ocean and Miguel. JT’s new The 40/40 Experience tried to have the same effect as 4, but his spaced-out prog-pop can’t match the restrained power that Beyonce put in her work. And the album captures what’s so special about Beyonce. Sexy without being slutty. Strong without being scary. Happily married but still independent. Stanky but so fresh and so clean.
Her tour captures all that and more. I wasn’t prepared for the level of showmanship and spectacle that I witnessed. There were three different parts to the show: singer-songwriter, pop star, rock star. She was either singing by herself with minimal accompaniment, singing while dancing with all backup dancers and light show according her, or singing backed by a full (awesome) band, complete with horns and the girls whose guitar shot sparks at the Superbowl. There were breathtaking moments. After pulling off the lounge singer act of playing “1+1” on top of a piano, she flew across the stadium on a wire. She walked through fire during “Naughty Girl” (which I probably enjoyed way more than any of the girls there). But my favorite moments were with the band, who beefed up all her songs with stabs from the horn section, pushing her pop into stadium conquering music without sacrificing any of the joy of the original material. “Freakum Dress” was transformed into a hard rock freakout and “I Care” was punctuated by psychedelic guitar solos. Every great artist needs to have a great live show and great live shows require some tweaking to the material. She pulled all her songs into places I had no idea could go. She mashed up The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” with “If I Were A Boy,” segwayed into the classic “Shout” on “Single Ladies,” channeled the funk breaks of James Brown on “Why Don’t You Love Me” and, my personal favorite, played “Diva” on top of the beat for G.O.O.D. Music’s “Clique” and turned the song into a chugging BANGER. There aren’t many people who could pull that off.
Above all, Beyonce was an incredible performer who can command an audience of that size. There’s not really anything I’ve seen that can match it. Let’s be real about the demographics of the concert; it was about 70% girls, 30% gay guys, 9% boyfriends/fathers, and then me. But seeing the concert, you get why she has such a rabid fanbase. She’s absolutely charming as she passed the mic around the audience to sing “TO THE LEFT TO THE LEFT” or “BRING THE BEAT IN” on “Irreplaceable” and “Love On Top.” She genuinely enjoys performing for her fans and there were plenty moments of back and forth repartee between her and the crowd. And then she can switch into thug mode, strut around with a swagger that gangsta rappers wish they had, and stare down the crowd until the cheering has reached an appropriate level. Seeing a concert where everyone there loves the artist and the music is one of the most satisfying things in the genre. Whether it’s a stadium full of fans or a tiny pub with only diehards, being able to share that experience with someone who cares just as much as you is one of the reasons we invest so much into music in the first place. When Beyonce opened up her last song of the night, a medley of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” which turned into “Halo,” the only comparison I have is watching Bruce Springsteen turn an entire arena into church as he mourned the loss of his band members.
She has a new album coming out and details are scarce. She only played one of her new songs, “Grown Woman,” which she’s debuted in her commercials. Her music seems to reflect the confidence and a (hopefully hip hop) swag that comes with a victory lap of this magnitude. Either way, I’m excited. It’s not often you get to watch a pop star in her prime. The old queen is dead, long live the queen.