After an interminable slog through security lines, my friends Huong, Lois, and I were seated and eager to see the show, which had been slated to begin at 8:30pm. We had arrived at the venue at around 7:15, and it took an hour to get from the train platform to inside the stadium. We thought we made it just in time! At 8:45 the Ivy Park (Beyoncé’s workout clothing line) video advertisement which was playing on loop shut off and the crowd went nuts. But then 9 rolled around, and 9:30, and 9:45 and still no Beyoncé. This was an even longer stint than I endured waiting for the “machine” to be fixed before Robert Lepage’s notoriously plagued Ring Cycle at the Met a few years ago. Was Beyoncé having technical difficulties too? Fighting backstage with Jay-Z? There was no announcement explaining the delay.
Unlike the peeved and restless opera audience before the Wagner, the Beyoncé crowd sat patiently and waited as they stared at an enormous white cube in the middle of the stage. It was weird. The silent cube and the politely attendant arena made me think of the Hajj pilgrimage to the Kaaba in Mecca—and the requisite faith and patience of those who make the journey. Beyoncé inspires a rare sort of fandom. To complain about a delayed concert would be blasphemy to the Beyhive, her ferocious uber fans.
For Beyoncé is all things to all people, a true chameleon. She manages to pull off conflicting imagery and content with seemingly no irony. For example: “Single Ladies” feels feminist and empowering while actually pushing marriage proposals. It reminds me of the way people frequently misinterpret Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” as a feel-good, pro-America anthem. Beyoncé balances male-dominant singles like “Ego” and “Partition” with girl power hits like “If I Were a Boy,” “Diva,” and “Run the World (Girls).” Sometimes this tense balance is struck within the same song, like in “Suga Mama.”
Her last album, Beyoncé (2013), was a paean to marital sex while her newest one, Lemonade, is about marital strife and infidelity. And on Lemonade she manages to conflate her personal suffering with the suffering of all African-Americans as she evokes slavery, police shootings, the Black Panthers, and the Katrina aftermath. Somehow, this doesn’t read as exploitative but as a beautiful and seamlessly integrated message.
On Lemonade there are even more diametrically opposed ideas as she works through her grief in a 12-step process. She pledges forgiveness and understanding in the ballad “Sandcastles” while also invoking her 2nd Amendment right to shoot cheating cads in the country/big band song “Daddy Lessons.” She repeats the veiled threat of the title of the hard rocking “Don’t Hurt Yourself” to her lover and then professes the newfound depth of their love on “All Night.” How does she pull this off?
Even when she doesn’t get away with things, she does. Take for instance the police backlash to her Super Bowl performance which started the “boycott Beyoncé” movement in several states,
The multiplicity of her identities and appeal was apparent in the diversity of the people in the seats around us—whom I had lots of time to study! There were many scantily-clad young women—both black and white—some wearing just the Ivy Park thong leotard and stiletto heels Beyoncé sports in her own ads. As someone who feels fairly comfortable in a leotard and wears one every day to work, I was amazed at their apparent confidence and ease in sitting on a metal stadium chair in one for several hours!
There were some middle-aged Indian women in saris directly to my right, and a man in a business suit and tie behind me. There were two little blond girls (maybe 5, 6 years of age?) with their parents across the aisle to my left. There were hipsters in sneakers and gay men and transgender women elaborately made up, some in classic Beyoncé looks. There were so many home-made Beyoncé t-shirts and outfits that the merchandise stand was underwhelming in comparison.
At 9:53 the obelisk came to life and began rotating and playing a video montage of scenes from the Lemonade visual album. A few minutes after 10pm Beyoncé and her backup dancers finally emerged from a cloud of smoke behind the cube in large-brimmed hats to commence the show with “Formation.” The audience gasped. Not for the last time that night I thought of Michael Jackson. With their simple unison walking, hats pulled below their eyes, and the black and white pallette, Bey and her gang looked straight out of the “Smooth Criminal” video. When she emerged in military epaulets for “Daddy Lessons” I thought of Michael again, and when she closed the night out with “Halo” in plain white and loose hair it was a very “Heal the World” moment.
Over the course of two hours she did 33 songs plus a few more in medleys and transitional interludes. Beyoncé is ever the musical polyglot, her songs range from hip-hop to pop ballads, rock to R&B and soul. She covered Prince and Nicki Minaj and sampled Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” and the Doors’ “Five to One.” Surprisingly, she turned her disparate influences and sounds into a far more cohesive narrative than The Golden Cockerel story ballet I saw the next afternoon. Her concert riffed on the narrative arc of Lemonade, but the emphasis was on the power of women to overcome hardship and adversity.
Perhaps Beyonce’s iron-fisted control of her own image is her greatest talent. Who knows how much of Lemonade is actually autobiographical? Jay-Z was reportedly in the crowd the night I was there, fully supporting his wife as she aired their dirty laundry—if that is indeed what happened. He also appears in the visual album, and he released it first on his platform Tidal. Beyoncé releases, with intense precision, exactly what she wants to share, when she wants to share it. She even managed to headline Vogue’s September Issue last year without an interview—a rare departure for a cover model. She is a living, pop-cultural version of a current literary trend. We have authors like Karl Ove Knausgaard, Ben Lerner, and, presumably, Elena Ferrante, all writing loosely fictionalized versions of their own lives and deliberately blurring the lines between life and art. It's a topsy-turvy world: reality television is thoroughly scripted, fiction is borderline real, and Bey's stardom falls murkily somewhere along that spectrum.
Everything about her is calculated and precise. One of my favorite things about her work is the way she presents her art as a fully realized package—music, lyrics, dance steps, and aesthetic looks are carefully crafted and preserved together. Particularly interesting to me, each song of hers has specific choreography that she always performs with it, like Wagner’s characterizing musical leitmotifs or Virginia Woolf’s character epithets in The Waves.
When Beyoncé and her dancers took a pyramid formation after she finished “Bow Down” at the concert I knew she would start “Run the World (Girls)” next. With a quick hand gesture in the silence between songs it was obvious to the crowd that she was going to sing “Flawless,” and people went wild. Beyoncé just laughed at the power of her sign language. Some songs, like “Single Ladies” and “Get Me Bodied” have intricate, extended dance sequences that are taught in full at some gyms and dance studios (I was bummed that she performed neither of those hits the night I saw her). Dance is of the utmost importance to Beyoncé, and she is one of the rare pop stars who out-dances her backing troupe.
Of course, the downside to Beyoncé’s calculated perfection is that it can seem robotic. When Beyoncé sneezed mid-set it got one of the loudest cheers of the night—so thirsty were her fans for a glimpse of the candid. That was the only un-choreographed moment in what was a well-crafted, maximalist show. There were fireworks, blow-torch flames, aerialists, and an extended runway that turned into a pool so that yes, Beyoncé walked on water. But the diva is so talented that her best moments were when she simply danced in unison with her girls or sang alone on her knees center stage—as she did in a wonderful rendition of “1+1.” Another highlight was when she covered “Love on Top” flawlessly acapella.
Since I saw her at the tail end of my second trimester of pregnancy, I was hungry and tired after the long wait. I think I would have been more emotionally connected to the concert had it not started so late. (My baby seemed to like it though, it bounced around like crazy the whole time!) I wasn’t alone, and the New Yorkers who shuffled like cattle to the 7 train after the show were losing their enamored obedience the further they got from Beyoncé’s orbit. A guy next to me on the platform was complaining that his dog had probably peed all over his apartment; and a couple on the train went through an entire mini-Lemonade relationship drama and were uneasily reconciled by the time we reached midtown.
My friend Lois went back to see Beyoncé the next night too and said that she started promptly at 10pm again. Hehe, a diva’s prerogative then!