Beyonce: Queen B
The ultimate independent woman is on her way to Dublin
My name is Una, and when I saw Beyoncé perform live for the first time, I cried. It was at Oxegen, she started to belt out the opening lines of 1+1 , and I lost it. I slipped into the zone of feelings Beyoncé triggers, which can only be described as Beymotional. I got Beymotional. I got Beymotional real bad.
This has only happened three times in my life: Yeah Yeah Yeahs launching into Maps at Electric Picnic, watching Courtney Love rock out in a warehouse in Texas, and seeing The National in the church at Other Voices . That might seem like a lot of gig crying, but you’re talking about someone who burst into tears when my Toffee Crisp got stuck in a vending machine the other day, so really it’s actually quite restrained.
What is it about Beyoncé that elicits this response? Why can kids copying her dance routines enjoy her as much as grannies who see the spirit of Tina Turner in her performances? How does she possess the power to turn grown women into gibbering messes?
In short, why is Beyoncé so amazing?
I decided to pose this question very scientifically, so I texted a bunch of friends. My friend Elaine was first to reply. “She is so shiny and glisteny and healthy and energetic,” followed by a second text, “Bod of a God.” Next up was Sarah: “Because she is a leading feminist for the younger generation, because her and J are arguably the most powerful couple in music, because she has managed to maintain an incredible level of privacy considering her profile, because Forbes listed her as one of the world’s most powerful women,” followed by a second text, “And, obvs, because she is totes AMAZEBALLS.”
Bucko was next. “Beyoncé is amazing because she is the only current pop icon that we’ll still be eagerly awaiting new material from in 25 years time, and her voice will only improve as time goes on. Katy Perrys and Kelly Clarksons come and go – Beyoncé is for life.” Then Etain: “Her hair,” followed by another text, “also, there is something primal about her”. Then Róisín emailed: “She embraces her femininity in a way that exudes strength . . . she always seems like such a strong WOMAN.”
Now before you take my friends as a bunch of slightly manic obsessives with unlimited mobile phone data plans, there is something telling about these replies. We try to be rational about Beyoncé, but ultimately the Beymotions take over. The refrain of, “To the left, to the left, everything you own in a box to the left,” has the power to transform normally restrained people into finger-snapping Beyoncé-bots, attempting to inhabit her very being. When Single Ladies plays at wedding receptions, the stampede to the dance floor to mime robot hand movements evokes footage from US news reports about people storming into Macys for the Black Friday sales.
Men – gay and straight – have a sort of reverence for her. There is a respect for Beyoncé. You’d never roll your eyes at her. There is no courting the paparazzi. No pop star feuds. Little gossip oiling the cogs of her publicity. You can’t imagine her replicating the tropes of pop stars past: shaving her head or shoving photographers. There are no sex tapes, drug scandals, or photos of her snotting herself as she exits a club. Aside from an extravagant baby shower shopping list, there are few tales of superstar consumerist behaviour, despite the fact that by the end of her latest world tour, she and her husband Jay-Z will have a combined wealth of more than $1 billion.
She is as close to superhuman as pop music can get, yet there’s something delightfully old-school about her that makes us believe she deserves the plaudits. She’s been in her prime since age 15 when, in 1997, she recorded the sped-up vocal for Destiny’s Child’s first single, No No No . She put her 10,000 hours in long before that group got a real break, dedicating her childhood to perfecting her voice and her dance moves. There have been practically no blips in her decade-and-a-half of superfame. When rumours surfaced that Jay-Z had taken Knowles as his surname upon their marriage, it wasn’t surprising, even if it’s not confirmed.
While most pop stars stage iconic moments through controversy – Madonna’s overtly sexual image, Britney’s meltdown, Rihanna’s weed-smoking and reckless relationships, Lady Gaga’s meat dress, Katy Perry’s . . . well, nobody actually cares about Katy Perry – Beyoncé makes people go wild just by being Beyoncé, by stepping on a stage at the Super Bowl or Glastonbury, arching her eyebrow, flexing her thighs and launching into another classic pop song, most of which she writes and some of which she produces, because – and here’s the rub – behind the politeness, the vocal talent and superhuman looks, there’s a truly savvy and smart artist.
Beyoncé hasn’t just had one iconic moment, but multiple ones: the message of Independent Woman ; making the word “ bootylicious ” actually a thing; the video for Crazy In Love , where she strode purposefully towards us in a white vest and denim shorts; the choreography for Single Ladies becoming something you can’t imagine popular culture existing without; her projection-assisted performance at the 2011 Billboard Awards; her declaration, “I always wanted to be a rock star,” at Glasto; her rendition of the American national anthem at Barack Obama’s second inauguration (and who cares if she lip-synced); her Super Bowl takeover.
Because of these epic events, she can get away with the slightly dodgier decisions: Pepsi ads, calling her daughter something that sounds like a cross between a stripper, a superhero and an air freshener (Blue Ivy, seriously?), and having her mum design most of her generally naff outfits, the latest a glittery gold bodysuit avec sparkly nipples.
The key ingredient in her songs is also an extremely consistent one: empowerment. That underlying narrative of self-sufficiency, resourcefulness and independence strikes a chord with women of all ages.
Her tunes are loaded with commands of feminine strength. Bills, Bills, Bills questioned the economic prowess of a partner. Bug a Boo complained about the persistence of a suitor. Jumpin’ Jumpin’ encouraged women to “leave your man at home” and head out on the tiles. Independent Women was basically a feminist battle-cry.
Survivor detailed her personal resilience following in-band tensions. If I Were a Boy (one of the few singles she didn’t write) decried a lack of gender parity, Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It) simultaneously applauded independence and called for commitment, and Diva put a positive spin on a byword for high maintenance. Run The World (Girls) is self-explanatory, Best Thing I Never Had turned the tables on post-crush tracks by stating, “I bet it sucks to be you right now.” Yeah, I bet it does, you muppet, whoever you are. You dumped Beyoncé!
I have a bet with a long-standing colleague that we’ll still be talking about Beyoncé as an artist at the top of her game in 20 years’ time. I’m five years into the wager. Roll on the next 15.