Beyoncé in Dublin: from timid good girl to strident superstar

Beyoncé has come a long way from the God-fearing, good girl of Destiny’s Child – the star is being reborn as an icon and vocal advocate for the Black Lives Matter movement

 

Five years ago Beyoncé dropped the mic at the MTV Awards, exposing her protruding stomach and unveiling her pregnancy with daughter Blue Ivy to the world. It was a saccharine performance of the schmaltzy pop-soul number Love on Top. Where, dressed in a spangly tuxedo and with blonde Farrah Fawcett waves, she beamed at the assembled celebs like a Vegas nightclub singer.

It’s difficult to imagine such an anodyne display now. This was not the baseball bat swinging emblem of furious womanhood found on her latest album Lemonade. This was not the confident icon at the CFDA fashion awards berating a room of designers for failing to support her band Destiny’s Child in their early days, as they were “four curvy black girls”. This was not the proud black woman staring directly down the camera lens sitting astride a sinking police car in the controversial Formation video.

All artists develop and grow. The Madonna who rolled around dry humping the MTV stage in a taffeta wedding dress was not the same woman as the Kabbalah string wearing Goth-mother of the Ray of Light era. Just as Dylan moved from earnest folkster to strung out, plugged-in philosopher, Beyoncé 2.0 is an utterly different beast.

This ascent from God-fearing good girl to radical, righteous diva is both fascinating and significant. The weighty themes she is invested in – gender and race – do not come across like an empty political pose she’s experimenting with or a revolutionary hat she’s trying on of an evening.

Including the families of the victims of police brutality in a music video isn’t a move a pop star makes to increase mass-market appeal. The influences on her last two albums are more in tune with the work of Erykah Badu or Public Enemy, not the bootylicious Beyoncé of old. This artistic and political consideration make moments like the aforementioned cheesy 2011 MTV production and her silly hen night staple Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It) look like pure parody.

It’s all the more engrossing as before her imperialist phase it looked like she was being groomed to be a modern heir to the throne of Tina Turner. She was a worldwide phenomenon, a multi-award winning artist who could conquer arenas and provide a night of glitzy entertainment. Her dazzling dance routines, R’n’B sizzlers and soppy ballads attracted the broadest of audiences: young girls, cool kids, chart listening couples of all races and their mothers.

Though in a world of the flamboyant, triumphant, ultra-individualism of Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj and the burgeoning culture of over-sharing, off-stage she appeared timid, hesitant and aloof. Beyoncé was a ghost of a woman, a hologram of a pop star.

There was a time in 2008 when she was so lost inside the money-making machine that she created the fiery, almost drag-style alter-ego Sasha Fierce. This character was her way of expressing her intense side while managing to smile politely to the outside world so as not to alienate any fans or spook corporate sponsors.

She gave interviews where nothing of real interest was ever said; like a foreign diplomat she eschewed being opinionated or emotional other than parroting the usual celebrity mantra of feeling “so blessed” and peppering her conversation with blandishments. Controversy-monger Kanye West acted out on her behalf at the 2009 MTV VMAs snatching the gong for Best Female Video from Taylor Swift and demanding that it be handed to Queen Bey, who looked on embarrassed.

In the supposedly revealing documentary Life is but a Dream, she was the embodiment of unobtainable perfection. Devoid of the rawness of In Bed with Madonna, there were no flashes of ego, no spontaneous hilarity, the mask never once slipped. She downed her cleansing cayenne pepper concoction and espoused the joys of childbirth – describing it in the style of some dodgy self-help guru.

She was perilously close to becoming another out-of-touch millionaire invested in “spirituality”, morphing into a hybrid of best pal (and beigest woman alive) Gwyneth Paltrow and Oprah at her most removed. Beyoncé was not alluringly unknowable, she was downright dull. This was unforgiveable as the most offensive thing you can be in pop music is boring.

Which is why when she then growled, “Bow down bitches”, over skittering beats on the goose bump-inducing Flawless from her eponymously titled album in 2013, it sent shock waves through the pop culture universe. When the album was sprung on an unsuspecting world it was obvious that her time being elusive and inoffensive was over. This was her declaration of independence. Sasha Fierce was dead and buried. This voice belonged to Beyoncé.

Lyrically it covered darker topics such as post-natal depression, eating disorders, her fears about motherhood, her relationship with Jay Z (with her most sexual lyrics ever) and importantly gender. Flawless rumbled like an earthquake, its ferocious delivery firmly stating she was not Jay’s “little wife” while sampling writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s speech about feminism.

This was Beyoncé explicitly acknowledging gender issues for the first time and embracing these issues as a black woman. She began to incorporate ideas of race into her music, a topic many black female pop stars avoid in fear of losing mainstream (ie white audience) appeal.

This shift was monumental and, although it felt swift, it was not an overnight awakening. Having been managed by her father Mathew Knowles from the beginning of her career, somewhere between her pregnancy and the release of her fifth album she fired him and spoke of feeling “liberated”. It became clear that the stoic blankness she emanated may have been, if not enforced, then actively encouraged.

The Beyoncé album felt like the appropriate time for her to roar. She had amassed enough power and control over her own career to express her opinions without being completely vilified in the media or falling down the dreaded pop-dumper, because being an outspoken woman in pop means risking annihilation.

On stage she stood strong like a diminutive superhero replete with cape, in front of a giant sign that flashed ‘FEMINIST’ in neon letters – its glow illuminating the faces of every screaming girl. Although in true Beyoncé fashion there was a strange dichotomy at play, the tour promoting this album, her most intimate, independent work to date had the bizarrely submissive moniker: The Mrs Carter Show.

Mrs Carter was a role that Beyoncé never had to rely on. Her aggressive use of her married name felt smug and unnecessary and, just when her voice had raised to a dominant crescendo on social matters, her private life reduced it to a whisper.

The internet bombshell that became known as ‘Liftgate’ (where footage of her sister Solange attacking Jay Z in an elevator was leaked by gossip website TMZ) shattered any illusion of marital bliss and reinforced the rumours of the hip-hop mogul’s infidelity. This was a PR nightmare that saw her lose her grip on the public perception of her relationship; it was a situation that not even a cynical double headlining tour with her husband or those cleverly orchestrated family Instagram shots could distract from. Refusing to acknowledge the incident and retreating once again into supercilious silence, it looked as though Beyoncé’s blaze of glory was smouldering out into toxic fumes.

To regain control she was forced to make her own Faustian pact and give the people what they wanted, Beyoncé took the bitterest of fruit and crushed it into Lemonade.

The album is a powerful statement. Lemonade shocks with its impassioned fury and barbed references to marital strife; it unfolds like tear-stained diary entries. With its captivating collection of videos depicting a vision of Beyoncé navigating the stages of grief interlinked with Warsan Shire’s aching poetry, it appears to be a glimpse at reserved Bey’s reality.

In truth, with this album she has effectively created her own tabloid headlines and has shrewdly yet beautifully manipulated the public to believe that they are privy to her dark night of the soul. She has managed to execute the perfect conjuror’s trick, curating her own marriage breakdown and reconciliation, Lemonade is her way of moving on and ensuring that the lift door remains sealed shut.

The more interesting flavour of Lemonade is mixed into the personal sourness, the open-handed slap that echoes Billy Paul’s incendiary cry of “Am I black enough for you?” in the song of that name with its revolutionary themes and its eulogising of black culture.

There are moments of hymnal praise of black women, their bodies and of the pride in being black in a society full of opposition and disillusionment. Lemonade is exhausting in its intricate artistry, a manifesto from a star reborn into an icon. The importance of this freedom of the soul, Beyoncé’s new-found confidence in vocalising her beliefs cannot be understated.

The poster for the Formation tour is a stark black-and-white image of the singer with a flower unfurling from her mouth. Seeds that were planted are beginning to blossom, a thing of natural beauty has flourished from within and now Beyoncé faces the real challenge of preventing it from withering away.

Beyoncé brings her Formation world tour to Croke Park on Saturday

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