My only problem with Beyoncé is I don’t see any problems with Beyoncé. I lie when people ask me how often I listen to her music because the answer is “Beyoncé’s music is always playing in my mind.”
At parties I commandeer the playlist and cue her entire discography. People complain, naturally, but they just don’t understand that there are no diminishing marginal returns to Beyoncé.
YouTube has finally given up on recommending me non-Beyoncé videos. I have actually paid real currency to see a Beyoncé-themed drag performance. Twice. I love Beyoncé so much I have listened to Michelle William’s solo music out of solidarity. Twice. And I am the kind of cowardly dickhead that usually pretends to only like pop artists ‘ironically’ or ‘for their genre.’ But my feelings about Beyoncé aren’t ironic or framed by condescension: I am Bey-sotted.
Friends are often surprised to discover my hysterical fandom only started recently. I always liked Destiny’s Child as a kid and thought ‘Crazy in Love’ was a fabulous pop song but mere interest hardened into obsession when I heard ‘Ring the Alarm.’ From her 2006 album B’Day, the song is a desperate confrontation of an unfaithful lover; it’s brilliant, under-appreciated, and totally strange.
I have never heard a pop singer sound so honestly enraged. In three and half minutes she covers at least a dozen different varieties of spousal anger: acrimony, fury, wrath, disappointment, contempt, spite, etcetera. Beyoncé actually shouts the chorus over sirens and distortive crackling. For someone who is no great acting talent (even I can’t recommend watching The Fighting Temptations), her interpretation of an aggressive freak-out is calibrated, meaningful, and affecting.
She loves vocal weirdness, and can grunt, groan, and growl across three octaves. Her moving ballad, ‘1+1’ is punctuated by little whistle-pitched, cooee upticks at the end of every phrase. And it works.
The secret to her voice is her capacious lungs. Apparently, her crazy stage-dad made her sing while jogging when she was seven. What’s a lost childhood when you can melisma while dancing difficult, energetic routines? It’s what makes her vibrato so reliable and rich, and what allows her to sing with clarity at great speed. (She’s surely got one of the best words-per-minute rates of any vocalist in show business.) It’s why she doesn’t edit her breathing out of her vocal tracks: no one breathes like Beyoncé.
But Beyoncé also understands that pop is about more than music. She can’t sing as well as Mariah Carey or Adele. But she can dance. She can’t dance as well as Usher but she has charm. She has the sexuality of Rhianna and the likability of Taylor Swift. And, as she consistently reminds us, she works hard.
She controls every detail of her output and views that control as a feminist statement. In some ways that’s more important than her songs about girls running the world, or that she tours with an all-female band, or that she publicly talked about the importance of returning to work after having her daughter, Blue Ivy.
It is typical that one of the songs on her upcoming album is called Grown Woman. Maturity is an important theme for Beyoncé and for her, maturity means independence. She sacked her dad, the aforementioned crazy, as her manager two years ago. She stopped wearing the atrocious outfits designed by her doting mother several years before.
Some thought this autonomy was undermined when she named her recent tour ‘Mrs. Carter’ after her husband Jay Z’s real surname. (I would have preferred ‘Mrs. Z.’) But this underestimates her capacity for irony and complexity. Her last album 4 is devoted to the problem of maintaining selfhood when you’re in love. One of its best tracks, Countdown, is largely about the ecstasies of a lifelong commitment based on mutual respect but also features this cocky zinger: “Yep, I buy my own and if he deserve it, [I] buy his shit too.”
This newfound marital bliss is part of the reason she recently came out for marriage equality. And also because she has more gay fans than anal sex. (And also because she’s not an idiot). In some ways it’s odd that a straight-laced Christian from Texas would attract a gay following. Perhaps it’s because in the Beyoncé oeuvre, pride isn’t a sin. Queer musician Antony Hegarty’s haunting orchestral cover of Crazy in Love proves that Beyoncé sings about romance and desire in ways that are universal and transposable.
With all of the adulation, there was bound to be dissent. She was rightly called-out for lip-synching at Obama’s inauguration, and for her basically unwatchable, self-directed documentary, Life is but a Dream. Both criticisms, indeed most Beyoncé criticism, are about authenticity and credibility. She seems boring and contrived, lacking real emotional content. She gives pretty shallow interviews, and only ever talks about her life using guarded celebrity platitudes.
But these objections misunderstand her role. Beyoncé behaves more like a royal than a diva. She actually realises the figurative possibilities of that music journalism cliché: the Queen of Pop. She manages to be present and removed, to give us constant access but minimal contact. No one that famous and exposed has ever been so stable. Other than the actual Queen.
Like Elizabeth II, Beyoncé projects sincerity and authority, confidence, character, ego and humility. In a recent promotional video entitled Bow Down she plays a postmodern mash-up of Marie Antoinette and Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts. Let those critics eat cake, the best interpreter of Beyoncé is Beyoncé.