With superhuman talent and stamina Beyoncé achieved immortality in the music industry long ago. By 2010 her ambition to merge Madonna pop with the diva tradition had been fulfilled on a grand scale. What followed was a premature, craven retreat from the charts and an aggressive courtship of critical acclaim. She’ll be remembered for “Crazy in Love” and “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)”, two of pop’s best singles, and for Destiny’s Child which I believe is as culturally significant an act as her solo career.
Interview and behind-the-scenes footage of Destiny’s Child show an unguarded Beyoncé who’s fiercely competitive and single-minded, endearing qualities she needn’t have dissembled later on. The elaborate calculations behind her solo act prohibit even the impression of spontaneity – a thing Madonna and Michael Jackson knew they needed to become the most successful pop acts ever. But due to her superlative talent Beyoncé might have got away with mechanicalness and ascended to their level if she’d continued to innovate on every other front. Dangerously in Love (2003-4) and B’Day (2006-7) are her magnificent early eras which show an indomitable Beyoncé free from the constraints of being in Destiny’s Child (but without the cultural potency of a group of three such liberated black women). Bemoaned by her fans for straying too far from R&B, 2008-9’s I Am… Sasha Fierce remains her most ambitious era, from the “Single Ladies” video to the tour’s glimmering outfits which beckon Lady Gaga’s The Fame. Critics complained that the album chased singles success, but successful singles are required for a complete era and for pop immortality. (In any case the album sounds excellent. “Disappear” – my favourite Beyoncé song – is a masterpiece of mystical melancholy, resolved in the soaring “Smash Into You”, while up-tempo tracks like “Radio” and “Sweet Dreams” maintain the same lavish ethereality.) The era’s obvious weakness is the flimsiness of the Sasha Fierce alter ego on which it’s predicated, but overlooking that it’s a daring and authentic project, improved by other imperfections.
The “Single Ladies” video, her most important moment, is just a suggestion of what could have been had Beyoncé the aesthetic sensibility of Michael Jackson. As well as the appearance of spontaneity in Jackson’s dance which made him likable to millions, his otherworldly image was distinctive enough to impose itself on the collective imagination; so that in spite of his talent and strangeness – which should seem so distant – we believe he embodies some figment of our imagination. He found an ideal balance between iconicity and reachability that’s reflected in all his work – in many of his videos, for instance, the mythical man dances through ordinary urban or suburban streets, encouraging the fantasy that Jackson might be lurking down your road. We are close to him because, like Charlie Chaplin and Santa Claus, he demands ubiquity, he lingers in our minds. Beyoncé, just as talented and narcissistic as Jackson, has not bridged her talent and persona with audiences in this way. ‘Sasha Fierce’ came closest, but that was jettisoned. A glance at Janelle Monae’s ongoing project indicates the kind of boundless creativity and raw energy that was required of Beyoncé in the latter chapter of her career.
4 (2011), while full of obviously superb songs, is slight as an era. Beyoncé (2014) is an immaculate record, but its surprise release denied songs like “Blow”, “Drunk in Love”, “XO” and “Partition” the global success they deserved. The gullible would object that this era marks Beyoncé’s graduation from ‘mere’ pop star to ‘artist’, but she was always an artist. I don’t believe writing camps matter in pop, except when the star masquerades as auteur; Beyoncé is inescapably a pop act, which relies on a broad synergy of esteemed producers and writers. Many stars have taken creative control at a later stage of their career, which might be commendable in some ways but doesn’t necessarily improve their act, but rarely has a star so striven to create the illusion they’ve taken the reins and hold a serious world view. She’s obdurately refused interviews since 2013, because every time she appeared as interviewee before, any notions of a sharp and intellectually-coherent Beyoncé were shattered – which was quite all right; pop stars don’t have to be thinkers, and Beyoncé has always expressed her keen intelligence somatically. Her ego has now transcended her act, when it should be the other way round.
I don’t mind her appropriation of feminism, inspiring to fans and very marketable, but it’s not without problems. She’s either at the centre of a mass media intent on reducing that whole ideology to a hollow word, or she promotes a hyper-materialist wing of feminism which celebrates competition and sisterhood without attempting to reconcile the two. Madonna’s political statements, however iconoclastic, were a natural part of a controversy-seeking persona. Beyoncé’s on the other hand seem driven either by cold calculations or a megalomaniacal desire to be viewed as a political figure. Her blithe assimilation into hip hop – the most testosterone-fuelled genre since rock – also jars with the feminist sentiments she plays to. I suspect that Beyoncé’s decade of self-aggrandisement is in part due to the spectre of Adele’s artistry and meteoric rise in 2011. The contrived candour of Lemonade (2016) seems like an attempt to rectify the lack of emotion listeners have always perceived in her technically-peerless voice, and the soap-like drama that plays out between ruthless-billionaire-superstars Beyoncé and Jay-Z is far too mundane to convince.
Lemonade certainly sounds tremendous – just as polished as its predecessor yet more thematically cohesive, I’m most intrigued by “6 Inch”, which invites every female listener into a fantasy narrated by the superstar. The Lemonade film is beautiful, save for the grandiloquent poetic voiceovers that flank the songs, and there’s a smallness to the videos, disguised as authenticity, which mirrors her retreat from the mainstream. Much has been made of the album’s celebration of blackness, but through being the most talented individual in the music industry Beyoncé has always celebrated blackness, with her R&B- and gospel-infused act. By deftly capitalising on American progressive political currents with Lemonade, she guaranteed herself the kind of critical approbation which bordered on idolatry in the most effusive or politically-correct critics. Despite the hype, the era was her least successful commercially, with no true hits, and while its spectacular tour was a true force (almost outgrossing those of teen idols Justin Bieber and One Direction) it represents a reputation plateauing far too early. I’d advise her to stop demanding a straight-faced credulity in her audiences, to lose all affectation and embrace her pop stardom. I think “Daddy Lessons”, for instance, comes alive with the line ‘Daddy made me dance’ (referring to her domineering father who groomed his daughters for fame), due its honesty. While the regal “Flawless” fails due to its heavy-handedness (‘bow down bitches’), not redeemed by a feminist speech being shoehorned in, there are some examples of Beyoncé getting the balance just right. In 2015 she uploaded a YouTube clip entitled “Darling Nicki (Minaj)” to promote her concert appearance with the rapper. Beyoncé sings a playful jingle mythologizing Minaj, as the pair’s silhouettes mingle on stage. It’s a tantalising exchange between stars which shows the Beyoncé legend at its best – let’s hope she can surprise us next era with something well-managed and imaginatively rich which unapologetically pursues chart domination.
Alicia Keys was viewed as a more dignified artist for many years, and served partly as an antidote to Beyoncé and Destiny’s Child’s stomping performances. The purity and simplicity of Keys’ voice and act (practically the same thing) instantly affect, although her lyrics and repetitive melodies don’t always stand up to scrutiny. Her best era in my view is The Element of Freedom (2009-10), with its stunning cover and quietly strong songs such as “Empire State of Mind (Pt. II)”, “Doesn’t Mean Anything”, “Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart”, and “Put It in a Love Song” featuring Beyoncé – the video for which was shot but, sadly, not released. But there’s no getting away from the fact that, even at her best, Keys is just a bit dull. Her legacy is most apparent in her British clone Emeli Sandé, whose successful and soporific debut era Our Version of Events (2011-12) was nothing more than a marketing triumph. So a look at Keys, who was actually considered equal to Beyoncé throughout the 2000s, shows how effectively Beyoncé, even if she hasn’t yet realised her full and dizzying potential, has remained one of pop’s brightest icons.