I don’t know, but I’ve been told, that Beyoncé Knowles, ain’t got no soul.
The superstar singer and her rock-and-awe R&B road show landed Sunday at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre, where she razzled, dazzled, danced and boomed her old hits and material from the 2011 album 4. She had been here last week, providing emotional support for her husband Shawn (Jay Z) Carter on his co-headlined Legends of Summer stadium extravaganza with Justin Timberlake at Rogers Centre. Now the 17-time Grammy winner was back, “able to perform,” as she put it.
And perform she did. Opening with the Amazonian anthem Run the World (Girls), Beyoncé and her mostly all-woman platoon of musicians, dancers and back-up singers were a wonder of precision bombast: furnace flames, sparkle showers, confetti clouds and something we’ll call hairography. Beyoncé shrugged her shoulders briskly and twirled her head with unusual enthusiasm, as if she desperately wished to rid her ear canals of water or bad advice.
The spectacle of Cirque-style showiness, Vegas glam and Madonna-pop theatricality was a winner, no doubt. Beyoncé, who lip-synched her performance at the Obama inauguration but appeared to be Memorex-free here, is a swish presence and blistering singer with boundless energy. But for all her talent and professionalism – no petulant diva, she hit the stage at exactly her appointed time – there are things missing. Things like warmth, soul, sass and fallibility. Beyoncé’s bland personality and polished-perfect presentation leaves a robotic aftertaste. But she fits perfectly within her expensive staging and over-the-top choreography; she switched costumes maniacally, smiled on cue and even flew.
This market saw some more human performers this week. By human, I mean weird. And by weird, I mean fascinating. I missed the the artful Icelandic chanteuse Bjork, who apparently stunned a crowd at Echo Beach. But I did see Courtney Love, the take-me-as-I-am rock star who showed up with roses, Rickenbacker and good humour at Danforth Music Hall.
And I did catch the electro-rap-pop femcee M.I.A., who got crazy at that same venue. Her material was stripped down and barely decipherable at times, and the dancing on stage was much more random than the rigid movements of Beyoncé and friends. I’m not sure how much of it was really live. The light show was composed of giant, carnival-coloured snowflakes – no two of them alike, which is the singularity the best artists aspire to.
Where Beyoncé borrows liberally from other pop acts, the aforementioned mavericks are much more artistically curious (in the case of the shape-shifting Bjork and M.I.A) or just plain bad-ass. Love appeared to be the love child of Keith Richards and Marianne Faithfull – has anyone done the math on that? – as she puffed on cigarettes (in between lines of the songs!) and sloughed off what she considered a subpar performance of the Buffy Sainte-Marie tune Codine. “I’ve earned the right to sing the blues,” she said, after barking lines about hell and craving that was “real, one more time.”
Where some are real, the big-voiced Beyoncé is manufactured. She’s a chart-top chaser and a crowd-pleaser, though she did shake things up by mashing up her hit If I Were a Boy with a sample of the symphonic rock of Bittersweet Symphony. (The result was a ponderous, unnatural obscuring of a song her audience knew differently. If this is her idea of bold diversion, perhaps she is not cut out for outside-the-box thinking.)
Her concert relied on video interludes, including one with a Marie Antoinette theme and another one involving a crown. Which made me think of the roaring Courtney Love concert, at the end of which the hard-living hellraiser was presented with a tiara. Love laughed it off; she wore one ironically back in the 1990s.
Beyoncé, the subject of the self-obsessed documentary Life Is But a Dream, really does sees herself as Queen Bey. But her keeping up with others is a pop-star competitive thing, not an artistic drive.
She also sees herself as the alter-ego Sasha Fierce. Or as Whitney Houston’s successor or Mrs. Carter or destiny’s child. It is all too clear that being Beyoncé isn’t enough.