Pop idols struggle and strain to reach the top, and every so often, one of them really seems to get there, and from that lonely summit looks out over everyone watching from below. Beyoncé is having one of those peak celebrity moments right now, when media saturation is achieved and entropy beckons.
In the past few weeks, she has sung at U.S. President Barack Obama’s inauguration – or at least appeared to – dominated the Super Bowl with a show that seemed to have blown the lights out and achieved the Venus-and-Mars exacta of landing on the latest covers of Vogue and GQ. Saturday, the 31-year-old singer talks with Oprah, the imprimatress of high celebrity, and later the same evening debuts her self-produced, self-obsessed documentary, Life Is But a Dream on HBO.
It all looks like a beautifully engineered run-up to the launch of her forthcoming album and Mrs. Carter Show world tour, as well as the perpetuation of a running parallel between the Obamas, First Couple of America, and the Carters (Beyoncé and Jay-Z), First Couple of African-American music. But at some point between the presidential swearing-in and the football blowing-out, the wattage trained on Beyoncé jumped to a new level, provoking the kind of heat that flares off into harsh jokes and corrosive memes. After a long run as the perfect pop diva, Beyoncé Triumphant suddenly seems too big for some people’s comfort.
There has always been a power narrative working through her career and music, propelled by personal ambition but also by her oft-expressed faith in sisterhood and matriarchal strength. Her 2011 single Run the World (Girls) was just the latest and most pointed statement of her particular brand of feminism, in which being sexy is simply an aspect of female power. The aggression of her stage performances is a way of acting out the principled fierceness behind the skimpy costumes and massive hair. In Life Is But a Dream, she says she actually likes getting angry before stepping onstage: “I’m like, ‘Please piss me off before the performance.’”
She may still have been nettled by chatter about her lip-synched inauguration anthem when she delivered an extra-ferocious Super Bowl show, photos from which quickly morphed into Beyoncé-as-Hulk parodies. The stage Amazon whose shows can be impressive feats of endurance seemed for once to have gone a strut too far, to the point at which the adoring crowd begins to rip its favourite like an over-eager mastiff.
Born into a striving Houston family and schooled for success by her dominating father Mathew, Beyoncé Knowles had so much going for her – talent, looks, drive – that it surprised no one when she stepped away from her trio Destiny’s Child in 2006 and went solo. But her performance reunions with her girlhood friends in that group, most recently for an album called Love Songs, aren’t just noblesse oblige – she really believes in sisterhood.
“I love my husband,” she says in Life Is But a Dream, “but it’s nothing like a conversation with a woman that understands you.” The only time she chokes up in the film is when she talks about her grandmother praying for her pregnant mother, just as Beyoncé’s mother prayed for her while she was expecting a child with Jay-Z.
The power of matriarchal example is also part of her link with the Obamas. During the election campaign, she made an ad in which she read her own fan letter to Michelle Obama, whom she called, “the ultimate example of a truly strong African-American woman… She builds and nurtures her family while also looking out for so many millions in so many ways.” Barack Obama repaid in the same coin at a black-tie fundraiser at Jay-Z’s 40/40 club, saying, “Beyoncé could not be a better role model for my girls.” He also said, “Jay knows what my life is like. We both have daughters, and our wives are more popular than we are.”
The parallel couple narrative began with Jay-Z’s endorsement of Obama in 2008, and was perhaps capped in the public eye when both Obamas kissed Beyoncé before her inauguration performance, while Jay-Z sat a few feet away. No doubt the connection serves both parties, providing presidential jelly to the Queen B, and giving the wonkish, golf-playing president an aura of cool.
The Beyoncé of the documentary, however, is more about fragility than power. Within a minute of the opening clip of a childhood video made by her dad, she talks about coping with excessive self-criticism. “I wanna be able to sing about how much I hate myself that day if that’s how I feel,” she says later. The break with her perfectionist father, whom she fired as her manager in 2011, was clearly a deeply destabilizing event. She frets about how to stay current with musical trends, without losing her soul.
The film is a mix of flashy concert footage; clips from a long interview that feels like an Oprah sit-down without Oprah; some uniformly dull backstage stuff; and many diaristic videos Beyoncé made at all hours with her laptop. She’s also shown dancing to her MacBook camera in a hotel hallway and singing to it in the back of a car. “Thank God for my computer,” she says, adding that it’s her listener of last resort, “when there’s no one to talk to.”
Her GQ interview reveals that Beyoncé has a self-documentation mania of Nixonian proportions. She or someone on her staff “has shot practically her every waking moment, up to 16 hours a day, since 2005,” according to GQ. Every scrap of career memorabilia and video is stored in a special warehouse. Clearly the materials for the documentary were mostly in hand before the decision was made to share them with the public. Beyoncé is so involved with self-presentation in the film that she can’t help invading her own privacy. She complains about excessive attention to celebrities’ personal lives, but then fills up her doc with the kind of details TMZ pays the rent with. She talks about every stage of her two pregnancies (the first ended in miscarriage), shows off her swelling baby bump with clothes and without, and includes private scenes with Jay-Z, who mostly stays mute. “You taught me how to be a woman,” she tells him at an intimate birthday supper at home.“There’s not enough I can give you. Every year I’m even more in love with you.” Thanks for sharing with us, B.
That for me is the most striking news about this all-American diva: that she lives in a house of mirrors that she herself works hard to maintain. Maybe that’s why, when she sang, “I’m repping for the girls who taking over the world” at the Billboard Awards in 2011, the video part of the performance (which appears in Life Is But a Dream) wasn’t a montage of women and girls. The only sisters in sight were Beyoncé and a battalion of video Beyoncé doubles. That’s kind of how it feels these days: Beyoncé is swarming us, not just one Queen B but an entire hive spreading through media new and old.
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