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Beyonce and Madonna at the taping of "Oprah's Surprise Spectacular" in Chicago, May 17, 2011. (John Gress / Reuters)
Beyonce and Madonna at the taping of "Oprah's Surprise Spectacular" in Chicago, May 17, 2011. (John Gress / Reuters)

Leah McLaren

Beyoncé: I admit it. I'm transfixed by Her Bootyliciousness Add to ...

It's hard to argue with Beyoncé. She's just too good at what she does. Watching her perform, even on YouTube at 8 a.m. before coffee, is like witnessing a feat of Olympic-level athletic prowess pumped up on something much starrier - the ferocity of her glamour is almost blinding. It seems impossible that any mere mortal (let alone one in four-inch heels, a spandex bodysuit and writhing hair extensions) could possibly nail it - every note, every step, every shimmery bat of a false eyelash - every time.

And yet, she does, bringing her performance, in the form of a broad-voiced, booty-shaking pleasure bomb, to my humble laptop screen at each request.

Just the act of typing her name into Google, with all its bouncy vowels and raspy consonants, has the ability to cheer me up. Like most women on the planet, I became obsessed with the Single Ladies video a couple of years ago - one girlfriend actually tried to make me take dance lessons to learn the moves, but I prefer to leave such feats to the pros.

These days, I'm transfixed by the handheld rehearsal footage her husband Jay-Z shot backstage at American Idol and posted online. In it, Beyoncé is just a tiny figure in the corner of a room filled with people (including her mother and a bunch of backup singers) who sit nodding and basking in the awesome power of her voice. That the song is a tribute to the man holding the shaky camera only makes the stripped-down spectacle more shiver-inducing. A few minutes after it was shot, Beyoncé sang the same song live onstage in a ball gown bathed in red smoke as fans screamed and millions more watched from their living rooms. It was a performance one U.S. critic likened to giving birth onstage and it's a weirdly fitting analogy - Beyoncé's appeal is enormously physical. Listening to her music does not have nearly the same effect as watching her perform it, either in a choreographed video or live onstage.

Like countless other fans, I downloaded her new album 4 the day it was released this week (the album looks set to top the charts in both the U.K. and North America by week's end) after reading the mostly slathering reviews touting it as an artistic breakthrough. The consensus is that she's evolved from funky young thing to devoted wife and power balladeer who is, as she sings on one track "all up in the kitchen in my heels/dinner time." Sure, there's the hit single about girls running the world (which loses most of its charm when unaccompanied by footage of Her Bootyliciousness stomping through those mind-bending dance moves), but in truth Beyoncé's not promoting female empowerment in earnest. Instead her power stems from the paradox of watching white-hot sexuality and raw emotion emanate from a such a winsome girl next door.

The real-life Texas-born Beyoncé Knowles, 29, even has an alter ego who acts as a vessel for all this dazzling ferociousness. Her name is Sasha Fierce (as named in the 2008 album I am... Sasha Fierce), and Beyoncé herself admits to being discomfited by her antics. "She's too aggressive, too strong, too sassy, too sexy!" she told Parade in 2006. "I'm not like her in real life at all."

In a recent issue of the New Yorker, music critic Sasha Frere-Jones rightly observes the world of pop music is currently being ruled by three women: Beyoncé, Lady Gaga and Adele. While Adele's breakout album 21 is poised to be the year's top seller, Frere-Jones anoints Beyoncé the prevailing pop queen of the bunch. Adele, he thinks, is too much of a soccer-mom favourite to keep her youth cred ("she is selling to the demographic that decides American elections, who don't know how to pirate music and will drive to Starbucks when they need to and buy it"), while Gaga is a talented craftswoman who is fated to one day cast aside the bizarre theatrics and do what she does best: write songs for gorgeous young creatures who can only hope to sing and dance like, well, Beyoncé.

But while critics have long sneered at the performance raunch that belies Beyoncé's untarnished real life (in case you've been living under a rock, she's happily married to the reigning king of hip hop, lives in a mansion in the New York suburb of Scarsdale, flies around on a private jet, winters in St. Barts and is tight with her family), this tension is in fact the key to her success.

"Beyoncé Knowles is America's Sweetheart and she does transgressive about as well as Matthew McConaughey does lawyerly," Frere-Jones writes. "We don't buy misbehaviour any stronger than an appletini from Beyoncé and we don't need to."

But Beyoncé is more than just a superbly talented Pollyanna. She represents a new kind of glamour all together - the rise of the fearsome, fight-ready pop diva who keeps her hips grinding and her nose clean. She may not be subversive, but she doesn't need a meat dress to get our attention.

Now if you'll excuse me I've some live concert footage to watch.

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Follow on Twitter: @leahmclaren

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