This Is Beyonce’s Super Bowl
Feb. 3, 2013
Three facts, all interconnected, will prove indisputable on Super Bowl XLVII, aka Beyoncé’s largest concert.
Beyoncé will break the Internet. No pop star–not even tweet-happy, “little-monster”mommy Lady Gaga –attracts the kind of attention, love and hate, that Queen Bey does online. This is a performer, after all, whose iconic, Kanye West-declared-“One of the Best Videos of All Time,” “Single Ladies” dance inspired a YouTube phenomenon. She’s the kind of star who can walk the red carpet, put her hand over her baby bump and generate the most tweets per second (TPS) ever recorded for a single event at the time: 8,868 TPS at 10:35 p.m. on August 28, 2011 at the MTV Video Music Awards. No joke .
Beyoncé will not–absolutely, bar none, under-no-circumstances, not–lip sync. She lip-synced on President Obama’s second inauguration, she said in a press conference on Thursday, because she didn’t feel fully prepared. She’s prepared for Beyoncé Bowl. (The greatest irony of the lip-syncing-heard-round-the-world is that Beyoncé is one of those rare vocalists who actually sounds better live than she does on her recordings.)
And Beyoncé, arguably the best performer of her generation, male or female, will deliver the most memorable Super Bowl halftime show we are likely to see in our lifetimes. That’s not an exaggeration, especially for a singer-dancer-performer who has set the bar for everyone else. The lip-syncing controversy has generated Beyoncé even more buzz, which will hit fever pitch online by the time she takes the spotlight away from San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. (A recent poll on the cable channel Bravo asked, “Who do you think will win the Super Bowl?” The 49ers got 18 percent of the vote and the Ravens took 31 percent. Beyoncé won with 51 percent.)
But lip-syncing and the Internet aside, you don’t have to like Beyoncé’s music to respect her work. You don’t have to be a Beyoncé fan and a member of her Beyhive to be awestruck by her talent.
I’ve grown up listening to Beyoncé, which says less about my age (we share a birth year–1981) and more about how long Bey has been performing. Born in the Philippines, I moved to the U.S. in 1993, when her group Girl’s Tyme changed its name to Destiny’s Child. To any immigrant seeking to assimilate, the quickest way to absorb American culture–the sounds and sights of this new country–is through television, movies, and music. For a Filipino-American kid growing up in California in the mid-1990s, pop equaled R&B, the sounds of TLC, Boyz II Men, and Mariah Carey, the first mainstream singer to integrate rappers in her music. (There was no turning back after Ol’ Dirty Bastard rapped “Me and Mariah go back like babies and pacifiers” in the remix of “Fantasy.”)
Destiny’s Child, and particularly Beyoncé, was a part of that musical education for me. Nothing quite like using “bootylicious” in a sentence to feel characteristically American. If Mariah was the commercial epitome of a post-Motown, modern R&B–a hip-hop-pop sound–then Lauryn Hill was the critical and artistic apotheosis of it. For her part, Beyoncé bridged that gap and then some, defining this singular American sound for more than a decade and attaining both commercial and critical success. As the lead singer and song-writer of Destiny’s Child, a group which her own father managed, she set the pace musically and aesthetically.
She declared her independence with her first solo album, “Dangerously in Love,” whose kinetic, genre-busting first three songs (“Crazy in Love,” “Naughty Girl” and “Baby Boy”) established her career on high gear. Before she turned 30, she was one of the best-selling female singers in the world. Along with Dolly Parton, she holds the record for the most Grammy nominations for a female artist (45) and has won 16 statues herself–behind country’s Alison Krauss, opera’s Leontyne Price and the original Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, who has 18.
The dancing and performing aside, her distinct yet familiar, mainstream yet idiosyncratic sound has been at the core of her appeal.
B’Day Who sounds like Beyoncé?
Bey’s sound is expansive in its reach, encyclopedic in its references, “like Broadway meets the jump rope game in Brooklyn,” “Halo” then the soul and blues of “I’d Rather Go Blind,” then the scat-filled, jazz-like rendering of “Deja Vu,” then the rap-sing syncopated, “A Milli”-like groove of that out-Minajs even Nicki herself. (Or, for that matter, just compare her take on Tina’s “Proud Mary” to her reading of Barbra’s “The Way We Were.”)
Who else but Beyoncé could have given us the eclectic and eccentric “Countdown”?
Among female singers, Beyoncé’s how-does-she-do-that virtuosity is only matched by Audra McDonald, the five-time Tony Award-winning Broadway star. (Interesting side-note: Beyoncé and Audra have both played Deena Jones, the prim-and-proper, Diana Ross-like character in “Dreamgirls.” With varying success and obvious strain, you can almost hear their cords fighting to get out of that vocal straightjacket. No wonder Beyoncé recorded the bombastic songs of “B’Day”–from “Get Me Bodied” to “Freakum Dress”–shortly after filming “Dreamgirls.” )
Two of the most perceptive critics of Beyoncé’s oeuvre–Jody Rosen, who’s written for Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone, and Sasha Frere-Jones, the pop music critic of The New Yorker–have run out of superlatives to describe Bey’s sound. “You’d have to search far and wide–perhaps in the halls of the Metropolitan Opera–to find a vocalist who sings with more sheer force,” Rosen writes in his review of “B’Day.” For her third album, the less musically impressive if not more commercially successful “I Am…Sasha Fierce,” the headline of Frere-Jones’ review summed up his verdict: “The Queen.” Beyoncé is “pop’s A student,” Frere-Jones writes, “a strange and brilliant musician” on her way to the Genius Lounge that’s crowded by “the moody, the male, and the dead.”
And Queen Bey is most definitely alive, dancing with the kind of jubilance and enraptured energy that often masks the difficulty of her enterprise. On stage, she’s like a tall can of Red Bull served over ice, always lit from within, a sprint runner in search of a marathon. Through her dances, lyrics and music, she exemplifies a kind of female empowerment that is at once accessible and mysterious. How does she do it? We don’t know. She’s Beyoncé.
RUN THE WORLD
Beyond Beyoncé the performer, however, there’s Beyoncé the global celebrity, with a carefully crafted image that she has honed for over a decade. She’s a professional who can be a homebody, akin to the business executive-turned-first lady Michelle Obama, whom Beyoncé has repeatedly praised. She’s an entrepreneur with an expanding brand, a young Oprah for the 21st century: a clothing line, a production company, endorsement deals–hello Pepsi. While Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, advises women to “Lean In,” the title of her new book, Beyoncé idealistically tells girls that they can “run the world.”It’s that hard-working, hard-charging personal narrative that now powers her upcoming HBO documentary, written, produced, and directed by, of course, Beyoncé. In the age of Katy Perry and Rihanna, her (somewhat) contemporaries, Beyoncé has rarely misstepped. She’s the glamorous yet down-to-earth girl next door, the elder sister to Taylor Swift, and the one Adele grew up idolizing. She can duet with Gaga, Alicia Keys, and Shakira, all different artists with different visions, but more than hold her own. No wonder she ended marrying Jay-Z, making her possibly the only woman who can, literally, figuratively, and musically “upgrade” him. The woman has got swag.
In a relatively open and honest interview with GQ–in the past Beyoncé has taken “guarded” to a whole new level–Queen Bey, with little trace of self-awareness, says: “I now know that, yes, I am powerful. I’m more powerful than my mind can even digest and understand.”
More than any other pop star, Bey has made a business out of being perfect in an imperfect world. That’s why the lip-syncing controversy made headlines the way it did–Beyoncé, faking the perfection? And that is precisely the tension that will keep watching Beyoncé so thrilling. The tension between her studied, choreographed, hard-earned perfection and the surprising, liberating abandon of a continually evolving artist striving to be authentically herself. Nobody is that perfect, not even Beyoncé, but for her sake and ours, she sure will keep trying.
What’s next? Her own record company? A Broadway show, an original one-woman musical that traces the genesis of the black female performer, from Diana Sands and Josephine Baker to Whitney Houston? More albums, more acting, more concerts?
The answer is, the possibilities seem limitless. The struggle for perfection continues.
She is, after all, only 31 years old.
Jose Antonio Vargas is a journalist and the founder of Define American, which seeks to elevate how we talk about immigration. Watch and support the Define American’s Super Bowl ad aimed at strategic markets.