Any long-term readers will not quite expect a piece on Beyoncé by me…but somehow managed to see her newest, shiniest world tour on Friday night and thought it worth documenting here.
We tend to think of the tribes of people who attend classical and opera evenings, a largely middle class, middle-aged crowd that veers on the reverential and the more reserved side of human nature. If going out to see the London Symphony Orchestra is a visit to the nearest font of greatness for many of us, seeing Beyoncé is the equivalent of breathing the same air as a yogi. Her audience was a uniform mix of 20something girls that seemed to conform to about four types of pre-packaged ideal form. Most of it found in celebrity magazines, with bright fake tans, rampant hair extensions and fashion out of the third aisle left of Primark. As we sat down drinking some wine we looked on as hordes of fans arrived, resembling a self-replicating mass dedicated to having fun and waving their arms in the air to the tune of Single Ladies repeating in their heads for the next three hours. We may want to make assumptions on the looks and submission to the power of marketing and the desperate need to belong to a tribe. But mainly what was in evidence in spades was the undeniable magnetism and brilliant shine of popular culture at its most fundamental.
You will see the opening sequence in my embedded video, a failsafe mix of bright lights, abundant decibels, LED screens giving us an 18th century out of rococo paintings most of this audience never seen in the flesh, dancers and of course the appearance on a stage lift of the poster girl and the centre of attention. It is catchy, it is exciting and it was lapped up with genuine, moving abandon. Interestingly the fans even found enough benevolence to not boo the turgid Pepsi advert that prefaces the opening of the show in an act of solidarity to the starring lady. Beyoncé like any pop act at the top of their game has the unbeatable mix of inoffensive blandness and a cunning ability to validate their existence in the zeitgeist by infuriating select audiences that would never see her live or download her music anyway.
Her brand of female empowerment may be full of contradictions and moves writers to want to write an open letter to Michelle Obama. But her nearly 80% female audience and all female stage band are serving a menu of inclusive entertainment. Between segments and costume changes we are served a diet of platitudes that would happily rest in the pages of a self-help book on how to attract men without looking desperate, we are told memorably that seduction is intelligent. Not miles away from the last Madonna show I experienced which featured prominently a video mash-up of dictators intercut with images of genocide and George W Bush.
The pronouncements may be very different but the claim to gravitas in the context of all the hip thrusting and the hair flicking is the same. The appearance of a piano signifies a surface for our heroine to lie on in a fabulous midnight blue sparkly playsuit. What pop chanteuse doesn’t fall for the allure of adding a classical element into the presentation as a coded message for the fans to take away? She also had a ballerina sequence at a transitional point in the middle of the show, making the point of how the inverted snobbery against ballet when used in a popular context. Carrying its sense of cultural elevation for her show with a subtle hint of high art that contrasts sharply with the immaculate renditions of radio wave fillers.
It would be very easy to turn all sneery and to not understand the point and the mechanics of a pop concert. This is shiny, showbiz glitter (and yes this show came complete with a glitter cannon) that bypasses reason and reaches cult levels. The sea of people around us were believing in her as a chief representative of their tribe, Beyoncé as head priestess of contemporary womanhood. She danced herself into a sweat and all the ladies nearby cheered her on and offered their love and approval at every turn. I felt like a heretic in the middle of it all, trying to judge for myself the source of this love and trying to not lose my hearing to the outrageous over-amplification.
One undeniable observation is the sense of total abandon to a hedonistic escapism for the three hours of the show. The relationship of total trust between the performer and the audience, being built on years of exposure via celeb magazines, TV appearances and being the soundtrack of people’s lives. The catchy tunes are just one part of the story, she manages to sell self confidence and a lifestyle by virtually bypassing the critical faculties of the audience and aiming straight for their emotions. I was moved to tears by Véronique Gens’ rendition of Les chemins de l’amour a few weeks back in a way that pop music will never reach deep inside me. My innate cynicism doesn’t allow for the guard to go down and permit myself to be manipulated by the artifice. The simplicity of the set up (one woman a pianist and a piano) is for me the ultimate way to communicate what it means to be human and to have a connection with one’s interior world. Allows for reflection and appreciation of great artistry without the need for spectacle and lights.
But damn me classical and opera audiences need to be taught a lesson on how to not be so buttoned up and to have a sense of occasion when attending, how to give themselves over to the musical experience and have a notch less reverence and a whole load more interaction. Why is it turning round and telling a fellow concert goer that the performance is incredible such a taboo? Why can’t the classical tribe try to be slightly less “respectable and bookish” and let its hair down. We need to celebrate all music as a genuine form of escapism that gives us safe hiding places from our everyday lives but also a source of essential, unadulterated FUN. So big thanks to Mrs Carter and her ladies in the audience for a giggle of a night out. I wish I could transfer some of the unstuffy enjoyment and all round Joie de vivre…also hoping the next time I go to the Wigmore Hall it will smell a little less of mothballs.
Some Tweets from the evening