FEATURE: Female Icons: Part Four: Beyoncé




Female Icons

IN THIS PHOTO: Beyoncé shot for the cover of Vogue’s September issue in 2018/PHOTO CREDIT: Tyler Mitchell 

Part Four: Beyoncé


IN future parts of this feature…

 IN THIS PHOTO: Beyoncé captured here for GQ in 2013/PHOTO CREDIT: Terry Richardson

I want to investigate Joni Mitchell and Stevie Nicks but, when we think of a modern-day icon, Beyoncé has to be near the top of the pile; close to the imagination when considering those who have pushed music forward. In fact, a lot has happened with Beyoncé over the past few months. Not only has her 2016 album, Lemonade, been unleashed on Spotify – it was not on there since its release; various reasons and so forth – but it is great to have it on there (even if the songs with coarse language have been heavily edited for no apparent reason). I love that album and will address it a bit later but, having been off of Spotify for a while, it is a chance for people to experience the record – it is always good buying records but for those who rely on streaming, having this great album on Spotify is a definite boon. Elsewhere, we saw the incredible Homecoming documentary arrive. It concerned Beyoncé’s iconic performance at Coachella last year and the rehearsal performance footage. It was not only a chance to see her practise and put together the routines but we get some behind-the-scenes material and we also get to witness that legendary performance. The Guardian, when reviewing Homecoming, explained how the stage is, essentially, where Beyoncé is most free and at home:

So Coachella, she explains, was the homecoming she never had, but also a paean to the rich culture and vibrant aesthetic of historically black colleges and universities, the insignia of which can be spotted on the bright yellow and pink hoodies worn by Beyoncé and her onstage battalion (the film brilliantly cross-cuts between Beyoncé’s two Coachella sets to create an almost kaleidoscopic effect, edited down to each gyration and stutter-step)…

And even with the relative sparsity of information about how the concept came together, Homecoming is, alongside the southern gothic feminism of Lemonade, Beyoncé’s grandest articulation yet of her artistic mission. It’s a mission so great, she looks to no less an authority than Maya Angelou to put it into words. “What I really want to do is be a representative of my race,” Angelou says over grainy rehearsal footage near the end of the documentary, in what was the last interview she gave before her death in 2014. “I know that when I’m finished doing what I’m sent here to do, I will be called home.”

Home, for Beyoncé, is the stage. It simply agrees with her, as does every light source, camera angle and audience member, many of whom are seen howling blissfully in the crowd, gobsmacked with pride and hero-worship. But Beyoncé, queen she may be, doesn’t ask us to bend the knee. Homecoming is about the collective. It’s about the experience of viral, transitory togetherness for which musical festivals are one of the last remaining conduits. Beyoncé lets us see as much of the sweat as she’s willing, and some will perhaps want more. But she’s less interested in unraveling the mythology than letting us plebeians revel in it”.

Make sure, if you can, you watch Homecoming and get a sense of Beyoncé the performer (you can also hear the album here). One cannot overstate how important and impactful her Coachella performance was and why, in 2018, she was outclassing and outdoing her peers – many of whom have been compelled by her music since the early days of Destiny’s Child.

I have never been to a Beyoncé gig but, in terms of showman(woman)ship, there are few out there who put on a show like her. So, then, where does she go from here? Her side-project, THE CARTERS (with her husband Jay-Z), spawned the celebrated album, EVERYTHING IS LOVE, and gained a mass of effusive reviews. It was a slightly different step from Beyoncé and Jay-Z but, rather than it being a second-rate solo effort, it was a unified and interesting collaboration – one where both artists retained their core attributes but were able to take their talents to new heights. Beyoncé went on the road with Jay-Z to promote the album but now, with Lemonade three years in the past and the shockwaves from Coachella starting to settle…many will ask whether there is new work coming from Beyoncé. She has to balance business, music and being a mother but one feels that there might be something from her in the next year or so – 2020 would be a good and apt year for her to explore equality, perfect vision and something very bold. In a year dominated by female artists, I think a Beyoncé album would further the cause for equality and gender balance in music. With festivals still ignoring women for headline slots, Beyoncé’s headline Coachella set and her incredible music, surely, should give pause for thought and encouragement. I will look back at Beyoncé’s past work and her rise but, when we think about her, there are two schools of thoughts; a polemic that divides people and, I think, does her an injustice.

There are those who feel Beyoncé has a lot of people making her music and she is not as individual as artists who write their own stuff. Every Beyoncé album has had a fair few writers and producers – the same is true of so many mainstream artists. For someone who prides herself on being independent, how is having others construct her music, marketing and product staying true to her ethos?! There is something to be said for that but many see Beyoncé as cynical and a bit fake in that respect. Beyoncé is always at the front and it would be unrealistic for an artist as busy and high-profile to take care of every element and aspect, considering there is such pressure on her. I think having other bodies in the kitchen adds different ideas to the mix and, whereas some of her albums have been bit ho-hum, they are always interesting and unique. Even Lemonade, with several collaborations and producers, was synonymous with Beyoncé’s voice and vision. There is debate whether the album’s theme and narrative was a reaction to rumours Jay-Z was cheating on her – she maintains it is not – but one cannot fail to hear the anger and sense of outrage as she rallies against lies and low-down cheating. Whether cribbed from her own experiences or coming at it from a fictional perspective, the messages on Lemonade gave heart and courage to those who were going through the same things; huge songs that were full of heart, striking moments and deep passion.

One could not help be moved and overwhelmed by Lemonade and its whole personality. Beyoncé put out seventeen videos for Lemonade: a visual album that was groundbreaking and provided her music with a cinematic flair. One can say that others have helped boost Beyoncé’s profile and music but you only need go back to the start of Destiny’s Child to realise that the hunger and ambition was there from the earliest days. On the 1998 eponymous album, Beyoncé was already starting to establish herself as a star that was more than the sum of the band. That is not to say there was an early power struggle but there was a line-up change by 1999. Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams, together with Farrah Franklin and Beyoncé completed Destiny’s Child 2.0 and, on their second album, there were bigger hits and increased quality. One can look at the management problems and stuff that was happening in the backrooms when the band started out but it was clear things were not smooth and especially harmonious at the beginning. Whatever was happening away from the studio was, at times, ugly but the music on The Writing’s on the Wall is sensational. I often associate the 1990s with the rise of girl groups and, with the likes of En Vogue, All Saints; TLC and the Spice Girls adding their own take to the scene, Destiny’s Child mixed strong and defiant songs with catchy hooks and sweet choruses.

Consider songs such as Bills, Bills, Bills, Jumpin’, Jumpin’ and Say My Name: these are some of the biggest songs of the late-1990s and we can all recall their memorable choruses! Knowles (Beyoncé), by 1999, was becoming even more involved with the songwriting and, together with Kelly Rowland, establishing herself as the leader. 2001’s Survivor whittled the line-up down to Beyoncé, Michelle Williams and Kelly Rowland and it seemed like this move helped them create greater unity and memorability. I love what Beyoncé and co. were doing in the late-1990s but Survivor’s strongest songs – Independent Women ,Part I, Survivor; Bootylicious, Nasty Girl and Dangerously in Love – marked them out as a stunning force. Beyoncé, clearly, was the most popular member of Destiny’s Child by 2001 and you can hear a lot of Destiny’s Child in her solo work – songs about independence, overcoming hurdles and defiance would become her calling cards. 2004’s Destiny Fulfilled was the group’s last album and, whilst there were some tough and raw songs to be found – Lose My Breath and Soldier are the very best – gone was a lot of the hook and freshness. Beyoncé has remained on good terms with the other girls from Destiny’s Child – there was a reunion at her Coachella show last year – so you can never say they are over for good. It is the solo path that Beyoncé is walking and, right from 2003’s Dangerously in Love, there was this sign that she was the star and this was her moment.

Destiny’s Child was a group effort but now, going solo, Beyoncé was allowed to shine and strike. AllMusic, when reviewing her debut solo album, noted the highlights and changes:

Knowles doesn't save this voice just for the ballads -- she sounds assured and sexy on the dance numbers, particularly when she has a male counterpart, as on the deliriously catchy "Crazy in Love" with her man Jay-Z or on "Baby Boy" with 2003's dancehall superstar, Sean Paul. These are the moments when Dangerously in Love not only works, but sounds like Knowles has fulfilled her potential and risen to the top of the pack of contemporary R&B divas. It's just too bad that momentum is not sustained throughout the rest of the record. About halfway through, around the astrological ode "Signs" with Missy Elliott, it starts crawling through its ballads and, while listenable, it's not as exciting as the first part of the record. Still, the first half is good enough to make Dangerously in Love one of the best mainstream urban R&B records released in 2003, and makes a strong case that Knowles might be better off fulfilling this destiny instead of reuniting with Destiny”.

2006’s B’Day capatalised on the success of her debut and (her sophomore) was a stronger and more arresting album. Songs like Déjà Vu, Ring the Alarm and Green Light find Beyoncé baring her teeth and strutting but there are ballads and softer moments; able to blend emotions and moods without losing focus and identity.

 IMAGE CREDIT: Max Vadukul

Like Madonna transition to become the Queen of Pop by the time of 1989’s Like a Prayer, Beyoncé transformed from the princess-in-waiting of R&B to become the Queen by 2006. There were a couple of below-her-best albums after B’Day but 4 (2011) contains pearls such as Love on Top and Run the World (Girls). 4 was a more intimate album than many were used to be but, again, there was that splicing of the fiery and tender. Her eponymous album of 2013, debatably, started her ‘golden period’ – she would follow it with Lemonade in 2016 and has been sort of untouchable since then! All of Beyoncé’s albums have inspired other artists and pushed music forward but her self-titled release came with no fanfare and was just put out there. This surprise release sent the Internet into meltdown and showed that Beyoncé could do what she wanted; other artists have followed her lead and not been slavish to convention and the usual drip-feed marketing cycle. Releasing an album with no run-up and hoopla impressed critics and, as Pitchfork said in this review, it was a big move that paid off:

Which is all to say that Beyoncé has delivered on the promise she inadvertently made by dropping an album and its expansive visual counterpart late on a Thursday night in December on iTunes, free of traditional fanfare. Call it a coup or just another victory for her mammoth PR apparatus, but consider the alternatives: The strategy probably would have failed if the quality wasn't there, and the album could not have achieved such an impact without its rogue—in spirit, at least—method of distribution…

Beyoncé was unleashed upon the world in a way that could only succeed right now, with an aim to make the audience consume it the way it would have long ago. It’s a line that could be ripped straight from the mouth of an investment-drunk tech startup founder, but it’s true: Beyoncé seized the powers of a medium characterized by its short attention span to force the world to pay attention. Leave it to the posterchild of convention to brush convention aside and leave both sides feeling victorious”.

That sort of takes us up to Lemonade and, again, that innovation remained: releasing a visual album was another bold move from Beyoncé and the sign that she was at her finest and most confident – concerned as much with subverting expectation and expanding horizons as producing music of the highest order. Maybe increased success or motherhood led to this big leap but it is clear that, from 2013-present, Beyoncé has been in a league of her own. There are articles that talk about Lemonade’s influence and impact; ones that explore the cinematic influences on her visual album; others that discussed themes on the album (motherhood, black rights and independence) and hypothesised where Beyoncé found guidance. It is clear that, unlike any other album Beyoncé had put her name to, Lemonade took her to new levels. Not only did she revolutionise the visual aspect of videos/an album but she created this bittersweet masterpiece.

 IN THIS PHOTO: Beyoncé in a still from the Hold Up video/PHOTO CREDIT: Parkwood Entertainment

The Telegraph, when looking at Lemonade and its dichotomy of the forward-aiming and fierce and the heartbroken; they underlined just how inspiring and important Beyoncé’s 2016 album was/is:

Following BEYONCÉ’s vision of a perfect marriage, Lemonade’s narrative thread revealed a marriage in trouble; adultery and anger in the first third, reflection in the middle and a kind of acceptance by the end. Chapters were marked by Kübler-Rossian titles: Intuition, Denial, Anger, Apathy, Emptiness, Accountability, Reformation, Forgiveness, Resurrection, Hope and Redemption and linked by eerie recitations of poems by Warsan Shire, casting new shadows across familiar concepts of love and anger.

By focusing on the personal, Beyoncé created a space to dissect the political, both visually and aurally. The music was a huge leap forward for her too; with a litany of collaborators (Jack White! Father John Misty! James Blake!) and a reference library of samples and homages (Soulja Boy! Yeah Yeah Yeahs!) she probed her (and, by extension, our) pain from every angle. From the wild and raw rock of Don’t Hurt Yourself to the bluegrass country of Daddy Lessons, nothing was beyond her; the sheer fury of her sneeringly telling a lover to “suck on her balls cos I’ve had enough” was very un-Beyoncé – until, suddenly, it wasn’t.

US eatery Red Lobster reported a spike in sales after Bey claimed to take a lover there as a reward for spectacular performance in the bedroom. The video accompanying Hold Up – where Beyoncé takes a stroll down a street in bright yellow couture, gleefully wielding a baseball bat to smash images of the patriarchy and the exclusionary nature of white culture – sparked a litany of reaction memes. The entire album was homaged in an episode of the Netflix series The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, coining the verb “to Lemonade”.

But beyond the critical acclaim, gossip column fodder and meme-ification, the album and its visual accompaniments made waves in more serious areas. Its focus on feminism, race and identity and the thousands of visual and sonic references to black history made Lemonade ripe for academic study”.

So, then…why put Lemonade on streaming services after getting everything from the album the first time around?! Not only do new fans get to discover it but, as the article continued, it seemed like another power-move from the superstar:

She’s also explicitly addressed Lemonade’s absence from other streaming services in song – in 2018, Beyoncé and Jay-Z released an album as The Carters on which she raps: “If I gave two f---- about streaming numbers / Would have put Lemonade up on Spotify.” She’s not the only artist to withhold her work from Spotify as a statement; Prince was staunchly anti-streaming, and Taylor Swift’s new releases and back catalogue were famously absent from Spotify for years (she relented when 1989 reached 10 million sales).


IN THIS PHOTO: Beyoncé pregnant with her twins, Rumi and Sir, in 2017/PHOTO CREDIT: Parkwood Entertainment

To now allow Lemonade on to Spotify, which famously pays out very small amounts per stream, is less cowing to the machine and more of a classic Beyoncé power move. The promotional hoopla for Lemonade has ended: anyone who was going to buy it digitally or physically probably already has, anyone hoping to see Lemonade’s songs live has already bought tickets to do so”.

The words ‘Beyoncé’ and ‘interview’ do not really go together naturally. There is no single reason for it but it seems a combination of intrusion and wanting to remain private has enforced her decision. I have talked about Beyoncé as an artist but not really addressed her in terms of being a role model and businesswoman – more on that later on. She did speak to Vogue last year and, as Variety explain in this feature, she did cover a lot of ground:

Beyonce is the cover star of Vogue’s prestigious September issue, and she was reportedly given unprecedented editorial authority over her presentation in the issue. As such, it’s a 1,500-word as-told-to in which she talks about subjects ranging from pregnancy and body image to her galvanizing Coachella performance earlier this year, and the ongoing On the Run II Tour with her husband, Jay-Z.

IN THIS PHOTO: Beyoncé shot for the cover of Vogue’s September issue in 2018/PHOTO CREDIT: Tyler Mitchell  

“I was 218 pounds the day I gave birth to [twins] Rumi and Sir” in 2017, she tells writer Clover Hope. “I was swollen from toxemia and had been on bed rest for over a month. My health and my babies’ health were in danger, so I had an emergency C-section. We spent many weeks in the NICU. My husband was a soldier and such a strong support system for me. I am proud to have been a witness to his strength and evolution as a man, a best friend, and a father. I was in survival mode and did not grasp it all until months later.”

She also speaks of her own parents’ challenged marriage and how it has informed her own. “I come from a lineage of broken male-female relationships, abuse of power, and mistrust,” she said. “Only when I saw that clearly was I able to resolve those conflicts in my own relationship. Connecting to the past and knowing our history makes us both bruised and beautiful.

“I have experienced betrayals and heartbreaks in many forms,” she continues. “I have had disappointments in business partnerships as well as personal ones, and they all left me feeling neglected, lost, and vulnerable. Through it all I have learned to laugh and cry and grow. I look at the woman I was in my 20s and I see a young lady growing into confidence but intent on pleasing everyone around her. I now feel so much more beautiful, so much sexier, so much more interesting. And so much more powerful.”

She also speaks at length of the inspiration behind her Coachella performances in April, which were an elaborate and reference-laden celebration of black culture. “I had a clear vision for Coachella,” she said. “I was so specific because I’d seen it, I’d heard it, and it was already written inside of me. One day I was randomly singing the black national anthem to Rumi while putting her to sleep. I started humming it to her every day. In the show at the time I was working on a version of the anthem with these dark minor chords and stomps and belts and screams. After a few days of humming the anthem, I realized I had the melody wrong. I was singing the wrong anthem. One of the most rewarding parts of the show was making that change. I swear I felt pure joy shining down on us. I know that most of the young people on the stage and in the audience did not know the history of the black national anthem before Coachella. But they understood the feeling it gave them.

“It was a celebration of all the people who sacrificed more than we could ever imagine, who moved the world forward so that it could welcome a woman of color to headline such a festival

I’m in a place of gratitude right now,” she concludes. “I’ve worked long and hard to be able to get to a place where I can choose to surround myself with what fulfills and inspires me.”

I think it is good that there are not too many interviews around of Beyoncé. If she keeps repeating herself or gives too much away then it distills her essence and actually makes her work less potent and personal. There are rumours that a new interview might come soon: whether this signals a fresh album or new tour, who knows. It is exciting to think that, some twenty-one years after Destiny’s Child released their debut album, Beyoncé is still turning heads and growing stronger. There are article such as this and this that list reasons why Beyoncé is a role model but, back in 2017, Michelle Obama called Beyoncé a role model – as this article explains:

Beyoncé and Michelle Obama are the epitome of women supporting women. They not only have a long history of supporting one another, but also, together, of supporting women as a whole.

On Monday, Beyoncé took to her website to announce that she would be launching an initiative that she has aptly named “Formation Scholars.” The purpose of the program is “to encourage and support young women who are unafraid to think outside the box and are bold, creative, conscious and confident.” Involving Berklee College of Music, Howard University, Parsons School of Design, and Spelman College, each school will award a scholarship to a single student who best fits the above description.

After the announcement, Michelle tweeted her support for Beyoncé, writing, “Always inspired by your powerful contributions @Beyonce. You are a role model for us all. Thank you for investing in our girls. 👑🐝 👑🐝

There is no denying that, with her music, sense of ambition and role model status, Beyoncé is an icon that has inspired women around the globe. She has talked about black culture and equal rights; she has spoken for those overlooked and continues to be this pioneer that keeps taking music to dizzying heights. As a live performer, she is unstoppable and one of the most dazzling artists in the world. I will end with an article from Variety that has just come. It asks whether Beyoncé can be seen as a true icon and whether, ahead of Michael Jackson, she is the most important black artist who ever lived:

Queen Bey certainly would qualify as a legitimate successor to the King of Pop. Like Jackson, she’s sold millions of records, racked up an impressive string of hits, and amassed a sizable fan base and fortune. Jackson’s 2009 death left a hole in the hall of hallowed black music stars that Beyoncé was primed to fill.

But where one is celebrating and making black history, the other is black history – five decades of it. Beyoncé has driven some of the pivotal pop culture moments of this millennium – from “Independent Women” to “Single Ladies” to “Lemonade” to her Coachella “Homecoming” performance – but nothing in black entertainment in the last half century can match the impact of Jackson and “Thriller,” the all-time best-selling album by a black musician. That both have been so difficult to mute post-“Leaving Neverland” is a testament to their artistry and enduring importance.

Beyoncé is an undeniable creative force, but she’s first and foremost an entertainer. Her talent as a singer and performer is often jaw-dropping, but it takes a village to make a Beyoncé hit. Jackson was more of a self-contained, independent artist. He worked with accomplished producers but composed many of his greatest hits solo. As he proved with his career-making moonwalk on “Motown 25” in 1984, he didn’t need a battalion to leave a lingering impression.

His perennial success has been against substantial odds. In future centuries, he will serve as an example of how to remain a beloved star despite ever-mounting negative press. “Leaving Neverland” may have damaged his legacy irreversibly, but it’s impossible to erase him from black history.

This isn’t to understate Beyoncé’s musical and cultural significance. In paying homage to black womanhood, she’s brought it into white living rooms in a way no other performer before her has. Though her black consciousness can seem choreographed and calculated at times, especially when compared to earthier forerunners like Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, and Mary J. Blige, Bey dares to go there in a way Jackson — who became figuratively and literally more colorless as time went by — never did.

At just 37, and 22 years into her career, she’s opening more doors and breaking down more barriers than any living black music star. She can headline Coachella in California and Glastonbury in England (the first black woman to do either) and still bring down the house at the Apollo in Harlem. Critics and fellow artists are as enamored of her as fans, and although her personal life makes headlines, unlike Jackson, her legacy is untarnished by scandal”.

Beyoncé means something different to everyone. She is not one of these fake stars that follows the beat of a record label’s drum and produces these very samey and empty songs. With every move and note, there is a conviction and sense of energy that gets under the skin and into the bones. She has been this champion for decades now and, still in her thirties, there is no telling how far she can go and what she will do next. Whether she sets up her own charity or reforms Destiny’s Child, it seems like she has already lived this remarkable life – even though she has decades left in music. To me, she is an artist who has produced some of the most memorable music of the past twenty years and someone who the music world needs to preserve and put on a platform. She is this gorgeous and sexy woman who has provided so much impetus and conficence to young women around the world. One cannot that Beyoncé is a hugely vital figure in an industry where there are so many false idols and fakery.

IN THIS PHOTO: Beyoncé captured here for GQ in 2013/PHOTO CREDIT: Terry Richardson

She is not perfect at all – some of the music misses the mark and one would like to see some solo-written songs now and then – but she is an incredibly powerful and important woman who has given so much to so many people. I do think that critics need to understand all the good she does and how her music connects with people. Long may her reign continue (some call her ‘Queen Bey’) and there is a lot of talk right now that something might be coming up. Maybe Beyoncé will surprise us with an album in 2019 but we have that incredible Homecoming documentary to Watch and mustn’t forget what she has produced over the past couple of years. She continues to dazzle, amaze and surprise at every turn. Whether you see her as a queen, a role model or just merely a Pop artist, one cannot deny that the Houston-born mother-of-three is…

 IN THIS PHOTO: Beyoncé performing at the Grammys in 2017/PHOTO CREDIT: Kevin Winter/Getty Images for NARAS

TRULY wonderful.