The next time I hear someone suggest Beyoncé doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously as an artist because she’s a pop star, or because there are other writers credited on her new album, I’m going to punch them in the mouth.
Note: I don't actually condone physical violence, and would certainly never suggest it as the appropriate response to an incorrect Pop Culture Opinion. Still, that was the first complete-sentence thought I managed to sputter out loud last night, as I sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic with roughly 50,000 other people, every one of us just trying to inch a half-mile outside of Levi’s Stadium as the clock struck midnight and it turned from May 16 to May 17, with damn near every person in every car dazed, drained, energized, aglow, and grinning ear-to-ear as though, perhaps, we'd all just witnessed the Apollo 11 moon landing. Live. From the moon.
It’s not just that the "she's not a real artist" argument, which handily strips Beyoncé of any shred of agency, is boring and sexist (though it is both of those things, and if you have a few hours I'm more than happy to talk about it over drinks). But more importantly: after watching the most famous woman in the country work harder and tougher and more joyfully than I’ve ever seen any human work on a stage before -- and we’re talking hard calisthenics, for two straight hours, in a series of high-heeled boots and glittery, thong-bottomed jumpsuits, long curls loose and flying, while belting her way through more than 30 songs from her 17-year career, all without once sounding out of breath -- it's also never been more obvious why it's wrong.
“If you’re proud of who you are, say ‘I slay,’” said B early in the evening, smiling and scanning the stadium, assessing her crowd as it roared to life. We'd been treated to Too $hort, E-40 and DJ Khaled while we waited, which in most other circumstances would be quite the show, full-stop, in and of itself.
“If you’re proud of where you come from, say ‘I slay,’” said B.
I SLAY! we told her, most of us sounding pretty dumb, because Beyoncé is one of the few people alive who sounds cool when she says "I slay." No matter. She had just emerged from a rotating, skyscraper-sized cube made of LED lights; she had a team of eight acrobatically gifted women dancing behind her; a tireless female drummer to her right and a ferocious female bassist to her left, and a Super Bowl-sized stadium of followers screaming her name in every other direction.
Group therapy had commenced.
After opening with "Formation," the politically charged call to arms that sent football fans clutching for their pearls when she stole Coldplay's show with it at the aforementioned Big Ol' American Sports Event at Levi's in February, Beyoncé dove full-speed into a set that leaned heavily on Lemonade, her much-discussed, barely three-week old manifesto about love and pain and infidelity and the messy realities of being a woman, not to mention an obscenely famous woman of color, in America.
"Sorry" saw thousands of middle fingers in the air, waving with a gusto that suggested the fingers themselves had been waiting patiently for years to do just that. "Hold Up" was jaunty testimony as much as it was an admonition, a map of hurt and marital betrayal, even as she segued easily into the relationship celebration of "Countdown" and strutted athletically down a catwalk into the middle of the crowd. "Don't Hurt Yourself" invited the most committed, gleeful headbanging I've ever seen from an R&B or pop star, helped in no small part by Beyoncé's (again, female) electric guitarist standing in for Jack White, wailing through heavily distorted riffs, rocking an Afro and shredded jeans.
"This is a song about the most important relationship in your life, and that's the one you have with yourself," Beyoncé said by way of introducing "Me Myself and I," off her debut solo album, somehow managing to sound earnest while also staying on message with the precision of a knife-thrower. "Every other relationship is just a bonus."
With a few other exceptions -- "Flawless" was a beast of a performance; "Crazy In Love" opened with a dark, ominous downtempo rendition that emphasized the negative connotations of "crazy" before B flashed a smile and jumped into its rightful pace; the sloppy, sexy devotion of "Drunk In Love" also took on a new gravity in light of the cracks we've now seen in its central relationship -- songs from previous albums got shorter treatments. Destiny's Child tracks, in particular, became something like a tangled teaser-medley of lyrics about independent ladies and survivors and jelly (this jelly, to be specific, and whether or not you're ready for it).
As the show charged on, my initial frustration at the medley approach to early songs was outweighed by the power of juxtaposition; nothing highlights how much she's grown like hearing 2003's "Baby Boy" (ft. Sean Paul, though this show did not, thankfully, feature Sean Paul) in close proximity to the layered, orchestral, triumphant "All Night" -- which Beyoncé referred to as her favorite song to sing from the new album, because "it's about redemption." (See: knife-thrower storyline crafting, above.)
That juxtaposition also helped to eliminate any doubt that this woman can carry a stadium show by herself. Not only was Jay Z conspicuously missing from the premises, his parts were actually removed from her songs -- and I didn't miss them. In the same vein, the sets were certainly big visually (video clips from Lemonade, aerial dancers and complicated platforms of various sizes, fireworks, more than a half-dozen costume changes). But it was tough not to draw a comparison to Taylor Swift's '1989' tour, which also came to Levi's Stadium, and during which the stage became something like the set for an over-the-top, Taylor Swift-themed musical; the dancers and complex video elements at that performance seemed crucial to making it interesting enough to last two hours.
When Beyoncé's on stage, you don't need much else. I never got to see Michael Jackson live, but I have to imagine it was a little like this. ("Hey, this is cool, but let's add some more grandiose set design just so people have something else to look at while Michael's dancing," said no artistic director ever.)
As the evening wound to a close, B disappeared and reemerged in white, her dancers stone-faced, bound in costumes that looked like rope. Together, barefoot, they took to a rectangular, ankle-deep pool of water at the edge of the catwalk to dance for the duration of "Freedom," the drum-driven, heart-pounding Kendrick Lamar collaboration on Lemonade. Hair was flying, water was flying, arms and legs took the shape of wings. It looked primal. It looked like liberation. It looked exhausting.
"You know, she doesn't have to work this hard," I yelled to my friend, as her dancers left and Beyoncé closed the show solo, still barefoot, with "Halo." "She's not even lip-syncing!" my friend yelled back, and it was true: Beyoncé was clearly singing her ass off, all while doing squats and lunges and high-kicks in heels for, let me repeat it, 120 minutes straight.
But the thought I woke up with this morning -- after three hours of traffic and three and a half hours of sleep -- was something like: Actually, she does have to work that hard. Because the more records she breaks, the more people are waiting for her to slip. No matter what she does, people will line up to say she doesn't deserve her success, that she's a pretty lady pop star propped up by shrewd male writers and producers; to proclaim that her newfound public political consciousness is just a well-crafted but disingenuous marketing ploy, instead of entertaining the possibility that a 34-year-old performer who's been in the spotlight since age 16 might grow up and develop fresh ideas and want to go in new directions, and that doing all of that on an international stage will obviously, at times, get messy.
But whether it was calculated or genuine or somewhere in between, the sparkle of a tear in Beyoncé's eye as she put her hand to her chest, looked around the stadium, and smiled a gracious, humble, goddamn beautiful smile before saying "thank you" one last time and disappearing below the stage said everything I needed to know about what she thinks she deserves. She might not have always been clear on that. It might have even taken heartbreak for her to see it.
And if that's not proof that the personal is political -- especially, yes, if you're a woman, and especially if you're an obscenely famous woman of color in America -- I sure as hell don't know what is.
Some non-Lemonade highlights and stray thoughts:
Would be remiss not to mention the gut-punch-emotional cover of Prince's "The Beautiful Ones" that ended with B on all fours, belting into the mic like it was a lifeline, followed by a set break/costume change during which the LED skyscraper glowed purple, the entirety of "Purple Rain" blasted over the sound system, and confetti fell from the sky while nearly 50,000 cell phone lights swayed from side to side.
Also, a chorus from D'Angelo's "Untitled (How Does It Feel)" popping up in the midst of "Rocket."
On at least three separate occasions when Beyoncé crouched down and invited the front row to sing into the microphone, the crowd members who apparently grabbed said opportunity were adult men who then growl-yelled the next lyric so forcefully that she started cracking up.
Waiting to see how many Beyoncé-sweat covered towels show up on eBay in the next week or two, as she obliged at least five or six fans who offered relief from the front row.
The parking situation was a nightmare both on the way in and the way out. Also, the NFL's idiotic no-purse policy, under which Levi's Stadium employees offer concert-goers clear plastic bags to hold their possessions, contributed to an interesting "turning over your affects as you arrive at prison" feeling. Beyoncé prison, though. It's way better than regular prison.
It's pretty well understood that the wages of superstardom in this country involve giving up any semblance of privacy; that once you reach a certain level of fame, people are going to pick apart, criticize, and capitalize on your personal life whether you like it or not. Wrapping up the hungered-for "personal story" in a shiny bow and demanding payment for it the way Beyoncé has with this record and tour is one of the smartest chess moves in pop music history, and I don't care whose idea you think it was.
As the throngs of people shoved toward the exits, a man got down on one knee and proposed to his girlfriend, prompting shrieks from about a hundred people nearby. She said yes, of course, and they hugged. Then a quick-witted bystander offered the bride-to-be some sage advice: "Take his ass to Red Lobster!" Really hope she did.
Beyoncé's Formation Tour returns to Levi's Stadium on Sept. 17. Details here.
For arts stories you won't read anywhere else, come to KQED's Arts and Culture desk.