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The unstoppable Beyoncé

How the performer became an entertainer as omnipresent as oxygen.

2018 Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival - Weekend 1 - Day 2
Beyoncé appears at Coachella on Saturday, April 14.
Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Coachella
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

When I saw Beyoncé in concert in 2016, I found myself far above the stage, in the extreme nosebleed seats of the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. I watched much of the concert on the gigantic screens displaying the performer as she slid effortlessly among her biggest hits, while still leaving a little time to pay homage to the then-recently passed Prince via a cover of “Purple Rain.”

But every time I looked down at the stage, far, far below me, it was always obvious which performer was Beyoncé. Yeah, some of that was just effective staging, which created stage pictures that worked from above to always draw your eye to a particular focal point (in this case, perhaps the most famous entertainer alive). But just as much of it was something ineffable, some essential Beyoncé-ness that took the singer from one member of a trio to a massive global success whose every move spawns headlines.

Some of that is the much-remarked-upon contradiction between Beyoncé’s talent and how much she wants you to know she’s using that talent. She can do things few other performers can do, but she always wants you to see how hard she’s working. She’s never met a simple dance move that she couldn’t exploit for every little micro-beat of effort. It’s mesmerizing, even from hundreds of feet above.

But in watching her 2018 Coachella set, which seemed simultaneously constructed to give the audience at the California music festival and those of us watching at home an equally good time, I realized how much this applies to Beyoncé’s whole career. Like many of the best performers throughout history, she is eternally conscious of setting higher and higher bars for herself, then making sure you know just how thoroughly she’s cleared them. She has an almost preternatural sense of what she has to do to remain the biggest star on planet Earth.

That won’t last forever. Every star dims eventually. But for now, isn’t it amazing to watch?

So far, Beyoncé’s instincts are serving her very well

The 59th GRAMMY Awards - Show
Beyoncé performs at the 2017 Grammys.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for NARAS

Beyoncé’s 2018 Coachella performance was a makeup for a 2017 set she had to cancel due to her pregnancy with twins. (Beyoncé being Beyoncé, even the announcement of her pregnancy aimed for artistry.) This made the performance her first major appearance on such a massive stage since the 2017 Grammy Awards, when she performed, heavily pregnant, in support of her massively successful album Lemonade.

The divide between these two performances couldn’t be more vast. The 2017 Grammys performance was subdued, much of it focused on the singer sitting atop a gravity-defying throne, while the 2018 Coachella performance was as high energy as anything Beyoncé had ever done. Yet what the two had in common was her inherent understanding of how a performance can play one way in person and another way entirely when watched on a TV or computer screen.

The number of variables Beyoncé ultimately couldn’t control for in the Grammys performance — from the fact that she hadn’t selected the program’s director to how energetically her own pregnancy would allow her to perform — were largely absent in the Coachella performance, which was a dazzling feat of on-the-fly image creation that kept topping itself. (Her second-weekend performance at Coachella wasn’t streamed but apparently had its own set of shifts that allowed her to once again create a series of payoffs for fans and concertgoers.) But all these performances had in common Beyoncé’s sense of what, precisely, she needs to do to top her last work.

What Beyoncé understands that previous performers at her level of fame — Prince and Madonna spring to mind — also understood is that “topping yourself” rarely means clearing the bar you previously set for yourself.

Sometimes, as in the Coachella performances, it means clearing the bar by such a height that you create almost impossible expectations for your future performances and could never possibly live up to them. And once you’ve done that, it sometimes behooves you to go under the bar in such an artistically daring and intriguing way that your audience forgets it’s sad it didn’t see you at the height of your most pyrotechnically dazzling.

Topping yourself, then, isn’t about building bigger and bigger presentations for yourself, but instead about constantly finding ways to do the unexpected. What pushes Beyoncé to the level of a Michael Jackson or Beatles, then, is how she applies this natural gift for finding the most satisfying and most unexpected thing she could do to every stage of her career.

Beyoncé is simply playing a different game than almost everybody else

Beyonce in “Lemonade.”
Lemonade was a dazzling film in addition to an album.

It’s almost impossible to think of an entertainer right now who commands the level of interest or respect that Beyoncé does. In terms of sheer pop culture oxygen she sucks up in the room, she’s on the level of something like Game of Thrones or the Marvel movies, to the point where she feels less like a person or artist and more like a fact of life we all exist alongside.

In her nearly decade-long run at this level of fame, there have been other musicians who occasionally feinted at approaching that level, notably Taylor Swift. But Swift’s seeming inability to figure out what to do after her 2014 release 1989, the most successful album of her career in terms of attaining cultural omnipresence, is a useful counterpoint to how much better Beyoncé is at both being famous and then using that fame to make artistically bold choices that resonate with listeners.

Take, for instance, how Beyoncé followed up an album I guess you could sort of label “disappointing” when viewed within the context of her career, the 2011 release 4, which was a massive hit that still underperformed its predecessor, 2008’s I Am ... Sasha Fierce and didn’t manage a single to hit the level of the earlier album’s “Single Ladies.” (This is all, of course, relative; 4 would be most other artists’ best album by a long shot.)

Her follow-up, then, was 2013’s Beyoncé, a double album that spawned its share of hits but also won attention and publicity thanks to its surprise release, an out-of-nowhere publicity move that almost dwarfed the (very good) album.

Her next move after that, album-wise, was 2016’s Lemonade, both her best album in terms of critical reviews and one that managed to sell millions of copies amid a music industry best known for crumbling. But it was also notable for how personal it was, how much it talked about her marriage, about her life, about black womanhood. The deeper Beyoncé gets into her career, the more she grasps that balancing showmanship with something real and non-manufactured is key to success.

For obvious reasons, I can’t grasp how important this is to black women, who rightly see Beyoncé as a titanic figure in pop music history, both for her music and for who she is. But as a pop culture critic, I’m taken with how brilliantly she navigates the straits of giving everybody a great show while also offering just enough of a glimpse of the real Beyoncé to keep us fascinated.

It’s a move someone like Swift — who always built her persona around a faux authenticity that was too easily punctured by essentially any news story about her — doesn’t have access to, and it’s a move that will eventually run out of juice, as it did for someone like Madonna (who offered a similar personal/professional dichotomy in her music throughout the ’90s). But for Beyoncé, right now, in the 2010s, it’s working, and it’s made her the biggest star on Earth, someone who doesn’t particularly need to care if she’s under or over the bar, so long as she’s jumped.

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