“All I need in this life of sin, is me and my girlfriend (me and my girlfriend)…She rides with me – the new Bobby and Whitney.” If anything summed up the spectacle that was their jointly performed On The Run part II tour, this is it.
I was off, back on, off again…and then finally back on, doing that keyboard and webpage refresh dance all week long, only fully and finally deciding to commit and give in to the seductive pull of the Beyoncé/Jay-Z media and entertainment juggernaut at the eleventh hour. Am glad I went, but it left me with questions.
But why the dithering in the first place? Like others I questioned the expense, the size, the security risk of going to big concerts these days, the logistics of getting there after a long week, but also the moral ambiguity of the music and the message, before finally clicking the payment button early afternoon on the day of the show.
Beyoncé and Jay Z would clearly exist, and shine brightly in a star filled stratosphere, had they never met, entered a relationship, married or had kids. However, the fact that they have has made them two of the most rich, influential and powerful people in the music and entertainment industry.
Intriguingly, both myth and reality blur throughout this show (which is all very knowing and intended), with their love story’s origins founded on the classic Bonnie and Clyde escapism, he gangster and she the rough, tough, glammed up gangster’s moll. There’s lots to see, experience and ponder here, if you get the chance it’s worth going to form an opinion of your own.
Like many born in the 70s and 80s, I grew up with hip-hop, we were the first generation to hear the beat crunching and bouncing from New York’s warehouse parties, as the underground came up into the streets, into the popular consciousness in Europe and then all over the globe. As Stetsasonic reflected in “All That Jazz”…’you think rap is a fad, you must be mad, ‘cause we get respect you never had. Tell the truth, James Brown was old, ‘til Eric and Ra came out with I Got Soul.’. But even those pioneers would be amazed to reflect on how hip-hop’s global beat dominates the mainstream now.
And as I watch every echelon of society, teenagers, gangs of girls (of all ages), all the single ladies, the affluent, the clubbers, the blinged out, the lovers, the posers, the middle class, the beer drenched, and the single males too, they all become a sea of swaying energy, waving mobile phones, at times dancing awkwardly and without inhibition…but the narrative is consistent.
“I got 99 problems and a b*tch ain’t one”, is one of the more accessible songs we hear. Typing this on a Saturday morning in the (warm) light of day, following the Friday night before, looks stark in type. However, 80,000 people were entertained, danced, had fun, felt a strange kind of 21st century freedom and a tinge of rebellion – even while they film half as much as they actually watch, and listen to. It’s a party, and a celebration.
I put watched first, as it was such a visceral experience, it’s also slightly less offensive when you can’t hear everything being said, but lose yourself inside the beats…which I suspect is a big part of the appeal. It’s also hard to explain my feelings when I see a lady of pensionable age, with white hair, mouthing every word of Jay-Z’s canon faithfully. Who am I to judge?
Jay Z has fully transcended the Myth of Staggerlee – whose gangsterish origins run all the way back to the Wild West (Greil Marcus’ describes it as a ‘tawdry dance of death’ in his book Mystery Train). The Staggerlee myth of the rebellious outlaw permeates so many African-American narratives from the origins of slavery, through to the civil rights movement, to the 20th century pimp mentality and beyond, but here it’s elevated to the biggest platform imaginable, as a fun fantasy for all demographics to share in. Far from being a tawdry dance of death, Jay Z is the puppet master, he is the corporation now, but the myth and the salacious fantasy remain. There almost needs to be a message at the entry gate: “Leave your 9 to 5 behaviour, language and morality, at the door…Jay and Bey will see you now.” I felt like an outsider looking in at times, so maybe I missed a vital link in the story, a crucial development which took place somewhere along the way.
It’s a head-pounding, thrilling, spectacular, big-show experience - laced with a multitude of contradictions throughout. I found Jay-Z entertaining and likeable even while he spat out lyrics that offended. He was the smiling rap assassin, but surprisingly warm with it (if a little detached), and the crowd loved him. Is it unfair to say that Beyoncé is clearly the star turn here? Others would disagree vehemently with that view, but everything is subjective in terms of opinion. At times, albeit only briefly – even if she would fiercely guard against such a notion – it felt as if she was dancing to his tune, his narrative, but would play along provided she got all the hurt and offence out in a series of female empowerment anthems. All the anger and disquiet seemed to come from the female half of this show, and surprisingly it lacked light, or many celebratory elements, with darker clouds always seemingly on the horizon. That was dissipated in the finale however, as no-one could doubt the sincerity of their tribute to the victims of the Grenfell tragedy, touchingly dedicated during their performance of ‘Young Forever (Forever Young)’ with many in the audience moved to tears.
Beyoncé appears as a brooding figure during the majority of this show, with a lot of her torment seemingly unresolved, as if she can’t square the modern circle of empowerment, love, contentment and balance. It’s nothing if not compelling.
There are one or two brief tender moments when she sings alone just backed by a guitar (my ears struggled to adjust!), lamenting the attractiveness of a woman who may (or may not) have been a part of her husband’s rumoured infidelity. They play it mix and match style, appearing together in the stripped-down opening of the show, and guest on each other’s sets throughout. While Jay Z at times appears to see and acknowledge the longing and passion in her eyes, he never seems flapped emotionally by any of it, while you’re left with the feeling that Beyoncé, for all her fire, still seeks attention and is now the edgier of the two performers – whether consciously self-imposed or not.
And they want you to feel the ‘real-ness’ too, so we see shots of them all over the world, on secluded beaches, in backstreets, hanging in favelas, lying on a bed of money, posing with a vintage movie camera, running through fields, smoking, gambling, fighting and loving (brief pics of their children elicit shrieks on two occasions). Everyone is bought in, and both acknowledge the love at various points.
Power is the dominant theme, but who has it…? I would have said Beyoncé before seeing the show, but now I’m not so sure. And isn’t this the eternal struggle in all relationships? The back and forth, the imbalance, the myths, the romantic promise, the lust, the hard reality.
But here it’s writ large on the biggest screens you’re ever likely to see in any stadium gig, the visuals were a show and experience all in their own right.
And then there’s the band, dressed in a kind of shiny science fiction metallic red, standing on various platforms but barely part of the show at all (save one impassioned fem-guitar solo). They are automatons – Logan’s Run-style, there to serve their masters, as are the double-jointed African themed contortionists. Much of the show is visceral and dream-like, as if you’re not supposed to be entirely sure which parts are constructed narrative, and which parts are ‘REAL LOVE’.
If entertainment was gun-slinging, Beyoncé could continually shoot the bottles out of your hand before you’d have time to place them on the wall. She is the self-described Queen Bey, and only the most churlish could argue on such displays. She’s a titan, fully deserving a place amongst the entertainment greats, but again I asked myself – what’s the legacy going to be?
There’s something tremendously Texan about her, which blasts through the sheer English/Britishness of the polite societal sea who sway, scream and shout along despite themselves.She prowls the stage in leopard print with real menace in a frenzied opening section, so much so that her smiles and tender moments seem almost out of step with the dominant themes of the show, as she stomps, gyrates and whirls with a trimmed down female troupe (trimmed down by Coachella standards that is).
However, like a lot of the greatest shows, I’ve found myself unable to stop thinking about it since, whether you loved it, liked it or even hated it – this was a bombastic display from arguably the two biggest stars on the planet. The tabloids may continue to speculate and build myths of their own about the couple’s waning power or inability to sell out shows. I find that scarcely credible or believable. Tell that to 80,000 of all shapes, colours, sizes, ethnicities, male, female, straight, gay, rich and poor. They are the pied pipers of the modern age.
They are also their own media, their own channels and they tell their own version of a story they own. Time will tell if they’re able to survive it intact. They appear, and want to be Forever Young, but their story – mythologised or not – will have to evolve. For now, it’s the biggest and most visceral show around. We leave the last word to the couple who have it all – the story, the glory and the means of production and distribution.