Beyoncé fans began 2013 believing they wanted, even deserved, a certain kind of truth from their pop idol. As is the case when a celebrity begins sparkling too brightly, we had gotten curious (if not outright suspicious), after 10 years of überstardom, about the diva’s bulletproof, halo-ringed public image, and about her faults — the unattractive “normal” stuff we imagine stars must hide from us while we’re busy falling hopelessly in love. What was ugly Beyoncé like? We needed an answer.
Beyoncé, for her part, experimented in giving it to us: Just 12 days after the delirious, titanic success of her Super Bowl XLVII halftime performance, she offered Life Is But a Dream, the HBO-released, sef-directed-and-produced documentary that purported to tell the real story “in her own words.” When announced, its promise of behind-the-scenes realness sent fans into a frenzy.
Its airing, however, left us deflated. By the so-called documentary’s (or fluff piece’s) end, we still knew nothing more about Beyoncé Knowles than exactly what Beyoncé Knowles wanted us to know. It was a rosy portrait of the superstar’s never-ending pursuit of perfection. We felt rejected, shut out by a billionaire idol who symbolized something powerful and wonderful and important to our lives and our culture.
But then other artists kept releasing records and demanding our attention (including her husband Jay Z, whose clever million-album Samsung deal left a bad taste in everyone’s mouths), as images of Mediterranean summer vacations and world tours and Blue Ivy appeared on Tumblr. We put our disappointment in Beyoncé’s version of the truth on pause, or perhaps forgot about it altogether. An idol that insists on keeping up walls in our all-access era eventually loses the fervor of our adoration.
But 10 months later, we were suddenly gifted with Beyoncé. And this changed things.
The “visual album” came to us intimately, a surprise delivered in the night without PR apparatuses or label hype machines, with a magical, delectable set of videos to match. That it’s already been hailed by almost every critical body as a magnum opus is no wonder, considering both the delightful unexpectedness of its delivery and its stunning, detailed lushness. But there was something else equally important to its success: It satiated Beyoncé’s fans’ cravings for truth better than anything a documentary — made by a perfectionist about herself — could have revealed, even if that truth did come in more sensational packaging.
With Beyoncé’s previous albums, the songs mostly came her way and she molded them; this time, the songs seem to flow more from rather than through her — she is an ideal now made flesh.
See also: The Top 10 Beyonce Collaborations
From its first lines, Beyoncé is replete with miniature honesties that are incontrovertibly hers, especially if we take them literally.
Beyoncé grew up hearing, perhaps from her own mother, that her appearance was more important than her sense of self-worth (“Pretty Hurts”). She continues to struggle in the wake of her 2011 miscarriage. She can be spiteful, and lashes out (“Jealous”). She gets drunk with her husband and falls asleep on their (probably comfortable) kitchen floor. She is happy to discuss oral sex. Her search history includes a lot of variations on “feminism+videos.” (She’s probably the only major contemporary pop star to include the word “feminism” in her work at all.)
Anthems abound as they have in the past (“XO,” “***Flawless”), but now they’re infused with smartly polished intimacies that dig beneath the hit-making, performance-obsessed veneer.
The reason Life Is But a Dream satisfied so little of our curiosity is because we wanted a truth that doesn’t really exist; we wanted to be surprised, to have our illusions destroyed a little bit, because we all inhabit the same reality. But there’s little to gain from the “truth” behind Beyoncé’s stardom. The reality we expect doesn’t really exist for people like Beyoncé and her family. They’re international celebrities, enjoying impossible luxuries with little, if any, fear for their relevance.
Why should we expect Beyoncé, a star whose career began practically at birth, to struggle with the spotlight or fail the same way we do? Her world isn’t our world, so how could a documentary teach us more about our own reality (the one we want her to inhabit) than an album we adore? Her ability to have it both ways — her privacy, her public art — is more effective than any celebrity exposés we think the “truth” can provide. Through Beyoncé, we get crucial conversations about womanhood and race and appropriation and celebrity and power; those same dialogues might not resonate as deeply or widely if they were held in the context of an interview. We reap far more from her art, the stuff she makes on her own terms, drawing from her own personal struggles and beliefs — even when expressed through rose-colored glasses — than from a contorted attempt to portray her as an everywoman.
A thousand insufferable think pieces like this have pointed out that Beyoncé won’t change much about the music industry, no matter how ingenious or impossibly coordinated its surprise release may have been. Though many (see: Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber) have employed engineered intimacy since the dawn of the internet’s immediate communion, Beyoncé’s just-as-clever forays began after hitting her idol stride, so she can use it for suspense rather than conversation — few other artists hold that power.
Her feminism, too, while perfectly suited to her needs, might not translate as powerfully when paired with images of flawless pop-star perfection in her videos (the same perfection she rails against in “Pretty Hurts”). But this is where it starts. It’s in her specificity, her willingness to reveal ugliness in the best way she can, that she is most powerful, and most able to evolve. Can you imagine what the next three Beyoncé albums will look like if she keeps reading people like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie? Patricia Hill Collins and bell hooks could well be next.
Maybe at some point in the (distant) future, we’ll get a more nuanced, democratic picture of Beyoncé’s life and times. But it probably won’t be as worthwhile as this.
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