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…music: To Infinity and Beyonce

May 28, 2011

I can never rid myself of the image of a young Beyonce clumsily executing herky-jerky choreography with Destny’s Child during the promotion of their first couple of albums. The girl had promise, but there was a raw energy there that was yet to be effectively harnassed.

It’s hard to imagine today that Beyonce ever lacked the sheen of megastardom. She is rapidly approaching legendary status, as evidenced by the recent Millenium Award bestowed upon her at the Billboard Music Awards. Yes, there was likely some back-room negotiations that resulted in the convenient timing of the award, on the cusp of the promotional blitz for her fourth studio album, 4. But it’s far from undeserved.

But what is it exactly that makes Beyonce such a phenomenon? Every music fan and pundit has an answer to that question, ranging from the cynical to the hyperbolic.

Of course, my personal answer is the most relevant at the moment. And I say this: Beyonce is the single most dynamic, outrageous musical entertainer in popular music today.

Most everyone except the hardcore Beyonce fans probably have statements of protest to offer in response. Here is what I suspect those are, in no particular order:

“What about Janet?” My friends know me as a passionate Janet Jackson fan, and the mere thought of me ascribing a musical superlative to anyone except Janet is shocking. Well, the way I think of it is that Janet and Beyonce are sterling examples of inwardly directed and outwardly directed performance energy, respectively.

Janet has a control and focus in the execution of her records and her performances that is unparalleled. The reason that I identify so strongly with Jan is that I share that ethic in the creation of original work. She is so tightly focused that her talent has gone completely unnoticed by some, who still think of her as MJ’s way-less-talented little sister.

As inwardly focused as Janet is, Beyonce turns it outward. She has the enviable gift of sounding live and three-dimensional, even in a highly produced studio recording. In live shows, she rolls around on the floor, shamelessly belts out vocal runs, and in general avoids any pretense of nuance. She revels in her own extroversion; she turns it up to 10 at all times.

Janet glows like a neon sign with an internal energy. Beyonce swivels around and blinds like a huge spotlight.

“Surely you can’t say that Beyonce is more outrageous than Lady Gaga, for instance, or Marilyn Manson.” When I say outrageous, I mean it in an organic way. Both the performers above, along with Madonna, Trent Reznor, and others who have made a mission of providing controversial, unsettling images and sounds to help convey their messages, to me possess an air of calculation in their outrageousness. When Gaga scripts her show with fake blood, it’s literally impossible for that moment to exist spontaneously.

Beyonce’s spirit is outrageous. I would never argue that her shows aren’t carefully choreographed, but each extra vocal run, each knowing grin she gives the audience, each extra ounce of jet fuel she puts into her dancing, is suffused with an outrageousness of spirit that cannot be choreographed. This is the power she was still struggling to harness over a decade ago. Now, she has mastered it.

“Beyonce is a media creation. Plenty of girls are pretty and can dance provocatively. And I can name 10 better singers off the top of my head.” My only response to this is “Really?” Truthfully, I can’t do better than that.

Beyonce has been remarkably well-marketed. No argument there. And sure, if you believe there are objective standards that define the quality of a performer, you could deconstruct everyone from Elvis to MJ to the point where they could be “objectively” shown to be phantom talents with no real substance. Ultimately, the
“it” factor is so-named precisely there’s no bucket to put it in. If you don’t think she has ‘it,” then B on your way, I say.

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