It was eight years ago this month, during the 2005 Kennedy Center Honors, one of the glitziest annual events in Washington. Among the honorees that year were Robert Redford, Tony Bennett, and Tina Turner. Beyoncé, donning a full Tina (stilettos, big hair, and a sequined, sparkly thingy), performed “Proud Mary.” Halfway through the number, in front of an audience that included President Bush, Oprah Winfrey, and La Tina herself, she was noticeably off. There was a mic problem and she was a couple steps behind her backup dancers. It was a live-to-tape TV event, which meant she could do it again.
And Beyoncé being Beyoncé, she did it again. A few minutes later, while Secret Service officers, some appreciative ushers, and two lucky reporters (including me) stood in a mostly emptied concert hall, Beyoncé sang, shimmied, and rolled into the river. When she was done, she looked up and saw Tina still sitting in the presidential box. Tina had, unbeknownst to Beyoncé, stayed for the do-over.
Breathless yet giddy, like a student eager to please her teacher, Beyoncé told Tina, “I don’t know how you did that. I’m about to pass out!”
I’ve been hooked on Beyoncé Knowles Carter since that moment — the grounded, indefatigable, over-achieving, multitasking, crowd-pleasing, straight-A student among our crop of global superstars. The imperfect Beyoncé — she is, after all, a mere mortal — striving for perfection. Empire-wise, she’s Madonna and Barbra Streisand for the social media generation; dancing-wise, she’s Tina Turner for the hip-hop era; singing-wise, she’s Whitney Houston, with influences as encyclopedic as they are eccentric and eclectic: a little rock ‘n’ roll, a lot of hip-hop and R&B, with some pop and Broadway mixed in. She is an entertainer referred to by fans, other singers, and even critics as “the queen.” To some, including her own hip-hop mogul husband, Jay Z, Beyoncé is the genre-busting heir apparent to the Michael Jackson throne.
Nothing is more sacrilegious than a Michael Jackson comparison — the man is irreplaceable and the woman who iconized “Irreplaceable” would agree — but what happened on Friday the 13th was a collective musical event only MJ, at the height of his considerable powers, could have pulled off. As my friend Jamil Smith tweeted at 1:38 a.m. Friday morning (while Jamil, myself, and some 80,000 people who downloaded the album in the the first three hours pored through each of the 14 songs and 17 full-length videos): “This is @Beyonce’s ‘Thriller.’ Nothing to add.” Or as the tech pioneer Anil Dash argued: “Aaaactually @Beyonce is the new Steve Jobs.”
Because of her gender, because of her race, because she plays right into and plays off our individual and collective perceptions of what a successful black woman — a successful woman, period — is and should be in a white male-dominated world, few mainstream artists are as dissected as Beyoncé. Forget the faux-controversy about Santa Claus being white. I, for one, would love to hear Fox News’ Megyn Kelly discuss Bey’s “***Flawless,” the autobiographical anthemic track on the album that features an excerpt from Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk about feminism: “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, you can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you would threaten the man.”
I’ll leave it to others to analyze what her holiday surprise (no hype, no advance marketing, no-buying-only-singles-of-a-complete-audio-and-visual experience, sold exclusively on iTunes) means in the evolving music industry, specifically among established musical acts. Apparently, Bey “broke the music business.” Or, according to Billboard Editorial Director Bill Werde: “I honestly feel a little bad for other pop stars.”
I’ll leave it to experts to debate what Beyoncé means in the evolving feminist movement. (And not only among white feminists, but women of color in general, and black women in particular. Apparently, Bey’s album “invalidated every criticism of feminism EVER.”)
I’ll leave it to the critics to contextualize how this “visual album” fits in the evolving Beyoncé oeuvre. The emerging consensus is it’s her best work to date. The album is “the most personal work of her career,” declares BuzzFeed’s Matthew Perpetua, a “quirky” and “candid” album that is “the splashiest cannonball of her career,” gushes Chris Richards of the Washington Post.)
All commercial, demographic, and critical analyses aside, what’s groundbreaking about Bey’s unforgettable holiday surprise is how she stripped off everything that was expected of her, and perhaps what she expected of herself, since she was her 24-year-old self channelling Tina Turner in the Opera House of the Kennedy Center.
In the subsequent years following that performance, I often felt like Beyoncé was trying on different sounds, and different people, in search of the perfect sound and the perfect self to perfectly present to the world. The perfection must have been exhausting. There was the Tina Turner-meets-Josephine Baker phase in her “Get Me Bodied”-“Ring the Alarm”-“Freakum Dress” period that made up her album “B’Day.” Then came her “I Am… Sasha Fierce” period, the dual sound presented on the double album — “Halo” and “Ave Maria” on the more introspective I Am… disc, “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” and “Diva” on the bombastic Sasha Fierce disc — inevitably offering a conundrum, chief of which was: Who needs Sasha Fierce if you have Beyoncé? In other words, what does the real Beyoncé sound like? What’s the point of sounding and looking and being perfect if we don’t know who Beyoncé is trying to be?
Now we know.
If her fourth record, simply titled 4, was the beginning of the independent-independent Beyoncé — sans her father, Matthew Knowles, her longtime manager; sans the pressure of topping or creating another “Crazy in Love”; sans the expectations of a singles-oriented radio and an ADD-challenged public — then her fifth album, arriving on her own terms, is the culmination of her own singular aesthetic. Little wonder she called the album, in all caps, just in case you missed her meaning, BEYONCÉ.
This is Beyoncé as a grown woman, an innovative entrepreneur, an evolving artist taking risks and fully coming into her own. This is Beyoncé betting and insisting on the completeness of her own vision — sonically and visually — and trusting her fans to follow her, whatever the sound, whatever the format, whatever the time, in a scattered digital age. This is an imperfect Beyoncé, sexual and sensual, insecure and confident, a complex woman of contradictions, unapologetically on display.
Perfection bored Beyoncé. A mere mortal, like the rest of us, she is, for the first time, truly vulnerable and exposed. And, in the process, she’s more connected to her fans, who are estimated to buy 600,000 digital copies of BEYONCÉ, making it the biggest debuting album of a female artist this year and the best sales week of her 16-year career.
Turns out, BEYONCÉ the album is exactly how we want our Beyoncé and, more importantly, how Beyoncé the person and the artist need to be.