The drag queen is sweating. Not because it’s 91 degrees and muggy on the crowded Bangkok street outside, but because inside the bar, she’s working. She’s lip-synching, sure, but she’s also popping, snapping, squatting, and whipping her dirty blonde wig through the first 12 minutes of Beyoncé’s live album Homecoming with rousing choreographic precision. When she’s done, the crowd—Thais, Americans, Singaporeans, Aussies, Germans—rushes forward. They congratulate her. They want to reward her with cranberry vodkas, whiskey shots, anything she wants, but she needs a minute. Leaning against the bar in her white, tasseled leotard and thigh-high lace-ups, the queen holds up her hand. She’s out of breath.
Three years earlier and 8,000 miles away, a mass liturgy at MetLife Stadium is in full steam. Fifty thousand people—more Black and brown than white, more gay than straight—comprise a studious frenzy. Sure, there are some in the crowd who chatter amongst themselves as Beyoncé successively runs through “Mine,” “Baby Boy,” “Hold Up,” and “Countdown,” in one of the more exhilarating mid-concert medleys in modern pop history, but this show is neither for casual spectators nor about casual spectatorship. It’s about memorizing and mirroring her choreography in the stadium’s narrow aisles. It’s about obeying her commands, six times per song, that everyone “sing!”, these interruptions the only sign her pristine vocals are live and not lip-synched. It’s about ecstasy, tears, and breathlessness. The least breathless person in the stadium, it seems, is Beyoncé.
In his fierce, subversive essay about Prince, Hilton Als rues the day Prince decided to “be a boy and play in the world of corporate politics,” for it was then, Als says, that Prince lost the “black-queen vote.” Beyoncé was born into corporate politics. She’s been heteronormative and mainstream and capitalistic from the start. But it doesn’t matter. Neither her politics nor her hypocrisies, her inner life nor her oligopolizing, her lyrics nor her wealth, her movies nor her sportswear brand, bear much upon her status as the world’s greatest pop star.
As Beyoncé turns 40, her legacy might already be cemented even as it is evolving. So perhaps it is opportune to point to precisely what distinguishes her from the glittery cadre of millennial pop princesses (Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Ariana Grande, Katy Perry, Pink, and yes, Mariah Carey, Jennifer Lopez, and Madonna too)—making her “the result, the logical end point, of a century-plus of pop,” as Jody Rosen wrote in 2013.
The answer lies in her live performances.
Stadium-sized live concerts are the closest things we have to the artistic mass ritual. But the burden of a hundred thousand eyes and ears is so taxing that the superstars who bear them often crack, fizzle, or are simply conceded lowered expectations. Because Beyoncé approaches her performances with the sort of ferocious discipline more commonly associated with professional athletes than with pop stars—she practices until her feet bleed—she is our most physically capable living superstar.
She brings her music and visions to life with the force and glitz of a cultural deity. None of the aforementioned pop princesses—and no one else in our constellation of arena-filling performers—can sing and dance in six-inch heels for two and a half hours with the same unremitting vocal wattage and choreographic mastery. Her musical athleticism is unrivaled. And for atheists, agnostics, queers, and aesthetes, what is a deity, a goddess, if not a buxom diva striking a silhouetted posture of superlative womanhood — and then embodying it — before millions of congregants around the world?
Critics, scholars, and professors of voice performance tend to name just five virtuosos in the history of pop music who rival Beyoncé’s strenuous showmanship. Or rather, whom she rivals, since four of the five are dead, and the only one still alive, the fabulous Tina Turner, is now over 80. After Tina and Sammy Davis Jr. and James Brown and Prince, the experts usually settle upon one name.
“I think she is, in some ways, the inheritor of Michael Jackson’s legacy—the truest inheritor that we have today,” says Jason King, Chair of NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. Jackson was crowned “King of Pop” precisely because of his supernatural aura on stage, a dazzling amalgam of dance, vocals, and visual effects. But the resemblance between the two stars has its limits—Jackson’s legacy has since been clouded by abuse allegations in ways Beyoncé’s has not.
However: “Michael Jackson probably wouldn’t be the performer he was if he wasn’t in an abusive relationship with his father, which is a very strange situation to be in,” says Linda Balliro, Associate Professor of Voice at Berklee College of Music and author of Being a Singer. “I don’t think Beyoncé’s situation was as extreme as that, but it probably did do something to build up her stamina, fortitude, drive, and work ethic.”
Perhaps it isn’t altogether surprising that Beyoncé’s father, Matthew Knowles, is sometimes compared to Michael Jackson’s father, Joe Jackson. But where Joe Jackson was a violent martinet, tales of Knowles portray more of a drill sergeant who’d wake a young Beyoncé early in the morning, along with the other founding members of Destiny’s Child, and make them jog for miles around Houston’s Hermann Park while singing.
Beyoncé eventually confirmed the stories to the Times of India, and years later, celebrity trainer Mark Jenkins told Insider Magazine that he’d similarly have Beyoncé sing an entire album while running in the Georgia heat—and “make it sound good.” The result? Some of the best breath control on the Billboard Hot 100—and “bionic” onstage execution.
When Beyoncé says, “I’ve worked harder than probably anyone I know, at least in the music industry,” she sounds more matter-of-fact than arrogant. While Michael Jackson was scarred by his father’s tyrannical exploitations, Beyoncé fired her father, took possession of the torch, and kept on perfecting.
“One of the reasons I connect to the Super Bowl is that I approach my shows like an athlete,” she told GQ in 2013, finally using the A-word. “You know how they sit down and watch whoever they’re going to play and study themselves? That’s how I treat this.”
She wasn’t overstating. When she’s on tour, Beyoncé said she watches a recording of the show she’s just performed every night before bedtime, handing her dancers, bandmates, and crew pages of notes the next day. Her 2016 VMA and 2016 BET Awards performances, both amid her Formation World Tour, supplied the national airwaves with outrageously incontrovertible evidence that her method was working.
“I promise I will always give you a hundred percent of myself,” she said to 185,000 fans at the end of her 2011 Glastonbury set (to their—and George Michael’s—roaring approval). It was less a ‘thank you for coming’ and more a declaration of her creed.
It is what separates her from other hard-working pop stars who eventually succumb to the indulgances of ego or the reassurances of the easier way out. It’s also what separates her from rock stars and their scattered, improvised energy fests. Her shows are more forceful and spectacular because they are more resplendently orchestrated. An army of female dancers aggrandizes her divadom, and, as one of her lead choreographers told the Times, “everything,” everything, “is choreographed to a T.” Like Broadway, but bigger. Cultier. Not even Michael Jackson could have done what Beyoncé did on April 14 and 21, 2018, at Coachella — the nights her career reached its zenith and her crown was canonized.
“A Broadway show is about the show. Even if there’s a celebrity in it, it’s still about the context of the show itself,” says King. “With Beyoncé, it’s really about the cult of her celebrity and the kind of deification of her on stage working very hard on our behalf, not even just her behalf. There’s an element of this power and ferocity that is a kind of martyrdom. You have to leave it all on stage. You have to give it all up.”
“The opera queen must choose one diva,” Wayne Koestenbaum writes in his book, The Queen’s Throat, about gay men (queens) who love the opera (opera queens). “The other divas may be admired, enjoyed, even loved. But only one diva can reign in the opera queen’s heart.”
The allegiance Koestenbaum describes is rooted in the singer’s voice, delivery, life, aura, and other ineffable bits and pieces. Even more captivating is the peculiarly unsexual sort of yearning he ascribes to devotees: “I spent much of childhood trying to distinguish identification from desire, asking myself, ‘Am I in love with Julie Andrews, or do I think I am Julie Andrews?’ I knew that to love Julie Andrews placed me, however vaguely, in heterosexuality’s domain; but to identify with Julie Andrews […] placed me under suspicion.”
Today, in an age where pop queens are more commonplace than opera queens, one hears a bitchy quip at gay bars: If Beyoncé isn’t your diva, you’re probably not a musician.
If her songs sounded like those of Lady Gaga or Katy Perry, her performances would be campy and fun, but she’d qualify neither as a queen nor a genius. Her musical athleticism, in other words, would be moot if her songs didn’t merit this divine breath of life.
Thankfully, Beyoncé’s music is pretty damn good. Lyrical simplicities aside, her songs are weird, distinctive, beautiful, ranging, and complicated. She can do maternal power pop and outlandish anthems, rap and eerie ballads. No superstar pays more attention to production. “Countdown” might be the strangest R&B song of the new millennium, while “Love on Top” might number among the most difficult to sing live. (Linda Balliro even shows Beyoncé’s performance of “Love on Top” at the 2011 MTV Music Awards to her students at Berklee as an exemplar of stamina and energy, likening the four key changes to running a marathon.)
Prince may have lost the “black-queen vote”—or at least Hilton Als’s faith—in the 1980s, but Beyoncé continues to win the pop-queen vote because she inspirits an identification that is much more viscerally thrilling than genuine political subversiveness. She also wins the critical and celebrity vote. As a matter of fact, she is the celebrity of celebrities—the rare untouchable who makes Oscar winners nervous and giddy, talk show hosts grill guests about their interactions with her, comedians speechless, rappers gush, musicians gush, other singers gush, the old guard applaud, and First Ladies want to trade places.
Perhaps it’s not only queens, misfits, and artistes who identify with Beyoncé as she transforms from woman to goddess—a singular amplified voice and spectacle, serenading the masses’ desire for straightforward rhapsodic pleasure. Goddesses, after all, give us energy, glory, beauty, and joy. Most of us wouldn’t mind being divine, if it didn’t take so much damn practice, stamina, and lung power. Instead we exalt, and we are deified vicariously.