Sunday, December 3, 2023

Infinity and Bey-ond: RENAISSANCE

Beyoncé is the auteur of Beyoncé. She’s the director, on screen and off. Her public persona has been tightly controlled as she’s been able to consolidate all that power herself. She makes music, yes—among the catchiest of pulse-pounding danceable pop and soaring melodic ballads this century. But she’s also fashionable, political, and historical, alive and aware to her continuity as a brand, as a person, and as the latest in a long lineage of cultural figures. She’s an icon and knows it. Ever since she started directing her own film projects, she’s more or less stopped giving interviews. Her movies are the message. Think of the stirring visual album Lemonade, and the echoes in the similar project Black is King, engaged with a fluidity of persona in conversation with the solid truths of Black womanhood in America and in diaspora. Her Homecoming captured her career capstone Coachella performance—her own Eras-spanning set—clad in the garbs of Bey-centric Greek-life sweatshirts and short-shorts riffing on looks from Historically Black Colleges and Universities, complete with a brassy marching band and rat-a-tat drumline for backup. Throughout, these cinematic works prove Beyoncé has a keen directorial eye, staging eye-popping images and resonant symbolism with the same layered pleasures she brings to her music. She knows how to pose, how to style, how to draw the eye, and make it all swell with meaning. She’s cultivating an image, to be sure. But just when we might start wondering about the slick elisions (she's strangely vague about the "difficult times" we've been through lately; supply your own cultural context, I guess), the music starts pumping again—the thudding, insistent, endless beat booming with the force of subwoofer in your rib cage and begging you to bust a move.

When it comes to Renaissance, a rebirth into a self-proclaimed looser, freer Beyoncé, and a shared space for her fans to celebrate themselves in the presence of her self, she’s building on all she’s shown before with a new openness. It’s still brand management. The modern star on her level is also a corporation, after all. But here she’s more willing than ever to show us the whole ecosystem it takes to help her look and sound this good. And how hard she’ll fight for her vision. The spine of the movie is a loud, energetic capture of her latest tour—a massive arena undertaking bringing her latest album to the stage. Throughout she threads behind-the-scenes vignettes. We see rehearsals, meet backup dancers and singers, technicians on stage and off. We see her family—none cuter than her kids mimicking her dance moves from some anonymous room behind the show. She talks about her inspirations, about growing up, references moments from her career. We see archival footage, sometimes popping as flashes of memory echoing a big hit—a glimpse of filming the “Crazy in Love” music video, of TV appearances, of a little girl dancing in the backyard. Look where I’ve been, she seems to be saying. And look what I can do now—a mature artist fully embodied in herself and comfortable with what she can bring and say to the world.

This all deepens and enriches the experience of the main event. She’s a performer of remarkable consistency. It’s a show of sweat and energy and propulsive dancing and soaring vocals. The fashions are elaborate—and with a myriad of costume changes even between shows, and she loves showing that off with satisfying match cuts between nights revealing new stunning outfits, a Homecoming trick oft and well repeated here to more elaborate effect. She’s in full control, even when celebrating a concert and album, and her house music tribute within, that pounds with a sweaty club beat dripping in modes of shimmery disco and drag ballrooms and girl groups—all manner of eclectic and authentic tastes synthesized in a style all her own. The concert itself embraces the contradictions of Beyoncé. She’s somehow fresh and retro. She’s a soft-spoken private person and a brilliantly loud show-off performer. She’s a pneumatic technical hard-edged Afro-futurist precision machine—literal digital robots tower on video screens over her in snaky glows. And she’s a warm, soft, organic mother imbued with and empowered by a rich cultural heritage. She’s a vulgar, earthy sensualist and a shimmering spiritual beacon of pure love. She’s a bootylicious twerker and a beatific familial homebody. She’s a benign cult leader unto herself and totemic conduit for bigger ideas outside herself. Renaissance—the movie, the tour, the album—doesn’t resolve these tensions, but expresses them, explodes them, explores them. And it has that huge walloping beat urging us to pop ecstatics.

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