If her recent self-titled album proved anything, it’s that Beyoncé has burst the seams of modern pop. She is now closer to a cult than a product of overwhelming talent and iconography, redefining what it means to be a ubiquitous star at a time when our tastes are more fragmented that at any point since the advent of television and FM radio. Tonight the O2 is her church, brimming for this Sunday service with devotees of all ages: some in flashing headbands, others with drinks in hand but all baying for a glimpse at their chosen one. No seat is left unfilled while the floor below is packed with bodies and attached smartphones.
Beyond its off-the-cuff distribution, Beyoncé is notable as its creator’s most wholeheartedly feminist album yet. There are caveats of course – husband Jay Z’s Ike Turner-loving verse on ‘Drunk in Love’; the overt sexuality of ‘Blow’ and ‘Partition’, and ‘Blue, the album-closing paean to motherhood – but after years of indecision, Beyoncé had seemingly committed to herself, and she continues to do so with the Mrs. Carter live show.
She became an icon long ago, stretching back to ‘Crazy in Love’ and possibly back to her Destiny’s Child days, but now there’s a sense that she uses her inestimable clout for something more than her own ends. After opener ‘Girls (Run the World)’, the masses are reduced to gleeful cries of “I woke up like this!” and cheering as Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche speaks during the supremely menacing ‘***Flawless’. The body confidence message, the samples of feminist TED talks – they all add up to moments of celebratory self-acceptance on what would otherwise be a girl’s night out.
That’s the contradiction at the heart of Beyoncé, the pop star who reconcilces the skimpy outfits with essays on gender equality and lives to tell the tale. It isn’t surprising that one minute this crowd is cheering the word ‘feminist’ appearing on the big screen, and then writhing around to the click-strewn funk of ‘Yoncé’ the next, because this is what Beyoncé has taught us: you can have your cake and eat it guilt-free.
The next hour is a celebration of womanhood and Beyoncé in all her forms. Starting with ‘Get Me Bodied’, the punch hits hard, and the energy coming from the stage alone is enough to work up a sweat. The dance routines are an exhibition in power and precision, with limbs moving faster than the eyes can track them. It’s an extremely slick production, the stage regularly morphing to swallow and produce musicians and dancers when the show calls for them and the regular breaks for costume changes are not unwelcome if only so the room can catch its collective breath.
Reappearing for ‘Naughty Girl’ in a golden, sparkling, partly-translucent catsuit, Beyoncé effortlessly exhibits that overt sexuality to the delight of her audience. Every movement is slowed to emphasise form, every implication is sung with particular relish. The breathless teasing can only intensify as ‘Blow’ begins, before the chaise lounge and poles are brought out for a reconstruction of the ‘Partition’ video. Her silhouette is enough to send the O2 into ecstasy, while the cheers that greet ‘Drunk in Love’ are deafening; cameras flash and the temperature in the arena literally increases to uncomfortable levels by the time Beyoncé does her chair dance. The chorus is belted right back to her by the thousands with surprising intensity in what cannot be mistaken as the apex of the evening.
After an aching rendition of ‘1+1’, we come to the indignant portion of the show when Beyoncé attempts to console and support her crowd. There are salutes to the all-female band and some soul-searching as she asks the women in the crowd if they’ve ever been hurt or cheated on before ‘Irreplaceable’, and then a few unimpressed looks and dropped hips as she poses the audience with a question. ‘Why Don’t You Love Me?’, she gets only adulation in return as she and twin dancers head-bang and contort their way across the stage.
‘Love on Top’ may as well double as the ovation the first half of the show deserves, as she compels the seated parts of the O2 to stand up and dance with the rest of the audience. She remains vocally peerless: the pitch and supreme power of her voice on ‘Naughty Girl’, ‘Drunk in Love’ and ‘1+1’ in particular would be difficult to scrub from the mind, and the athletic abandon with which she and her dancers commit themselves is phenomenal and surely impossible to keep up.
And so it proves as the show winds down. The energy doesn’t really drop but short cuts are taken and the disappointments heap up as Knowles and crew attempt to wrap things up by 10 sharp. The fact that ‘Countdown’, ‘Crazy in Love’ and ‘Single Ladies’ are tidied up into an unsatisfying medley is especially souring and signals the final act of the show: Beyoncé-as-businesswoman saving her energy for the tour ahead, shifting downwards into second gear.
It’s also terribly self-indulgent as the screens show Beyoncé’s home videos. They differ from yours in that they feature the Obamas, aerial shots of the Super Bowl and multiple tropical vacations, but they still amount to a waste of time before she returns for an inscrutable performance of ‘I Will Always Love You’. ‘XO’ is shuffled out in the misguided belief that it is anthem when it really just sounds like a Coldplay offcut with a better vocal, and you start to think of what could possibly save the evening from going off the rails.
‘Halo’, you say? The best power ballad of a generation it may be, but no, it only gets a brief outing as Beyoncé surveys her people with a beaming smile and avoids being taken by them with some ease. The night ends with extended introductions to the band, not undeserved of course but the time could be better spent on, say, full versions of Beyoncé’s biggest hits. And to add insult to injury, she gets the ‘olé, olé’ chants going, which is near-unforgivable.
The dead-eyed professionalism with which the final half-hour is executed is a sad by-product of being Beyoncé in 2014. She sings, dances and indirectly counsels tonight and pulls it all off with aplomb for a large stretch of the evening, but that’s the thing about being an icon – everyone wants a piece of you, but nobody can have more than a little taster.
Understandable, but what’s more disappointing than finding a mere human being behind the curtain?