Beyoncé delivered an incredible performance during halftime of Super Bowl XLVII on Sunday night, one filled with the skill, swagger, and precision we’ve come to expect from music’s best and biggest live act right now (yes, we went there). Her show prompted conversation after the fact without help from a wardrobe malfunction or flipping of the bird, and further positions her as an arguable “heir” to Michael Jackson. Who else has sucked up all the power from a 73,000-seat arena?
A true Virgo, Beyoncé admitted last week during her “ANY QUESTIONS?” press conference to being a perfectionist, and has gradually hired herself to complete every professional task in her growing empire short of archiving footage of herself eating breakfast and surfing YouTube. But perfection can be boring, and this performance needed bigger stakes. At the New Yorker, Sasha Frere-Jones even asks if the inauguration lip-synching “incident” two weeks ago was a setup, intended to position Bey with more of an opportunity for validation at the Super Bowl (should viewers believe she needs it). It sounds sinister, but it’s entirely possible.
Origin stories and talk of struggle have be come a fixture in the music world, just like in sports. We love an underdog, and cheer for whomever makes us feel like our lives can one day be transformed into something great, too. (Drake, for example, still wants to reiterate that this music thing did not come easy, despite two albums and a child-acting past many of us would never like to forget.)
Perhaps those dissenting opinions believe it’s all come too easy for Beyoncé: After getting signed at 16, she parlayed her successful girl group into a successful solo career, and later married a successful rapper and mogul, setting herself up for a very, very comfortable life. But underneath the surface, the collection of “haters” growls loudly. Too manufactured, too manicured, too… boring. We’ve heard threats of a darkness that rules over Queen Bey’s magical kingdom—Matthew Knowles is arguably one of the bigger father-manager villains in our 20th and 21st century artists’ stories—and digging deep enough will unlock a trove of pillow-baby truthers or self-proclaimed infidelity experts.
In Sunday’s halftime show, Beyoncé struck a nice balance of staying true to her own live act and raising the bar to appease producers, without it all blowing up in her face like M.I.A., LMFAO, and those tightrope dancers did for Madonna last year. (And yet the ratings suggest we love the hot messes more. Go figure.) BeyHive members can probably execute “Crazy In Love” choreography “uh-oh” for “uh-oh” at this point, and yet the almost 10-year-old song felt fresh and new with each extended growl and high-kick.
Bringing Destiny’s Child on stage was a treat for all of us holding on to our memories of Total Request Live and MCI’s long-distance plan, but also a measure of how far she’s come. The Super Bowl was her show; she got herself there, and damn if she didn’t finish it out by herself. It wasn’t dismissive to shoo away Kelly and Michelle after less than one full song, but merely a way of pointing out the truth.
She’s performed at the United Nations, headlined Glastonbury, and invited us all to her own public baby shower. While this particular performance might not be regarded as transformative or revolutionary, it was entirely “Beyoncé,” an adjective that will soon be used to refer to things that are flawless, incredible, and above all, entertaining. In a time when our pop stars and music icons are a lot more accessible, and in turn, unpredictable, Beyoncé remains that reliable constant, a warm, head-spinning light that will guide your live show home. If you want to make women covet a post-pregnancy body, long before procreation is even a thought, B’s your girl. Do you need someone to instill feelings of empowerment and self-worth via sassy finger-wagging? Call Mrs. Carter.
To come away from the halftime show with the conclusion “it’s not about the music” is completely fair, but not exactly revelatory. When has it ever been? The battle for putting artistic integrity before guaranteed eyeballs and sales numbers was lost long ago. Comparing Beyoncé to Adele is even more troubling. Yes, even though Adele is one of the biggest-selling artists of all-time, it’s difficult to believe she’d land a gig as huge as the Super Bowl, where dancing, pyrotechnics, and personality rank high on the priority list. (Take it up with Pepsi, who has already swapped their giant billboard of Bey here in Times Square for Sofia Vergara.) She’s proven that modern music doesn’t have to be about all of these things (see: Grammys 2012) but these 15 minutes are about showmanship and captivating our ever-fleeting attention; they’re not trying to make people cry before the third quarter. It’s also important to note that Adele loves Beyoncé, so we should really just leave it at that.
As Gawker’s Rich Juzwiak notes, we are not currently flooded with potential male heirs to Michael Jackson’s throne. Justin Timberlake’s decision to explore acting et cetera seems to have removed him from the conversation–but bring on that new album, though–and Justin Bieber sure wants to be the next MJ, although at barely 19 it feels much too soon for a coronation. We’re a culture that’s quick to compare ourselves to others and anoint our cultural leaders, hence the search for “the next” Jackson less than five years after his death. Beyoncé is the closest thing we have at this point in time, light years ahead of her female counterparts when it comes to captivating a live audience. For comparisons sake, there’s Lady Gaga, who pushes the notion of “unconventional” and personal expression to the point of parody, and Rihanna, who for all the f–ks she refuses to give, lacks the same chill-inducing magic in a live setting.
Part of what makes music and art enjoyable is its ability to transport an audience to another place entirely. Of course I’d love to know what Bey and Jay eat for breakfast, the details—both painful and ridiculous—of the Destiny’s Child lineup changes, and just what was up with her dress that day, but all of this becomes irrelevant when the house lights go down. Plenty of artists are willing to bare their souls through song, and if Beyoncé wants to pick and choose what the public knows about her and her family, I’m okay with that. Michael Jackson left behind a documented, very complicated personal life, but remains in highest regard with the music industry, continuing to inspire emerging artists today. Maybe we can’t have both, and maybe the powers that be have long been at work to create a bold and beautiful performer, someone incapable of real human emotion but guaranteed to put on an unforgettable show. For entertainment value, and when defining “spectacle,” Beyoncé remains the gold standard, and it’s hard to see her relinquish that title any time soon.