A Silvery, Shimmering Summer of Beyoncé

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A Silvery, Shimmering Summer of Beyoncé

The Renaissance tour is a blueprint for how to cultivate pleasure and hold onto it at all costs.

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By Jenna Wortham

Published Sept. 27, 2023Updated Sept. 28, 2023, 8:25 a.m. ET

In late August, Beyoncé shared a story on Instagram: She asked those attending upcoming Renaissance World Tour dates to come dressed in silver. It was her birthday wish. “We’ll surround ourselves in a shimmering human disco ball each night,” she wrote. “Everybody mirroring each other’s joy.” It was a rare request from a woman who, in the last 10 years, has pulled back almost entirely from media interactions, preferring to speak only through her art.

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Three nights later, in Las Vegas, the town glimmered with anticipation. Everyone understood the assignment: Gleaming chrome thigh-high boots, glittering purses, shiny Telfar bags and rhinestone cowboy hats caught and bounced back the light from the stark desert sun, sending Morse signals to the rest of us who were in town for the same reason. There were strings of discarded rhinestones piled on slot machines, sequined bras abandoned in bathrooms and errant pieces left in the back seat of nearly every cab, Lyft and Uber I got into. In a city where there are dozens of large-scale events occurring simultaneously, the Beyoncé effect rolled through like an earthquake. Or maybe an eclipse.

Silver is the most powerful conductor on the planet; it moves electricity faster and more efficiently than any other material. On that night, tens of thousands of people draped in that lustrous color formed a circuit of pure energy. The stadium glowed. The human disco ball of Beyoncé’s dreams was also a renewable energy source. Charging up people. Charging up ideas. Charging up momentum. The stadium twinkled, each flash of silver a reminder of the constellation of moments that we move through, that sustain us. That even if they are few and far between, they are enough.

Renaissance, which kicked off in Stockholm in May, was Beyoncé’s first tour in nearly seven years, with 56 shows worldwide, tied to her 2022 album of the same name. In recent years, her musical projects have become more declarative of her personal values. “Homecoming” celebrated historically Black universities; “Lemonade” charted the arc of her husband’s infidelity into their redemption. (She is married to the rapper Shawn Carter, a.k.a. Jay-Z.) And now “Renaissance”: an ode to Black queer and trans history, told through a dreamscape of house music that could easily double as a soundtrack for a druggy Brooklyn sex party. Live, the production of “Renaissance” was maximalist, even operatic. Pyrotechnics punctuated beat drops, and there were at least six outfit changes per show (with new looks each show), nearly two dozen dancers, a full band, acrobatics and a finale in which Beyoncé rides a crystal horse, deity-like, through a blizzard of silver confetti.

Anything Beyoncé does becomes a cultural event, but the Renaissance World Tour has become a cultural movement. People are crossing the globe to see her, comparing set lists and fashion choices, attending multiple shows. Silver and rhinestones have become Renaissance signals, as recognizable as any brand logo. Products that she used on tour are selling out, and chrome is appearing in fall look books. Video and photos from the tour have blanketed social media for months, documenting the challenges she issues to the crowd — including one tied to her song “Energy,” during which, after she sings the line “look around everybody on mute,” she pauses, waiting to see if the crowd can calm down enough to follow suit. Fans are also charting the budding confidence of Blue Ivy Carter, Beyoncé’s eldest child, who made her stage debut this year. There are Reddit threads dedicated to post-show comedowns. And the tour has surpassed the previous record for highest-grossing by a solo female artist, which was previously held by Madonna in 2009. By its close, Beyoncé will have generated an estimated $4.5 billion for the American economy, about as much as the 2008 Olympics did for Beijing.

The path of totality has changed nearly everyone who stepped into it. Oprah shared a video of her reaction to Beyoncé’s performance on her Instagram. Standing in a nondescript room, hands crossed, she was uncharacteristically speechless. “I couldn’t scream,” she says, her voice hoarse with emotion. “I was in awe. … That is like the most extraordinary thing I’ve ever seen.” Oprah’s best friend, Gayle King, has made the pilgrimage too, of course. So have Lenny Kravitz, Pharrell Williams, Kelly Rowland, Jeff Bezos, Paul McCartney, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, LeBron James, Dua Lipa, Vice President Kamala Harris, Shakira, Madonna, Angela Bassett, Natalie Portman, Megan Thee Stallion, Zendaya and Tom Holland and many others.

Beyoncé performing on her birthday in September at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif.Credit…Nick Feder

Across several shows, I’ve watched people process the sensory overload of the performance. Some danced for hours straight; others stood still, hands clasped to chests, reverential, tears streaming down their faces. Folks who couldn’t be there were FaceTimed in. Strangers fanned one another, hugged, encouraged one another to dance when they sat down to rest. The closer my seats were to Beyoncé, however, the less people seemed to move. Instead, they absorbed the full force of her with their entire bodies, not unlike opening the oven to check on a roast and feeling your eyebrows singe a little.

She opened that night in Vegas, as she does every show of the tour, with “Dangerously in Love,” a song from the earliest days of her solo career, about devotion tinged with obsession. It’s an oath, the musical equivalent of pressing two bloody thumbs together. She started singing the song at 19, when she was first falling for Jay-Z. More than 20 years later, time and maturity have decanted the song into something richer.

Beyoncé has always been able to utilize her voice with the precision of a lab technician, inspecting riffs and pulling syllables apart, pipetting out sounds and testing the resonance of melodies. Now that she was onstage in front of stadiums of rapt fans, the fruits of years of experimentation were on full display.

Beyoncé, 42, has figured out how to adjust her voice (her characteristic growl floats in falsetto) and adjust her body language (more benevolent, like a gilded patroness) to abstract the object and subject of the song. The fluttery “I love you”s at the beginning no longer feel like a confessional. They feel like a pledge. By the time she slides into the line “I can’t do this thing called life without you here with me,” it feels as if she has left the recklessness of young love behind. Now she is singing about her legacy, her career, her fans, this world she built for herself. There’s a vocal run toward the end of the song that rises out of Beyoncé’s throat and finds its way into your chest, unclenching any stuck emotions that might be lodged in there.

As a singer and a songwriter, Beyoncé — like all pop stars — is a scholar of love. As she says on the album, it is her weakness. She has been drunk on it, driven crazy by it, trying to get over it, craving it. Historically, it seemed elusive to her. Yet now it seems that she has found a surplus of it to radiate back out. If love is a feeling in the heart, pleasure is its embodied action. And finding that pleasure is not only a hedonistic pursuit, as Audre Lorde wrote in her landmark essay “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” it is a question of how much “we can feel in the doing.”

The feeling in the doing is at the center of the Renaissance World Tour. It is made material in the shape of a giant hole cut into the center of the stage, where Beyoncé’s band performs. It’s like the inside of a disco ball. The album “Renaissance” opens with a sample of a verse from the Memphis rapper Princess Loko that intones, “Please, [expletive] ain’t stopping me.” During the concert, Beyoncé lets the sample loop again and again, for longer than it does on the track. The effect is exhilarating. “Renaissance” as an album is a blueprint for how to cultivate pleasure and hold onto it at all costs; the tour is a chance to practice the vision for the world we hope to live in, and simultaneously release grief for the one that we do live in.

Credit…Diana Markosian

There are two very different revivals being proposed in this country right now. In Las Vegas, the distinction could not have been clearer. Beyoncé performed at the south end of the famous glitzy strip, while the Trump International hotel, a beacon for so much disappointment and so many deferred desires, loomed at the northern end. Beyoncé has said that she spent the grim days of the pandemic making the “Renaissance” album, which is the first of a three-part series. A renaissance, after all, is another way of bringing something back. And what does Beyoncé think is worthy of resurrection? Love, freedom, safety. It’s another type of insurrection. And what she is inciting is the will to fully inhabit your body.

One of the most striking moments of the show comes during the secular club anthem “Church Girl,” when Beyoncé sings — well, not so much sings as howls in a way that the words blur together and become a keyhole through which to slip — “Soon as I get it in this party, I’m gon’ let go of this body, I’m gonna love on me.” In concert, she blends this song with an earlier iteration of a similar invocation, her 2006 track “Get Me Bodied,” a raucous 1.0 version of “Church Girl.” Each song is a meditation on the deliciousness of releasing the body through movement and how that can awaken the senses further. Only now, she has figured out how to do that for herself, without any external validation. From there, the song fades into Beyoncé’s cover of “Before I Let Go,” the classic summer anthem by Maze featuring Frankie Beverly. Her dancers break into a familiar and familial dance — the Electric Slide. Communal dance has the uncanny ability to reunite the body and spirit; many of the tools of embodiment are already located in Black social rituals. If that release seems unsafe or scary, Beyoncé and her dancers seem to say, a few different ways, let us show you how. Multiple times during the show, visuals of spread legs appeared arranged around the perimeter of the stage’s glory hole, with the perspective zooming ahead, inviting us in. Get inside your body, or if you can’t, come inside mine.

A common criticism of the Knowles-Carters is that their efforts to accumulate assets, power and liberties have felt all-consuming. Yet, during “Pure/Honey,” there’s a moment when the stage transforms into a soul-train line and ballroom stage. And then Beyoncé does something extraordinary: She switches bodies with her dancers. Which is to say, she trades places with them, turning her back on the main stage (a full-body mic drop), and lets her tremendous team of dancers inherit her place. The dancers, emboldened by the spotlight, take turns vogueing and cat-walking down the stages. It is one of the most triumphant moments of the tour.

We live in extremely unfeeling times. Reckoning with compounding climate crises, escalating economic pressures and broader global turns toward bigotry and fascism can have an anesthetizing effect on the body and mind. The Renaissance tour has become something of an antidote to that. The show feels like a three-hour somatic workshop on remembering how to feel any feelings that you can access, whether they be elation or sorrow. Beyoncé herself is modeling it. On “Cuff It,” she asks, Have you ever had fun like this? She delivers the answer in her performance. Her sense of humor is on full display, from outfit choices to exaggerated facial expressions. For all the versions of Beyoncé we’ve seen in her career — beauty queen, vixen, scorned women — stand-up comedian might be her most uninhibited. But as much as the Renaissance World Tour is limned with the beauty of aliveness and vitality, it is also preoccupied with mortality. She is deeply aware of the precarity of Black, queer and trans life. On “Heated,” she sings, “Liberated, livin’ like we ain’t got time.” Pleasure at the world’s end feels nearly impossible. And yet Beyoncé shows us that it is our birthright. Back when the original track list for “Renaissance” was released, fans saw the title “America Has a Problem” and assumed it would be a rallying anthem honoring Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Instead, the song takes an oppositional tactic. America’s problem, she posits, is our having too much freedom.

The first time I saw her, at the New York-area show, it was the same night that a young Black gay man named O’Shae Sibley was stabbed to death for vogueing to her lyrics at a gas station in Brooklyn. There was an awful collision that night between the optimism of resilience — more than 50,000 people screaming “you won’t break my soul” into the night felt like a defiant incantation — and the unchecked violence that threatens trans and queer people relentlessly. On one of the days I saw her in Las Vegas, a white man opened fire in a Dollar General in Jacksonville, Fla., intentionally targeting and killing three Black people. The shift between the ecstasy of the concert and the reality of the world was so disconcerting it was almost physically painful. The concert inserted me back into my body so fully that I couldn’t avoid the broader questions it raised: about the inverse relationship between queer and trans visibility and violence; the price to access this transformative space, prohibitive to most; and how to square some of Beyoncé’s more radical ideas with the gospel of Black capitalism (as she sings, “this kind of love, big business”). And yet, despite grappling with all that, I was reduced to tears listening to the rhapsodic synthesizers that score the speech of Dr. Barbara Ann Teer, founder of the National Black Theater, which soars out of the end of “Alien Superstar,” about the beauty in Black expression. Internal conflicts aside, I was moved by the power inherent in the scale of her message, on loving yourself in a world that would rather see you dead. In many ways, “Renaissance,” like the ballads at the top of the show, is also an elegy. But Beyoncé isn’t the undertaker; she is directing the second-line band at the funeral procession.

“Deep time” is a term that refers to the geological history of Earth. It requires the brain to reorient its scale, to think about time in billion-year chronologies, rather than days or months. It can cause some wrestling with the twinned significance and insignificance of our lives. At one point during the show, a quotation from Albert Einstein flashes on the screen: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” What we know is limited. What we can imagine — especially for ourselves — is limitless. The concert is punctuated with visuals that offer a sense of Beyoncé’s cosmology: graphics of her soaring through expansive galaxies, including a winged robotic version of the singer astride a rocket navigating outer space. The imagery is suggestive of other ways of being, outside of Earth, known and unknown.

Credit…Nick Feder

In her lifelong career, Beyoncé has not stopped to wait for anyone else to anoint her (if she did, she would probably still be waiting). And one way to view “Renaissance” is akin to a personal retrospective. Most pop projects (and much of our cultural fixation on self-improvement) revolve around reinvention, discarding past selves to make way for the new. Beyoncé exhumes all her eras and updates them as needed. During her song “Run the World,” “GWORLS,” a colloquial word for trans femmes, flashed on the video screens every time the call-and-repeat stomp of the chorus called out “girls.”

But Beyoncé is also an archivist. The show functions as an altar to her influences: A celestial giggle pays homage to Janet Jackson, and a metallic chest piece nods to Whitney Houston in “The Bodyguard.” The velocity of a hair flip recalls Tina Turner. Quick hips resurrect Josephine Baker’s banana skirt. Beyoncé’s musical production, headed by her, involves tethering parts of “Renaissance” to her earlier catalog, showcasing an evolution of narrative and musical priorities. Live, she braids “Virgo’s Groove” with earlier love songs, “Rocket” and “Say My Name,” diagraming the arrival of a woman confident in her sexuality and partnership. Much of the show’s sartorial catalog is also self-referential. A bee costume designed by Thierry Mugler nods to their collaborations over the years. A pair of oversize flip-phone earrings recalls her song “Video Phone.” As much as she is taking us through a tour of her music, she is reminding us of the ways that notions about Black femininity have always defined it. She seems to be on a personal mission to rewire how Blackness is understood to be integral and core to America and the world.

A particularly emotional moment arrives when Blue Ivy takes the stage during “MY POWER,” a song from Beyoncé’s 2020 visual album, “Black Is King.” From the time she was born, Blue Ivy has been bullied online for her facial features and hair texture. Here, Beyoncé gestures to her, during the song’s lyric “this that kinfolk, this that skinfolk, this that war, this that bloodline,” as they begin a mother-and-daughter choreography. Her power, which she seems to be passing along to Blue Ivy in that moment, is a fortification against the outside world. It is another kind of legacy, the ability to author her own story, in the ways she will see fit. In one of the most dramatic set changes, Beyoncé appears in a large shimmering clamshell, Botticelliesque and supine, in a bejeweled bodysuit with coyly placed fabric handprints, signaling satirical modesty and also suggestive of self-pleasuring. Beyoncé has emulated a Black Venus for years, including in a lavish photo shoot by Awol Erizku in 2017, when she was pregnant with her twins, Rumi and Sir. The phrase “Black Venus” has also been used to describe Saartjie Baartman, a South African woman who was forcibly exhibited in the early 1800s, nearly naked, for Europeans to gawk at. It seems that as much as Beyoncé is authoring her own image, she is also invoking those who could not.

At one of the shows I saw, Beyoncé closed the show by telling her audience — while flying around the stadium in a dazzling sequined cape — that she hoped they felt loved. That they felt safe. She implored everyone to remember where they were. Before we all left, she encouraged everyone to take a mental picture of the way they felt, whose arms they were holding, the fullness of their heart. “You can return to it anytime.”

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