A couple of seats down at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium a woman is holding up a phone, but instead of filming Beyoncé, she is filming her own reaction throughout the entire show: no Beyoncé and no stage, just her own face in close-up, lip-syncing and gasping in surprise. She adjusts the filters, then puts it on TikTok in manageable chunks. Way back when the smartphone took hold, there was talk about the renewed importance of the Communal Event: the show you had to prove you were at.
The modern big gig – with bigger screens, more dancers, more scene changes and concepts than ever before – is designed to look good on someone’s mobile phone. And increasingly, because of the complexity of the stage show, the megastar is offstage a lot, being placed atop a silver moon buggy, if you’re Beyoncé, or inside a Venus clam shell, or dressed in a wonderful elongated fez that might have been worn by Grace Jones. When Beyoncé is onstage, you see her working away as tiny as the rest of us. When she’s off, the giant screen shows images of her – as a beautiful Fritz Lang alien, or swimming alone in a vast sea – and you wish she was back on, and get bored: a man next to me was checking his bank statement.
It was the biggest show I have ever seen, for sure, and nothing went wrong. But it lost me a bit after the opening section, which was powerful because it was the most simple: Beyoncé appeared in a Hillary Clinton-blue dress, smiling beneficently, for a run of ballads: her early song “Dangerously in Love”, “Flaws and All” (Beyoncé has no flaws), and a tribute to Tina Turner with “River Deep – Mountain High”. The opening section said, to me: you know I should be president, we all know I should be president, and let’s imagine a world where I could be president, because it ain’t this one – yet.
After that, she was funnelled into armour to become a disco cyborg (rather like the one Janelle Monáe was doing ten years ago) for “I’m That Girl”, before embarking on a two-and-a-half-hour journey through sci-fi, Nineties house, soul and protest music, at one point disappearing up a hole between a vast pair of silver legs. Retrofuturism, and the use of that gorgeous early sci-fi imagery is a powerful aesthetic: it’s beautiful, classy, stylish, full of hope and invention; it says dream big, but it also takes account of all those who have dreamed big before, and failed.
In the 60,000-capacity stadium there is a largely black and queer audience, and queer culture influenced the Renaissance album, which came out a year ago. As a female icon of Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ rights, with plus-size dancers and songs, such as “Cozy”, about being comfortable in your own skin, Beyoncé now seems to represent everyone – but her increasingly brainy music also represents everything that has come before it, too. Songs unfold like a Jacob’s ladder in their cross-referencing: in “Break My Soul”, which itself pays tribute to “Vogue” by Madonna, she reels off Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Santigold, Missy, Diana, Grace Jones. At one point the old black and white “swirl” of Sixties time travel (used in Austin Powers – oh how wonderful she was as Foxxy Cleopatra!) spins hypnotically on the stage and seems to mirror what one’s brain does while watching Beyoncé: flying through space, traversing all of culture, all of women, all of experience, all of music, together. And incorporating it, owning it, piling it up, and planting a space flag on the spoils saying: you try doing it better.
I sometimes wonder what Beyoncé is like. Her eyesight must be good because she has an autocue at the back of the stadium with rather small print, showing lyrics such as “Yada, yada, yada, bom-bom, kah-kah/Blastin’ on that ass, blast on that ass” (“Heated”). I once heard a first-hand account, from another big popstar, that at her dinner parties she likes to play the “Would You Rather” game: one of the questions, one night, was “would you put your tongue on a pile of dog poo for a million dollars?” That made her feel very human to me: I bet she said she would. I like to think that because she doesn’t really speak in public: she is protected from having to switch between real and fake selves, and can just be a strange ball of celebrity otherness all the time, designing her new $200m house, and popping round to her songwriting camps, checking in on her topliners, then getting everyone together over a massive meal and playing Would You Rather. I feel like she does a circle of trust with her dancers. She doesn’t come down the runway much, tonight, possibly for her own safety.
Beyoncé’s dancers are wildly exciting (her daughter Blue Ivy makes an appearance) – particularly her identical twin performers Laurent and Larry Nicolas Bourgeois, known as Les Twins (at several points, on the big screen, I thought they were one man repeated, until they formed a human sofa together and Beyoncé sat on it). There was a jazz-rock freak-out half way through “Crazy in Love” – the biggest hit she played (no “Single Ladies” these days). You don’t really get big tunes on the Renaissance tour, but you get juddering rap and shaku shaku dance and spooky, disembodied sloganeering. In the majesty of “Black Parade” she disappears back up the big, silver fundament on her buggy; in “America Has a Problem”, she reads the news in a giant inflatable red suit. If you are part of the club, you get it all: in “Love on Top”, she challenged the audience to sing the many, ascending key changes unaccompanied, and they stayed ropily together.
People don’t necessarily go around singing her newer songs, but they listen to – and watch, in the case of Lemonade – each entire album obsessively and they get the stuff that passes the laypeople by. Fans had been, as people are saying, “starved of visuals” for the Renaissance album. This, for anyone who wondered, is what Renaissance looks like.
This article appears in the 07 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Reeves Doctrine