Before she headlined Coachella, Beyoncé was already, unarguably, the greatest performer of her generation. She has raised the bar of pop music so high that her musical contemporaries can only crane their necks and gawk, open-mouthed, at her towering talent. Beyoncé is, at this point, only her own competition: but somehow, last weekend, 22 years into her career, she surpassed herself.
Featuring over 100 people in bright yellow sweatshirts and berets on ascending bleachers, Beyoncé’s set, broadcast live on US television, was part military parade, part Black Panther protest and part high school pep rally. Her dancers shape-shifted: one moment warriors, then cheerleaders, then Charlie’s Angels. It was a clever move that enabled the jumps in tone across her back catalogue – political calls to arms, vengeful break-up records and joyful, empowered songs of both love and independence – to seem like one coherent narrative arc, complete with guest appearances from the full breadth of her career: Jay-Z, Destiny’s Child and even her sister Solange.
Musically, it was all brass and bass – an outrageous, infectious horn section honked its way through her most iconic riffs, with an emphasis on rhythm in dance breaks full of clapping, shouting and stomping. Beyoncé has so many riffs that make her audiences quiver and shriek with anticipation: from the bouncing vibrations of “Formation” to the distorted whining of “Drunk in Love”.
She teased the audience with mash-ups of several distinctive phrases, or long silences between tell-tale notes. After the line “Suck on my balls, pause” in “Sorry” she stopped the song completely to stage a ritual humiliation of her male dancers that was both tongue-in-cheek and thrilling. Other iconic lines, like “Everything you own in the box to the left” (“Irreplaceable”) and “I’m a – a diva” (“Diva”) became cheerleading chants. For Beyoncé, songs have always been three-dimensional objects, never limited to their existence on her records. With a host of iconic music videos and live performances, and two visual albums, Beyoncé’s music is inseparable from her visuals – and her physicality.
She can signal an entire song with a gesture: the booty shake of “Crazy in Love”, or the wrist flick of “Single Ladies”. She need only drum her fingers to announce “Partition”.
The full two-hour performance at America’s Glastonbury bubbled over with unrestrained energy. She was constantly theatrical: each song is made by a whisper here, a growl there. The line “She ain’t no diva – no, no, no” was decorated with a perfect, pitying laugh. Most songs included an extended dance section, as she swivelled and gyrated with alarming speed. Often, her voice tackled more climbs and falls than you’d find in an Escher painting, while she snapped into pose after pose. Beyoncé is 36 years old, a mother of three children, and has been performing for over 20 years: on stage, she looks like she’s never experienced a fleeting moment of tiredness in her life. On her latest release, she boasts “I’m a triple threat” as a singer, dancer, and actor – after this, I’m tempted to add athlete to the list. Just watching it will make your joints ache.
In the opening moments of the set, the horn section transitioned seamlessly between the riffs of “Crazy in Love” and “Freedom”, making links between her earliest, most straightforward pop and her most political late work. Suddenly, it seemed obvious that her music has always been political, and has always engaged with sexism and racism, simply by always seeking to empower and inspire black women. “Thank you, for allowing me to be the first black woman to headline Coachella,” Beyoncé said playfully. “Ain’t that ‘bout a bitch?” Watching fans at the front, I felt faintly sick with envy. They have witnessed an artist at her peak, a moment in history: and a performance that that will still resonate in decades to come.
This article appears in the 18 Apr 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge