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Beyoncé — a star is born

Why the singer is the icon of our age.

I wonder if, as a child, Beyoncé Knowles knew what she was going to be when she grew up. You can imagine her plotting world domination from her bedroom while the other kids baked cookies, or devising her merchandise strategy while they struggled with their algebra. It's hard, somehow, to envisage her playing out the mundanities of childhood - hanging out in the locker room, passing notes along the back row of class - all those things we did to waste time. When was her gawky phase? Did she have spots? It all seems so unlikely.

Beyoncé, I suspect, was born Beyoncé, a grafting diva from day one.At some point on that Sunday evening in June, as the singer performed in front of Glastonbury Festival's sunburned crowd, she made an almost imperceptible transition from superstar to icon. Beyoncé has vaulted into another realm to sit on a golden throne next to Madonna and Marilyn Monroe.

These people don't really exist - they have morphed in our imaginations into heightened versions of themselves. There is a flawed human being in there somewhere - one who sweats and snores like the rest of us - but you have to dig deep to find her.

Beyoncé's Glastonbury performance is already a legend: the flaming halo of hair, the way she would collapse on to her knees to bellow at the floor, the moment she gazed at the 175,000-strong audience and seemed genuinely overwhelmed. Even the wind machine should win prizes. Beyoncé's ability to manipulate an artificial current of air to her hair's advantage is astonishing. (She must have one of those machines at home to practise while she's cooking or watching television. You can picture poor Jay-Z sitting there, frozen, his sunglasses all lopsided from the gale.)

Roo's company

There were off moments in the show - Tricky, who came on to perform a "duet" and then panicked like a lost child in a supermarket; the unnerving image of Wayne Rooney that suddenly appeared on the giant screen as she sang. (Could there be a more inappropriate combination of personalities than Rooney and Knowles? One is a prostitute-visiting, tantrum-throwing footballer with a boulder for a head; the other is an elegant beacon of steely professionalism. They are both formidable athletes but there the similarity abruptly ends.)

In an interview after the performance, Beyoncé said that she had consulted Bono and Chris Martin about her set list, seeking advice from festival old hands. Surely it should have been the other way round. If Bono could dance like Beyoncé, people might forgive him his band's unorthodox tax arrangements. As for Martin, I have a feeling that he might shimmer into nothingness, like a hologram, if Beyoncé sang full throttle within a five-mile radius of his house. I don't see how he could withstand that voltage of charisma. As Tricky discovered, she sings men off the stage - not with her faux feminism but with the unbridled, slam-dunk power of her voice.

Ah, the feminism. It would be nice to read something about Beyoncé that doesn't earnestly dissect her position on feminist theory. I'm not sure she has one. "Run the World (Girls)" is more of a provocation than a manifesto and that's OK by me. I think it might be a bit exhausting if she started reading out choice quotations from The Female Eunuch while shaking her sequinned behind.

People are understandably irritated by some of the cod-philosophising, the lip-service to (heave) "girl power", but must we expect the woman to enact a perfect version of a theory? Isn't the fact of Beyoncé enough? She is one of the most powerful individuals in the music industry. She has sold more than 11.2 million albums, won 16 Grammy Awards and, according to Forbes, made $87m in 2010 alone. The fist-pumping lyrics might seem at odds with some of her more seductive leotards but I'm not sure she's bothered.

Praise of songs

The other charge lobbed at Beyoncé is her clinical self-control, the accusation that she's a soulless pop-bot, assembled by the music industry machine. But have the accusers heard her sing? She has more soul than the combined unearthly inhabitants of a graveyard on Hallowe'en. I saw her perform at the O2 Arena a while ago, a venue that can suck the life out of any breathing creature, and she made it feel like St Paul's Cathedral (a minor exaggeration: it still felt uncannily like a cross-Channel ferry).

There's a difference between being robotic and being consistently good at what you do. I wonder why we find such fault with excellence. We like chinks, we like flaws: they make us feel better about ourselves. But too many chinks and you end up as an Amy Winehouse, with only the memory of a once-great voice to keep you company. Beyoncé rarely puts a foot wrong, in her dance routines or public life (performing for Muammar al-Gaddafi's son aside; but she's in good company in having an unfortunate history with the Libyan leadership, so let's not get too high-horse about it).

She is almost upsettingly wholesome when she's offstage. Recently, she joined Michelle Obama's initiative to fight youth obesity, reworking her song "Get Me Bodied" for a younger audience, which involved delicately rechristening it "Move Your Body". Beyoncé might not be a controversialist, she might be much duller in life than her stage persona suggests and she might appear overly corporate in her interests (L'Oréal, Nintendo, Pepsi, her fashion line, her perfume), but when you boil it all down to her stagecraft, her ability to wow a stadium of people or a farm full of fans, she's faultless.

Sophie Elmhirst is an assistant editor of the New Statesman

Sophie Elmhirst is a freelance writer and former New Statesman features editor.

This article first appeared in the 04 July 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan