Capitalism, performance art, and a whole lot of ass-shaking: Notes from a Beyoncé and Jay Z show
First off: To review a Beyoncé and Jay Z show, in the traditional way that music writers generally review live music — assessing and critiquing the sonic experience, the songs performed, the technical skill and effort put into reimagining and translating studio albums into an engaging performer-audience interaction — is totally missing the point.
Yes, they performed songs. More of hers than his, which is how it should be, since her self-titled album that dropped last December like a shiny, extremely well-produced and overtly sexual early Christmas present is roughly nine times better than Jay Z's Magna Carta...Holy Grail, which came out five months earlier to a resounding critical chorus of "meh." Taking turns onstage for most of the night (exceptions: "Drunk In Love," Jay-Z's timeless chinchilla-themed verse on "Crazy In Love") before coming together for "Forever Young" and a couple other moments near the end of the two-plus hour show, the duo didn't exactly perform one song and then another so as much as they led musical theater-style medleys of songs. The pace from start to finish was a full sprint, which is even more impressive considering Bey's 45 costume changes (maybe a slight exaggeration).
There were few suprises, aside from a sweet cover of Lauryn Hill's "Ex-Factor." They mainly did the biggest, showiest parts of the biggest, showiest songs. If you are a person who likes to hear the full version of a song, who relishes the fact of two complete verses before the chorus, who enjoys the quiet build-up, just for example, on Beyoncé's album-opener "Pretty Hurts," which is the thing that makes the triumphant chorus on that song really punch in the particular itch-scratching way that makes for a damn good triumphant pop chorus, you might have been a little annoyed at the constant rush.
Yes, the sound was terrible. Did you know? AT&T Park was not designed with intimate musical performances in mind. The overdriven, speaker-shaking bass drowned out two-thirds of everything else, two-thirds of the time. I probably lost several frequencies from my hearing range last night. Apparently you could hear the show loud and clear (probably clearer than it sounded in the 26th row) for about a mile in every direction.
This is all beside the point.
Even if you do not give two shits about Beyoncé and Jay Z, even if you only listen to NPR and don't own a television, even if you're a survivalist living somewhere in the middle of Montana with no Internet and several guns, you have probably, against your will, heard that there are rumors about their marriage being on the rocks. This is how it works these days; the knowledge enters your consciousness without you even having to read or click on the headlines. Tabloid osmosis. Will they make it to the end of the On The Run tour? Is Jay Z sleeping with Rihanna? Are they all secretly members of a demonic cult that drinks the blood of the young to stay beautiful and also controls the media and/or US government? What does their friend Michelle Obama think? What could this cryptic Instagram picture of them sitting on the beach and laughing with their child possibly mean?
I am fairly certain, after last night's Beyoncé and Jay Z show, that said rumors did not just coincidentally surface as pop culture's wealthiest power couple hit the road for an international tour. There is a narrative here, and no matter what you think, they own it and they run it. The text on the screen behind them at the show's opening read "This is not real life," and made way for spastic black and white video montages that were interspersed between songs (J and B smoking, J and B wearing masks, riding horses, looking cool, shooting guns, doing some kind of film noir homage, doing some kind of Bonnie & Clyde homage, Bey crying in a wedding dress that kind of turns into a stripper outfit, oh look J's smoking again).
By the show's end, after songs about anger and sex and distrust and single ladies (yesss), they performed "Halo," and on the screen behind them was footage from home movies, in color. There's J and B holding hands jumping off a boat together. There's Blue Ivy climbing on Jay Z like he's just a normal dad. There's B laughing for real, and actually not voguing for a minute. As the show came to a close (Jay: "Ladies and gentlemen, Mrs. Carter," Bey: "Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Carter," bow, hug, walk off stage with arms around each other), the screen read "This is real life."
You know what happens when two consummate performers forge a partnership? One hell of a performance. The phrase "Beyoncé and Jay Z show" is redundant. Beyoncé and Jay Z are a show at all times — a walking, talking, completely filtered, directed and produced reality show that is making a lot of people a lot of money (as of this writing, the tour's grossed around $100 million). And we — everyone in that sold-out ballpark last night — we're all complicit. "Some Andy Kaufman shit," mused my friend on the tipsy, ear-ringing walk home, as we discussed how the Carters stand in for our royal family. (Sorry, Pippa Middleton, I'll take Solange all day, every day.)
You don't have to give them that much credit in the subversivity department. But you do have to acknowledge that they're an amazing business — an industry, really — and you are paying attention, whether you like it or not. If Madonna brought performance art to mainstream pop music, turned it into a capitalist transaction? The Beyoncé and Jay Z show has taken the American cult of celebrity, our obsession with reality television, our hunger for knowledge of what famous people are "really like," and smushed it all together into a product, into capitalism as performance art. At roughly $385 a ticket, plus fees.
I'd go again tonight, if I could.
-- Beyoncé's body is insane. It is a force of goddamn nature, and she was putting it to work in every way possible last night, in heels, in a thong, with a mass of hair around her shoulders, without a touch of makeup out of place, for two straight hours. It was something to behold. If we are lucky, she signals an evolutionary step forward, as in, in the future, all humans will hopefully look like Beyoncé.
-- Relatedly: As fun as it was to hear "99 Problems" and "Hova," you kind of had the feeling every time Jay Z was on stage by himself that everybody was just waiting for Bey (and her team of super-hot and also mega-talented dancers) to come back out.
-- Beyoncé also has an all-female band and most of the members have afros and they looked and sounded fuckin' great.
-- Jay Z did score some Bay Area points with a brief cover of Too $hort's "Blow the Whistle," which he also did last time he was in town, with Justin Timberlake. (Someone should get him on some E-40.)
-- There are a lot of rich teenagers in this city.