Kevin Mazur/WireImage for Parkwood Entertainment
Kevin Mazur/WireImage for Parkwood Entertainment
Now that she is back on the road, now that the Internet is again awash in pictures of her sweating on stage in Glasgow, running through sold-out crowds in London in costume, it seems as good a time as any to talk about what for many young women was the most important big live show of the past two years — Beyoncé's "The Mrs. Carter Show World Tour." And because Beyoncé has been on the road since last April, almost an entire year, there has been ample time for the constellation of the fans who pay serious money to follow her to create a fan culture (much like The Grateful Dead and their Deadheads but updated for the 21st century) that is almost as intriguing as the star herself.
Barclays Stadium might be an athletic venue, but for the four nights that Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter performed there last summer, it became a coliseum of glitter, sequins and gold lamé. Justin Bieber calls his fans Beliebers, Lady Gaga calls hers the Little Monsters, and Beyoncé calls her most hardcore fans the "BeyHive." As they clogged and crammed Atlantic Avenue, all trying to get to their Queen, the description never seemed more accurate.
Not everyone at the concert was a woman, and not everyone was bedazzled, but it was pretty remarkable how many of them were. At a Beyoncé concert are swarms, literally swarms, of women. There are some men there too, of course, but the women, and by this I mean every kind of woman you can imagine, they come invincible. They stride four abreast. They henpeck and flirt with the guards. They twerk in front of food kiosks while they wait in line to order snacks. They wear their best outfits — baggy vests and baseball caps, to dresses tight enough to look like bondage. They feel it. A Beyoncé concert is like one epic Beyoncé video. One can't help but get into the fantasy. It is about the community. And even though it was a hot night in the city, inside Barclays the women were being nothing short of congenial. In the elevator going down to another level, I danced with two supersassy Delta sorors to "Blurred Lines" as it played over the loudspeaker. They high-fived me when we exited. In another concourse, I watched a rambunctious group of blonde women in six-inch heels buy shots and eat huge hamburgers under unforgiving stadium lighting, totally not giving a f- - - about their appetites or their table manners because at a Beyoncé concert absolutely none of that matters. If you wanted to evade security and crash a section that was closer to the stage, it was all good. If you couldn't make up your mind about whether you wanted that really expensive T-shirt with a half-naked, bent-over Beyoncé emblazoned on its front, you could take your time because chances were the person behind you was giddy with the same excitement and indecision too. There was no judgment, because a Beyoncé concert is a world run totally by girls, and by that I mean women.
At this point, you don't have to be a Beyoncé fan to acknowledge that Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, age 32, is the clear contender for the title of the hardest working woman in pop music. I was not left particularly breathless by her Super Bowl show, nor did I race to see it. I own only one of her albums, the one I think is her best until her most recent, B'Day, but over the years, ever since a friend gave me a pass to attend her intimate Roseland show in 2011 where backstage I watched a breathless, drenched Beyonce walk off stage like it was nothing, I've been forced to concede that, love her or not, there can be little doubt that Beyoncé is a behemoth of work ethic and sweat in nude salsa-dancer tights. She is the sort of woman who in between a 132-date world tour found time to record an entire album in absolute secret, film 17 music videos, and organize it all through her own fledgling company, Parkwood Entertainment, instead of her established record label, Columbia Records.
Over the years, Beyoncé has razored off friends and group members who slowed her down. She has become a dancer, a wife and a mother. And of late, Beyoncé has become a cultural lightning rod whose obsessive fans tell us loads about how conversations around sexuality and race still pervade American pop music. People care about Beyoncé for the same reason Camille Paglia and bell hooks cared about Madonna. If Madonna exemplified white female sexuality and independence coming into its own, Beyoncé shows her fans what it means for a black woman to put on the performance of a lifetime.
Like all superfans, the BeyHive to some extent thrives off the sense that their bond to the object of their affection is intimate and specific even when it is not. What is specific with someone like Beyoncé, the now equal-earning, if not out-earning, wife of a man worth a half-billion dollars, who obtained that money with her own blood, sweat and tears as a teenager in a girl group, and later out-Svengali-ed her looming, impresario father, broke off and eclipsed her groupmates to become one of the world's most top-selling solo artists, is that her fans feel like they have been there for her success. They are proud of her. They have watched her grow up and watched her win. Beyoncé's totemic status with the BeyHive is legendary. The Hive is fiercely protective of its Queen Bee. Besides Beyoncé's concerts, the foremost apiary of the BeyHive is on the Internet, on Twitter. On Twitter, you can find the Hive massive and worldwide: the bugged out French teenagers, the Brazilians tweeting from Rio, the white boys in the Midwest with Broadway dreams, connected by their love of Beyoncé, all speaking in a lexicon that makes them sound like both the forefront of the beekeeping movement and the ultimate Beyoncé fans. If you insult Beyoncé on Twitter, the Hive will insult you until you rue the day you were born, or regret the day you canceled your gym membership.
After following one Hive member's Twitter feed for hours (and discerning that she lives in the Deep South and is married despite being very young, and that she mostly tweets about three things: going to the casino, Beyoncé's sales numbers and fighting with her husband for more money to feed her Beyoncé habit), I timidly sent her a message over Twitter: "Can I ask you a question?"
I was timid because her timeline revealed that she had spent her morning trying to get a Best Buy employee fired because he slipped her a link to download the album for free. This infuriated her. How will Beyoncé outsell Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and the "competition" with people like this, she wondered. Sometime the next day, she (I'll call her "Angela") followed me back. Angela wrote that she was down to talk with me about being a part of The BeyHive but with one condition: It had to be positive. She said she was all about positivity — something that seemed mildly ironic since for the last 48 hours she had made light of Rihanna for being a victim of domestic violence, mocked Taylor Swift's flat ass and dissed anyone who admitted they were a fan of Tamar Braxton.
But as we corresponded back and forth, I watched her tweets take a kinder tone, so I agreed to her request and asked for her phone number. She wrote back that her phone was dying. So without thinking I sent her my number and told her to call me. When an hour passed without reply, I sent her another note, and I got a reply that revealed the tone had clearly changed. Angela was now highly pissed. "Who are you? Are you pulling my leg?" She wanted to know why'd I want to interview her. I wrote back and explained I'm a writer. Before I could finish she sent me another note: "I'm blocking you." Her anger was almost palpable. I sent her a link to my work, and a few minutes passed. No reply, but when I checked her timeline again, I almost passed out. She had taken my information and posted a screenshot of it to all of her followers — not just her followers, but also the entire BeyHive, because she had captioned her tweets with that hashtag: #BEYHIVE
Of late, the Hive has gotten a bad name; everybody knows that they have a reputation for stunts like this. But what seemed less obvious, at least to me, was why they took their love affair with Beyoncé so seriously and exerted so much effort and so much venom in its defense.
Back at Barclays, this time months later, I stood outside, in the winter, at Beyoncé's last show in Brooklyn and tried to get some of her fans to talk with me. I started with groups. People with "go-for-it" Beyoncé-like style. High heels. Studded loafers. Fur vests. Red talons. I approached one group of young ladies with Lady Godiva-long weaves and asked them if they would answer a few questions for a piece I'm working on.
"No, boo, no questions," their "leader" said, holding her phone to her face like I was paparazzi. "We are late for the show."
She herded her girls along. It didn't matter that we both knew the show didn't start for an hour. TMZ taught her well. After a few attempts like this, I gave up and decided to try the only people who couldn't walk away from me: the security guards. At the least crowded entrance door I asked a guard, "What sort of fan comes to the Beyoncé show?" This guard, a middle-aged black woman, looked around furtively, and then she pointed to herself and then back to me without saying a word.
"Mostly black girls?" I inferred and whispered it back to her.
"Oh, yeah," she said. She had a heavy Caribbean accent. Then her face got grave and she nodded, like the answer was apparent but also a secret. "It's a mixture, yeah, but, yeah, it's mostly us here."
When I tried to verify this assessment of the crowd with another guard, who was also a middle-aged black woman, she balked, "Are you kidding me?" She laughed proudly. "Oh no! No way! No way! White people love Beyoncé. The gay guys? Please! Beyoncé? She is international." She would not stop laughing, and before I could ask her something else, she walked away still scoffing at me and shaking her head.
I had the best luck with a young guy guard, who caught my eye because he was beaming like he had the best job in the world, and for that night maybe he did. He really didn't want to talk. He was distracted, involved in doing his "job," watching the crowd of women closely, but he tried his best to answer me.
Is the Hive mostly black girls? He repeated the question. "Man, the crowd is all sorts of people, look around," he said. And he was right. To our left there was a vent of passengers pouring from the LIRR subway station with hordes of bridge and tunnel middle-aged moms and white girls in Uggs.
"See, there are all sorts," he said confidently, and then he smiled, revealing a large chipped tooth. "The black girls, though? They just dress up, they get way, way more into it, so they stand out more. Because they take it seriously."
It is true: There are all sorts of Hive members. But to me the ones with the best language, the ones whose Twitter feeds I couldn't stop reading, were the black girls. What is interesting is that they are also a part of the demographic of black women who are now also being taken to task and called empty, subjective words like "toxic," for their use and approbation of a technological space that is supposed to be open to all: Black Twitter. But the Hive, to some extent, and Black Twitter at large, is what happens when you don't have real access to mainstream media, when there are so few black icons who speak to the realities of black life, and when last year (for the first time ever in Billboard's history) no black artist had a No. 1 hit song. It is no wonder then that so many young women and men of color, indeed, take it more seriously.
On the day the Hive will never forget, the Beyoncé album's release day, I was in Chicago. I had longstanding plans to review Beyoncé's concert that night at the home of the Bulls, United Center. It was bitterly cold. Before I went to the concert I checked Twitter, and there one Hive member, a young black girl, was tweeting joyfully about having tickets to the concert that night. Intermixed with her joy was anger. She said she couldn't believe her family would "f- - - her over" like this. She had been kicked out of her home by an aunt. Later she would complain about the cold in Chicago. She was a college student who often tweeted maudlin to heartbreaking tweets about struggling all her life and going "Christmas shopping with no money." That night it was below freezing in Chicago. When my sister and I stood outside and waited for our cab it was so cold I wanted to cry. Once inside United Center, as we waited for the show to start, I asked people questions: How much were their tickets? The girls beside us had spent $500. When I watched the Hive on Twitter, the only time they risked treason of their Queen was to complain about the high cost of showing their love. Didn't she realize how expensive it was becoming to be devoted? Now, in retrospect, I realize somewhere in that crowd of thousands of people there was a girl without a home in the middle of winter to whom tickets to Beyoncé meant the entire world.
In Life Is But a Dream, Beyoncé's film-length selfie/documentary, she leaps into the waters of the South of France and shows off her voluminous wedding dress. At one point we are shown a still-sexy silhouette of her pregnant belly — causing Beyoncé to lament that she can't understand how someone could ever believe that she and Jay Z used a surrogate to have their child. Where did they come up with this? She asks incredulously. These rumors, these crazy legends, these stories? But Beyoncé's parents are from that same pit of the American South that birthed not just the ragging rhythms and 2/4 meter her band interpolates into the finale of the Mrs. Carter show but also the most magical realism this country has ever seen. Beyoncé, who claims her Southern Creole heritage big time, must know that men and women like her mother and father come from a people who tell stories, people who dream big, hope huge and often invoke the devil or the supernatural as explanations for things outside their grasp or their understanding of reality. The thing Beyoncé doesn't understand about all of the rumors surrounding her is that in the great tradition of that kind of storytelling, the thing beyond our grasp and most people's realities is her. Beyoncé, either out of naïveté or innocence, is the last to accept what most people think — that she is not like us.
In her video for "Partition" Beyoncé slithers around her husband, a man who proves talent wins everything and capitalism can buy all if one accepts the blindfold it comes with, and she looks fantastic. In bell hooks' essay "Selling Hot Pussy," hooks writes about Tina Turner's long, blond wig and her hot-to-trot savage sexuality as an inversion of "old imagery" to "place herself in the role of the dominator." But as right as hooks is, about the blond hair and everything else, for an hour or so it is nice to watch Beyoncé's visual album and consider the pleasure of a black woman who is able to express her sexuality without being called a ho, a video girl, a freak, a gold-digger or words worse. She can do what most of us cannot.
In 2011, a study released by the Violence Policy Center revealed that black women were murdered by men "at a rate of 2.61 per 100,000 in single victim/single offender incidents," whereas with white women, the rate was 0.99 per 100,000. This seems like a slight difference but not when the popular perception of black women and girls is that they are antagonistic, "toxic," tough, brassy and impossible to hurt.
Pop music, like most things in America, has an especially hard time with black women and their bodies, from Miley Cyrus' use of them in her tired Jump Jim Crow antics to the condemnation of Rihanna's wonderful wild. Rihanna is a popular target for the BeyHive, a person they often humiliate, maybe just because she is another big-deal black girl in pop music. Almost daily they post pictures of her beaten, swollen bruised face after Chris Brown's vicious attack. It is gross and unforgivable, and something that could be reined in if Beyoncé actually communicated with her Hive regularly (she does not). But of late I've come to think that it speaks to something important about the BeyHive: I'm not certain they really hate Rihanna, or find joy in her hurt — instead I think what they really hate is that Rihanna knows firsthand, like so many women and girls, and perhaps like so many of them, that being violently hit by a man doesn't ever feel like a kiss. It feels the opposite. It is a humiliation that is impossible to forget. So what I think the Hive hates about Rihanna is that there is no fun, no fantasy in that kind of knowledge of womanhood, just a reflection of the real but all-too-often silent life they too must wade through as young women of color in America.
And then there is Beyoncé. Who, like most black women, must work hard but, unlike most black women and girls, is endlessly well-defended. She will never be homeless. She will never be broken. She has no discernible dirty laundry. While her fans' lives might be pocked with disappointments and failures, somehow their Queen's life has largely avoided this. There are people who like to say hyperbolic, vapid things like, if you hate Beyoncé you must hate your life. Beyoncé is such a symbol of triumph that these people are willing to overlook her extremely problematic ties to the worst forms of capitalism (Pepsi, Wal-Mart and Barneys). But recently I've come to realize how much the Hive's deep, at times blind investment in her isn't so much about loving her one ton of talent but rather their defense of her place on the pedestal. They are in love with what she transmutes. What she is allowed to be. And Beyoncé does this more earnestly than the majority of singers today: she performs for them, shows them what a woman in successful control of her life sounds like. This is why they root for her. She gives her fans hope — as Tina Turner once did for women in the '80s — a sense that they, too, might win at life and vanquish the hurt. Beyoncé is the rare exception who has beaten the odds, despite her being a woman, and despite her being a black woman.
A few days after Beyoncé's album came out I was invited to join more than 40 women in a conference call about the album. Did I come in love? Adrienne Maree Brown, the facilitator of the call, asked me when I revealed I was on assignment. I replied that I came in sisterhood. Which is the word that kept circling in my head as I listened, almost awed into silence by these women, many of them women of color, who just wanted to be rapturous over the black woman who almost shut down Christmas. For one hour all that these women wanted was a private space to say "Beyoncé is my sister and I love her."
Is Beyoncé a feminist? Is she a womanist? I don't know. To me she is a cyborg. "Cyborg writing," Donna Haraway tells us, "is about the power to survive, not on the basis of original innocence, but on the basis of seizing the tools to mark the world that marked them as other." What I appreciate about Beyoncé is that I understand and recognize the tools seized. This is not to say that these aspects in Beyoncé align neatly — they are indeed confusing — but they demand a right that is so often denied black women: the right to be a human, a character with many identities, many aspects, attitudes, vulnerabilities, joys, heartbreaks and realities. This is why, in many ways, the best and the most important videos on Beyonce's new album aren't the ones where she shows her perfected flesh while blithely singing that pretty hurts; they are instead the series of behind-the-scenes videos called the "Self-Titled" features where she shows us how she constructs her music, her package, her production. This is where she explains how she breastfed her daughter while in the studio, expresses her deep respect and devotion to her mother and sister and talks about her unbridled desire for her husband as a young wife. Twenty years ago, Donna Haraway wrote in her "Cyborg Manifesto" that she would rather be a cyborg than a goddess. She also wrote that "women of colour might be understood as a cyborg identity, a potent subjectivity synthesized from fusions of outsider identities." If Beyoncé, who wears her engagement ring over a robotic glove in her "Single Ladies" video, doesn't embody this sort of fusion, I don't know who does. Women like her, Tina Turner and Josephine Baker show us the necessity of constantly remastering how you are seen by others, how you are understood, and, in the choreography of that dance of dominance and submission, they show us that the performance of a lifetime is one that you must do in the world, in practice and not just in theory, with all eyes on you.
So here is one more moment from that show in Chicago, at United Center, where Michael Jordan once soared across the court and made millions of boys and girls believe they could do something mythic and magical: Beyoncé was attached to a holster by members of her all-female band and lifted into the sky. The crowd sighed. In a blue sequined jumpsuit with blond hair that makes her look like them and yet still totally ours, Beyoncé set soar. The white man in front of me started to fan himself. It was indeed surreal. The Queen Bee had made the stadium into her hive, turned her skeptics into believers, and made everyone go hoarse singing her anthems: "If I Were a Boy," "Survivor," "Run The World (Girls)." I am not a Beyoncé fan but I felt like crying tears of joy all three times I saw the Mrs. Carter show. Because while other pop stars may sing about throwing some glitter on it and making it rain, only Beyoncé could literally soar over us, climb up over our heads and our real lives, climb over her kingdom, to actually throw down over us what looks like bits of pollen, golden confetti, and make it rain bits of her dream all over her fans who love her so, and who would do anything for their Queen.