Beyoncé Knowles: The Queen B
Has there ever been a steeper, stranger, more rollicking two-week roller coaster in American pop-cultural life than the one Beyoncé Knowles rode from the middle of January (not long after I interviewed her for Vogue) into early February? The craziness started, of course, with that national anthem on the Capitol steps; Beyoncé’s soaring rendition was lavishly praised at first, but then it was revealed to have been sung to a prerecorded track. The resulting uproar was noisy and blustery and as close to a scandal as Beyoncé had experienced in her life; for an artist accustomed to controlling the narrative, it was unfamiliar, awkward territory. It got nasty—Beyoncé was shoved forward as a symbol of a synthetic generation—and yet she said nothing for ten days, until surfacing in a white Olcay Gulsen minidress at a Super Bowl press conference in New Orleans on January 31. There, she opened by singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” again—clearly live—in a soulful and satisfying and very much Beyoncé way. As a bit of crisis-management stagecraft, it was a knockout, and after Beyoncé sailed through to the “home of the brave,” she smiled and offered two words to her skeptics:
Sure, there was still the Super Bowl, perhaps an even more treacherous high wire, given its ludicrous logistics (a megastage to be assembled and stripped apart between halves of a football game) and a global audience in the hundreds of millions. But from the moment Beyoncé appeared at the Superdome midfield, left hand on hip—below an enormous, flaming silhouette of herself, left hand on hip—it was obvious she brought a motive and probably a little bit of a grudge. The Super Bowl is no shrine, and there’s always something a little ridiculous about it (New Kids on the Block once got this gig), but Beyoncé’s performance was conspicuous in its determination to project authenticity: real energy, real dancing, and yes, real-as-hell singing. She powered through a hailstorm of hits, briefly being joined by her Destiny’s Child colleagues Michelle Williams and Kelly Rowland for a medley and a brush of Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).” It was impossible not to be taken by Beyoncé’s sheer relentlessness—in Proenza Schouler boots, no less. It was as if she was chasing all that post-Inauguration doubt down a narrow corridor, blasting a pair of laser guns. Minutes after she finished, almost poetically, the power would bonk out in the Superdome. Beyoncé’s husband, Jay-Z, sent out a triumphant tweet from the darkness: “Lights out!!! Any questions??”
These questions felt answered. It had been a very weird, flustered, uncharacteristically turbulent two weeks in the life of Beyoncé Knowles. But in New Orleans she had staked her claim. Stability had been restored to the monarchy.
“Get ready for hair anarchy!”
It’s a rainy winter evening in New York City, and inside a sprawling film studio across the river from midtown, Beyoncé Knowles is standing before a camera, cooling in her black Giuseppe Zanotti boots, awaiting a close-up. This is a commercial shoot for L’Oréal, and the business of hair is being attended to with the seriousness of a Congressional hearing. Beyoncé’s hair is shimmering in the dreamy and flawless way that hair in hair commercials is supposed to shimmer. The director forecasting hair anarchy is Jake Nava, Beyoncé’s partner for music videos like “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)”—which infamously drove Kanye West to crash Taylor Swift’s MTV Video Music Awards speech so he could declare it “one of the best videos of all time.” Nava oversees this shoot with the calm of a man with an ace tucked in his pocket. Despite the competing demands of the evening—the product; the client; a fantastic, pulsing video screen that spills onto the floor and looks like Liberace’s fish tank—Nava keeps the focus on Beyoncé. Come on. This is about Beyoncé. Let Beyoncé be Beyoncé.
The camera rolls. A wind machine blasts. Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” booms over a sound system. Then Prince’s “Lovesexy.” Beyoncé begins to do hip turns and shoulder swivels and unleashes a sultry pout with just the right level of safe-for-parents suggestiveness. From behind a monitor, Nava’s London accent offers cheeky, Austin Powers–y encouragements:
“Wow, great, Beyoncé—that’s really good, man.”
Nava doesn’t offer specifics; Beyoncé knows what he wants. That preternatural sense is how you sell tens of millions of recÂords and get mega–endorsement deals and become one of the most iconic entertainers of your generation. Beyoncé long ago achieved mononym status, but along the way she did something bigger: She accelerated beyond simply making music and an occasional movie and became less of a pop comet than a carefully curated brand. As her competition was spilling out of limousines, Beyoncé remained the knockout in six-inch heels who still gets home by 11:00 p.m. Responsibility over recklessness. President Obama said not long ago that the superstar “could not be a better role model for my girls.”
OK, there is That Beauty and That Voice (“An incredible voice,” says her friend Alicia Keys) and Beyoncé’s place in pop music, which is now more adult and tenured than trendy—“She’s the queen,” says master music producer Timbaland. But she also knows how to deliver. When a camera on rails swoops in, she executes one of those dramatic hair flips that look deranged when attempted by ordinary civilians but amazing when she does them. Nava calls, “Cut,” and Beyoncé smiles and then tosses her hair around like a metalhead—neck down, hands raised in devil-horn salutes, as if she’s standing front row at Iron Maiden. The crew cracks up. There’s your hair anarchy.
In the past month I have learned that an audience with Beyoncé can be as challenging to schedule as a tennis match with the pope. (For weeks we go back and forth: I can meet; she’s in Vegas; I can’t be in Vegas; she’s on a family vacation in the Caribbean; curiously I am not invited.) But now, with a break in shooting, she is ready to talk. I trail her through the studio, under a lighting boom and over tangles of cords and toward a narrow hallway where members of the Beyonctourage attend to various Beyoncé activities and a security guard in a gray suit protects a door. Beyoncé needs a minute. A short while later I am ushered to meet her in a private windowless dressing area with a small black couch. An unmanned video camera has been set up on a table—there, as always, to record Beyoncé in the act of being Beyoncé. There is fruit on a tray, and it’s the prettiest, most succulent fruit you’ve ever seen. Her boots are off, arranged neatly on the floor. Still in her black Norma Kamali bodysuit and Helmut Lang pants, she asks someone for a robe. A white robe is presented, and Beyoncé cutely wraps it like a blanket over her shoulders. She resembles a teenager getting ready to curl up and watch a double feature.
She is 31 years old and about to embark upon perhaps the craziest stretch of her career. In a few weeks she will perform “The Star-Spangled Banner” at President Obama’s inauguration, the second time she has been given vocal honors on this day, the first being the indelible moment at the 2009 Neighborhood Inaugural Ball when she sang “At Last” to the nation’s first African-American president and First Lady. Soon after, she will headline the halftime show at Super Bowl XLVII—a chaotic high-wire gig with a global audience in the hundreds of millions, some of whom even watch the football game. Then there’s Life Is But a Dream, a revealing HBO documentary that Beyoncé codirected, due February 16 (and sure to air on heavy rotation thereafter). Also: new music from the platinum trio of her youth, Destiny’s Child. Then: Beyoncé’s latest solo album, which Beyoncé, ever the perfectionist, is still tinkering with at this moment. “I’m going to be tweaking,” she says, smiling. “I still have things to figure out.”
It is a return to the spotlight that feels less like a cautious reentry than a fusillade of shock and awe. Beyoncé will be in your life like she’s never been before, her music and visage and essence practically dropping down the chimney and seeping up through the floorboards. The scrutiny will be intense, and Beyoncé admits she is still capable of anxiety—those feelings never go away. “I’m still completely nervous,” she says. “I still feel pressure.”
But outside this little room, there’s a gentle, sweet, unmistakable noise. The soft cry of a baby. And though Beyoncé has started a thought about her new album, she pauses and listens and just visibly melts. And in this moment, it becomes clear that while her career and her business are vital and essential, the life of Beyoncé Knowles has forever changed.
“She’s about to go to sleep,” Beyoncé says, beaming.
She, of course, is Blue Ivy Carter, born to Beyoncé and her husband, the hip-hop mogul Shawn Carter, a.k.a. Jay-Z, on January 7, 2012, in New York City, to the breathless rush of public attention that usually attends a royal birth. Now the curly-haired one-year-old is Beyoncé’s light, her constant companion, the adorable darling making cameos on her Tumblr. “She’s my road dog,” Beyoncé says. “She’s my homey, my best friend.”
In the past, Beyoncé has been guarded about details of her personal life, but motherhood appears to be a subject too powerful for her to completely hold in. It’s impossible to say this without sounding like the host of a cheesy daytime TV show, but the joy just radiates from her. Her happiness is undeniable, and for a woman of discretion, she doesn’t try to be discreet.
“I felt very maternal around eight months,” she remembers. “And I thought I couldn’t become any more until I saw the baby. . . . But it happened during my labor because I had a very strong connection with my child. I felt like when I was having contractions, I envisioned my child pushing through a very heavy door. And I imagined this tiny infant doing all the work, so I couldn’t think about my own pain. . . . We were talking. I know it sounds crazy, but I felt a communication.”
Beyoncé confesses that pregnancy scared her. She was accustomed to a finely tuned level of control—Kelly Rowland, her longtime friend and Destiny’s Child collaborator, describes her as a perfectionist who will stay up until 4:00 a.m. the night before a concert, attending to issues as minor as a costume button. (“Her hand’s in everything,” Rowland says.) Now Beyoncé was about to embark on life’s most unpredictable journey. Babies do not care that Mom is playing the Super Bowl. Babies do not ask to go to the Grammys after-party.
At the hospital her fears vanished. “My family and my closest people were there when I gave birth,” she says. “Everything that scared me just was not present in that room. So for me to really let go and really appreciate every contraction . . . it was the best day of my life.”
Rowland says that Beyoncé has “always had that motherly instinct . . . ever since we were kids.” And there is a sense that with Blue, Beyoncé is slipping into a natural, comfortable role. Days are now oriented around her new family, and though it’s hard to imagine the Beyoncé/Jay-Z household resembling the frantic home of exhausted first-time parents—the crib-side renditions of “Itsy Bitsy Spider” must be amazing, however—she says there’s a clear focus. “I feel like I have something that has grounded me so much more,” she says. “Family has always been important. I’ve always had my mother and my father and my husband. But it’s just. . . .” She pauses. “Life is so much more than. . . It’s not defined by any of this.”
This, of course, means the attention, the money, the fame, this spectacular backstage fruit at our fingertips. It’s worth remembering that she is entering the fourth decade of life, most of it spent in show business, and she’s never had a wild period or self-destructive lapse—that obligatory run of embarrassing headlines that seems like a pop star’s due. “She’s wise beyond her years sometimes,” Rowland says. “I think that comes with her growing up in hair salon. I also grew up in the salon. . . . We’d listen to other people’s conversations and learn a lot.”
Now there is balance, a blending of work and home life. Beyoncé recorded much of her upcoming album (which she compares to a blend of her last album, 4, and 2008’s I Am . . . Sasha Fierce) this past summer in New York’s Hamptons, where collaborators included Timbaland, Justin Timberlake, and The-Dream, and the vibe was beachy and relaxed. “We had dinners with the producers every day, like a family,” she says. “It was like a camp. Weekends off. You could go and jump in the pool and ride bikes . . . the ocean and grass and sunshine. . . . It was really a safe place.”
She has found an equilibrium. Beyoncé’s close friend Gwyneth Paltrow relates a story of going to visit her in the recording studio and encountering mother with daughter.
“Blue was sleeping in her arms, across her body, and B was listening back to what she had been working on,” Paltrow says. “I thought, This is how you do it. You do what you love with who you love included.”
There’s one change in the musical life of Beyoncé, Paltrow notes. When Blue’s in the studio, they turn down the volume.
A couple of weeks after the Super Bowl madness, Beyoncé will admit the public—or at least the HBO-buying members of the public—into her world in a manner she’s never done before, through Life Is But a Dream. “My story has never been told—no one really knows who I am,” she says, a comment that may distress the authors of the nine unauthorized Beyoncé biographies I found for sale on Amazon.
Beyoncé, of course, lives her life before cameras—not just the unsolicited paparazzi ones, but her own videographers, who chronicle everything from mundane meetings with producers to family birthday parties. And so Life Is But a Dream unfurls less like a traditional documentary and more like a tastefully appointed home movie. There are monologues featuring Beyoncé in her bed, without makeup, talking into her laptop. There are glimpses of private helicopters, jets, a balcony suite at the Ritz Paris. There’s cute footage of a bathing-suit-clad Beyoncé frolicking with her husband aboard a yacht and at a dinner in Croatia, where the pair perform a duet of Coldplay’s “Yellow.” While there is plenty of singing and dancing, Life Is But a Dream also visits moments of heartbreak. One story line that shapes the film is Beyoncé’s difficult 2011 decision to split with her father, Mathew Knowles, as her business manager. At first she is desolate—“My soul has been tarnished,” she declares—but later, as she asserts her independence and confronts the petty squabbles of the business, she comes around to appreciating her father’s hand. “My father taught me so much about being a businesswoman,” she says. “And I’m understanding him a lot now. . . . A lot of the crazy things he did were necessary.”
Beyoncé says she found the filmmaking process therapeutic. “This movie has healed me in so many ways,” she says. “It makes me want to cry.
“I’m sorry,” she says, her eyes welling. “I’m very passionate about it, and it just feels good.”
Life Is But a Dream also doubles as Beyoncé’s mission statement—a document of self-discovery that announces a superstar’s worldview. Beyoncé speaks out about gender equity and unfairness—“Equality is a myth, and for some reason everyone accepts the fact that women don’t make as much money as men do”—and offers assertive advice on the acquisition of power. (“Power’s not given to you. You have to take it.”) And while there’s unprecedented access that her fans will go cuckoo for (Blue’s sonogram!), it’s Beyoncé who is managing the access. Everything that’s in there has her personal stamp of approval.
Michael Lombardo, HBO’s president of programming, believes there’s a real benefit to this approach. “I think there’s a decision by artists to have an honest conversation with their fans and not wait for paparazzi or weekly periodicals to define who they are,” Lombardo says. “There’s such a voracious appetite to deconstruct certain personalities. And I think it’s terrifying to an artist.”
Life Is But a Dream does attempt to set portions of the Beyoncé record straight. At one point it addresses—and debunks—the peculiar rumors that Beyoncé was faking her pregnancy and was instead secretly using a surrogate. Today, the gossip bewilders her more than it angers her. “That was very odd,” Beyoncé says now. “Who even thinks that? Like, who would make that up. . . . You can’t take it too seriously.”
Beyoncé’s mother, Tina Knowles, who calls the pregnancy rumors “the most ridiculous thing in the world,” admits she has a harder time letting gossip slide. “It’s tough as a mother because people say all this crazy stuff . . . and I want to say, ‘You should tell them’ sometimes. She’ll say, ‘Mom, I don’t owe them that. Let them say what they want to say.’ ”
“I have to calm her down,” Beyoncé says of her mother.
But even the sharply disciplined Beyoncé machine cannot always foresee controversy; recently, when she signed a deal with Super Bowl sponsor Pepsi, she was criticized by health advocates for endorsing soda, given the problem of child obesity. Such blowback is rare. Beyoncé Inc. is typically an unrushed, stable place. She doesn’t overshare. Beyoncé has nearly seven million Twitter followers—and as of mid-January, four tweets.
Here she credits her husband, another entrepreneurial superstar who has proved to be disciplined at navigating celebrity. “Just knowing someone’s always going to be honest and tell the truth,” she says of Jay-Z, “ can understand exactly what I’m going through—and I can understand exactly what he’s going through.”
They have figured something out. If you spend time in New York, there’s a chance you will encounter Mr. and Mrs. Carter. There they are, courtside at the new billion-dollar home of the Brooklyn Nets, in which Jay-Z is a stakeholder. There they are shopping for last-minute Christmas gifts at Bergdorf Goodman. There they are in my Brooklyn neighborhood, dining à deux at a tiny, bring-your-own-wine pizzeria, doting on the baby of a young couple sitting nearby. It is a rare accomplishment: a private life successfully lived in public. (When the couple headlined a fund-raiser for Barack Obama during the 2012 campaign, the president cracked that his life was similar to Jay-Z’s: “We both have daughters, and our wives are more popular than we are.”)
But Beyoncé cannot insulate herself from every crazy and idle rumor. When she encounters a story about herself on the Internet, she reads only the story. She stops there. She doesn’t let herself scroll down into the comments sections, which have a tendency to become cruel, ad hominem free-for-alls.
“Don’t scroll down!” Beyoncé advises, laughing. “You’re definitely going to get your feelings hurt.”
She will tour, later in the year. She will be cautious with her performing schedule, making sure to take time off with Blue to go to museums and restaurants and “expose my family to beautiful things.” But she is excited to get back onstage. She cannot wait.
“When she is working onstage, she has more power than any woman I’ve ever seen,” says Paltrow. “She would never say it and has never said it, but I feel she knows with every fiber of her being that she is the best in the world at her job.”
There’s still an obsessiveness about detail in Beyoncé’s artistic life. In her studio are elaborate “vision boards” to stimulate her creative process—photographs, writings, reminders of past achievements. There’s the cover of her 2003 album Dangerously in Love. There are photos of her Grammy performances with Prince and Tina Turner. Song concepts. Potential titles. “There’s so much stuff up there,” she says. “It kind of feels right now like A Beautiful Mind.”
Beyoncé says her new music “is a lot more sensual . . . empowering.” It celebrates being a wife and a mother, reflecting the obvious changes in her life. “Right now, after giving birth, I really understand the power of my body,” she says. “I just feel my body means something completely different. I feel a lot more confident about it. Even being heavier, thinner, whatever. I feel a lot more like a woman. More feminine, more sensual. And no shame.”
She jokes that next time she might make a country album. Maybe a jazz album. She talks about wanting more children. “When I was younger, there were moments where I said, ‘I’m not going to have children,’ ” Beyoncé says. “And then moments when I wanted four. And now I definitely want another, but I don’t know when.”
What will happen will happen, she says. But there’s a sense that Beyoncé won’t let her life get relentless, that she will pull back now and again, not immerse herself in the way she once immersed herself. “At some point it’s very important to me that my daughter is able to experience life and run through the sprinklers and have slumber parties and trust and live and do all the things that any child should be able to do,” she says.
Girl Scouts? Lemonade stands? School visits? Hello, Mr. and Mrs. Carter are here for their parent-teacher conference. . . .
“Absolutely,” she says. “School visits and lemonade stands and all that stuff. It’s very important for me.”
Beyoncé refers to the sacrifices she made when she was young, the thousands upon thousands of hours of spent practicing and performing and accruing success and goodwill. She believes she has earned some latitude, the ability to occasionally step away and let go. “I don’t feel like I have to please anyone,” she says. “I feel free. I feel like I’m an adult. I’m grown. I can do what I want. I can say what I want. I can retire if I want. That’s why I’ve worked hard.”
She’s not retiring anytime soon, but you get the point. In the life of Beyoncé Knowles, there is a new freedom. There is happiness. And not far from where we sit, beyond this door that opens up onto this wildly desirable and famous life, there is a baby stroller. There is Blue, and a big, boundless future ahead.