Monday night, I ventured out to Prospect Heights to see Beyonce perform at the Barclays Center. No big news there -- with three sold-out shows at the Brooklyn arena partially owned by her family and a quick glance at social media, it was clear that a good percentage of my peers had done the same thing at one point over the course of the weekend. Deceptively personal shout-outs about going to see "Queen B" or "hang out with The Carters" filled my Twitter timeline and Instagram feed, creating the illusion that everyone was casually heading to chill with some old friends.
For me personally, this was old hat as well, a ritual to be repeated every two years or so. Indeed, I've been going to Beyonce's concerts consistently since back in middle school when I was a chunky 220 lbs, wore Abercrombie and Fitch zip-off windbreaker pants and had a girlfriend.
A lot has changed, aside from the gender of my romantic endeavors, weight and mildly improved sense of style, since I first went to see Bey perform on the Verizon "Ladies First" tour in 2003, a jaunt she co-headlined with Alicia Keys and Missy Elliott. Our economy and financial system have crashed, the middle class in our country has all but evaporated and unemployment has skyrocketed. A lot of my middle and high school friends, the ones I used to go to Beyonce concerts with, most of whom are college educated and grew up on that '90s diet of "you can be whatever they want to be!", have had an incredibly tough time finding work in New York. Even fewer are able to make a living doing something they actually care about. Last week, I got a text from a college acquaintance whom I hadn't heard from in years: "Looking for work! Please please let me know if you hear of anything!"
Beyonce, in that same stretch of time, has gone from budding ingenue to the definitive pop icon of her time. In some circles, she's even been elevated to a walking deity. "Beysus" is a term I've heard used before (Fuck, it's a term I've actually used myself). As for this particular show, up until Friday night, I wasn't sure if I even wanted to go. This was partially because I didn't want to spend the money -- although I still had to pay the hefty $250 price tag for good seats, I was fortunate to have a hook up that allowed me to to decide at the last minute whether to drop the bucks to see Beyonce dislocate her hips to "Single Ladies" for the nine-millionth time. I eventually agreed at the behest of a friend whom I hadn't seen in a year and was only in town for a few days.
The real reason I was hesitant, however, was because of the ever-apparent, ritualistic nature with which I have been going to Beyonce shows over the past decade. While she is consistently an electric live performer, Bey also hasn't put out new music in almost three years and at this point, I've seen her perform all her songs approximately a bazillion times, in music videos, on TV, live in concert and sometimes even in my dreams. Sure, the notion of a Beyonce concert is always exciting, but what was the real reason I was going to this? As a fan, am I obligated each every time this woman decides to go on tour, to drop the money to go see her just because she says it's time? More importantly, I was beginning to wonder: Am I in a cult?
The truth is, a proliferation of entertainment-driven "cults" have actually come to define our pop culture landscape over the last few years. We've got Beliebers and Little Monsters, KatyCats and the Rihanna Navy. Nowadays, even the B-listers have their cults: There's Rowland Stones and Ciara's C-Squad. The more extremist wings of these groups define their entire existence by their identification with a given entertainer, seeing their leaders as infallible. Their twitter accounts contain their pop-star-of-choice's name or a favorite song ("@NumberOneBelieber," "@CaliforniaGurl," "@MrsCarterII"), and their pictures are not of themselves, but of their star/leader's famous face. They defend their chieftain with their very lives, often going to war with other pop star tribes over something as minor as, well, who has the more loyal fan base (a casual Twitter search for "Justin Bieber" yielded, "@monsterkid: We need over 6 million votes to surpass Justin Bieber. Come on, we can do it Monsters!").
After the premiere of Beyonce's HBO documentary, Life Is But a Dream, I wrote a piece for HuffPost that ultimately praised Beyonce as the foremost entertainer of her generation, while taking aim at what I thought were disingenuous aspects of the film. One was how much the self-directed film was used to stroke her own ego. "I'm more powerful than I can even comprehend," she utters at one point. Primarily, I called the girl out for tricking us into thinking she was "revealing" herself while actually revealing nothing at all. Beginning moments after posting it, I received a literal barrage of tweets and comments that lasted for days, primarily from Beyonce's signature cult, her BeyHive, something I may have at one time claimed to be a part of. This included everything from some version of "You're not a REAL Beyonce fan" (which, wtf??) to a number of people who actually encouraged me to end my own life.
Of course, I'm a rational adult, and I found it hilarious for the most part. But the level of ferocity elicited from a piece in which I largely complimented Beyonce for doing what she does, entertain, sing and dance, and a bit of time offering some critique on what I thought was an odd career choice, was definitely startling. I felt compelled to tweet back and some of those "BeyHive"-ers, "If you think Beyonce cares about you as much as you care about her, you are gravely mistaken," not to be mean, but rather to jolt some sense into people who were rather viciously defending someone they don't even know.
In his New York Times article "Inequality and the Modern Nature of Celebrity," an article which I have cited recently in reference to Beyonce's significant other, Jay-Z, author George Packer discusses how in times of economic strife, we tend to grossly over inflate the role of our famous people. In these climates, he claims, our celebrities go from successful members of society whose career prowess we can emulate for our benefit, into untouchable, god-like creatures that are meant to be worshiped as something superhuman, ethereal beings we mere mortals can never become. "As mindless diversions from a sluggish economy and chronic malaise, the new aristocrats play a useful role. But their advent suggests that, after decades of widening income gaps, unequal distributions of opportunity and reward, and corroding public institutions... The celebrity monuments of our age have grown so huge that they dwarf the aspirations of ordinary people, who are asked to yield their dreams to the gods," says Packer.
At Monday's show, as the set list rolled on and I listened to Beyonce spew the same canned banter I'd heard her say a million times before while thousands cheered, I found myself merely going through the motions. I screamed at the opening horns of "Crazy in Love" per usual, and flipped my unadorned hand back and forth during "Single Ladies" like a good devotee would, but I wasn't really enjoying myself. And of course, on cue, Beyonce feigned genuine shock when everyone knew the words to "Irreplaceable." "To the left, to the left," the loyal chanted at their queen. "Aw, you all sound so beautiful!" Beyonce said (Beyonce always says we sound beautiful while singing "Irreplaceable.")
During a ballad-heavy lull in the show, I pulled out my phone and texted another friend who had seen the show the night before. "I love her, but this is getting kind of ridiculous," I said, only half seriously, "I can't deal with the fake emoting and the same old bullshit scripted dialogue." "I won't hear any negativity about King B!," my friend shot back, invoking yet another of Beyonce's ego-bloating nicknames. Although I knew she was also kidding around, it struck me in an odd way. When did the climate of pop culture become one where we can't say one negative thing about our treasured celebrities? This is Beyonce: She is a talented singer and a gifted performer, nothing more, nothing less. She hasn't cured cancer or stopped world hunger or ended a genocide or discovered life in another galaxy. When did it become sacrilege to descent about R&B singers, even the ones who's music we like? When did entertainers, or actors or chefs or writers or DJs for the matter, get raised to this sanctified status?
Packer's sentiment was heavily on mind last night as I watched the 20-something girl next me weep while Beyonce flew across the Barclays Center in a gilded harness, adorned in a blue-sequined Givenchy body suit. Of course, some level of celebrity worship has been around since The Beatles or Marilyn or The Bourbon Dynasty or Julius Ceasar or even Jesus Christ himself. But there is also no denying that we have reached new levels of adoration for people that, frankly, don't do that much to directly effect or influence our day-to-day lives or well-being, especially in a time when we could really use the help. And while this isn't Beyonce's fault of course, she is certainly benefiting from it.
So that's why I've decided that the next time Beyonce hits the road, I'll probably skip it. Not because I don't love her or think she's extraordinarily talented or deserving of her success, but because I need to get the fuck out of her cult where frankly, us underlings are paying a tithe to someone who has more money and power than she can "even comprehend" while the majority suffers. I'm a fan of Beyonce's music but starting today, I'm officially escaping the BeyHive.