It should probably be said for the record that Beyoncé did not kill the lights at the Superdome. Oh, it’s plausible enough. The cause matches the effect. Beyoncé performs at the Super Bowl, then whether by power overload, Illuminati conspiracy or divine sass intervention, the lights go out, cowed. And her halftime show did little to dispel the notion. Not much of the show was new — the army of holographic Beyoncés marched in from her (still mesmerizing) Billboard Music Awards set in 2011, her all-female band has accompanied her for years, and there will forever be only one way “Single Ladies” is performed. It wasn’t perfect, either. Like most Super Bowl halftime acts, Beyoncé could pack three shows with killer material, but even though she had no new album to clog the setlist (cross-promotional duties went instead to her upcoming documentary; in other words, all she had to promote was herself), filler made it in anyway. “Halo,” a ballad at a venue for bangers, would be Beyoncé’s most indulgent single even without producer Ryan Tedder’s hackwork; the Charlie’s Angels stuff in the otherwise great Destiny’s Child hit “Independent Women (Pt. 1)” is the sort of vestigial product placement you’d think would be quietly excised, not showcased complete with now-cliché pose; and solo single “Baby Boy” ages even worse, not just because the identikit raga and Sean Paul feature date themselves but because the song calls for a lighter vocal than the full-throttle-fierce belt Beyoncé prefers a decade on.
But then, asking Beyoncé to do anything at less than full throttle would be beside the point. Technically speaking, her show was far shorter on spectacle than last year’s — featuring gladiators hefting an eagle-winged throne, Madonna alternating between gold-draped queen and alpha cheerleader, and LMFAO in zebra suits somehow — but what it lacked in props was outdone by pure performer’s gusto. Sparks flew. Flames were thrown. The stage was a blur of leather and lace and legs. Guitarist Bibi McGill used her instrument the way you’d use a submachine gun loaded with glitter. The remaining two members of Destiny’s Child, as rumored, burst on stage — literally burst, as in from the floorboards — then channeled Beyoncé the best they could on her own songs. (Destiny’s Child did have a new song, “Nuclear,” but its post-coital bliss is too mellow for a Superdome-sized venue; it’s nuclear fusion, not fission.) In a probable retort to the lip-synch police, Beyoncé led the show with the coda of “Love on Top” — a series of cascading key changes that, as any singer can tell you, are damn near impossible to pull off without accompaniment — then, in an even better retort, she dropped out of “Crazy in Love” almost entirely to focus on the dance and spectacle (a move that trolled the dagnabbits off professional coot Bob Lefsetz) and let her backing tracks crumble into studio snippetizing. Yet even when she wasn’t singing, she dominated the stage; you never got the sense she had anything less than complete control of her screen time.
This, naturally, was all part of the plan. While the Super Bowl has mostly pulled itself out of the classic-rock trench it scurried into after Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson’s airing of the unmentionables, it’s still not playing it safe. Its first post-Nipplegate risk, the Black Eyed Peas’ wonky Tron homage, didn’t cut it for 2011, let alone 3008, so the show retreated to pop acts who more or less qualify as classic rock — pop at its most populist. Last year’s Madonna show didn’t quite pull this off — she did have a dud of an album to promote, and the nation going flipshit over M.I.A.’s middle finger didn’t help matters — but Beyoncé? Everyone adores Beyoncé. No, more than that: everyone idolizes her, in tones indistinguishable from actual worship. This is not as unusual as it seems — variations of “can’t wait to see football open for this Beyoncé concert” filled everyone’s feeds, but that’s both exactly how the halftime show markets itself and hardly limited to Beyoncé. (Had Twitter existed when Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake performed together at their pop peaks, it would probably have gone down.) And yes, there sure was a lot of “praise Beysus” talk going around, as critic Ann Powers noted, but this is just how fans talk online — you could fill out that pantheon with Godga (Lady Gaga), the Holy Spearit (Britney) and Rihallah. (Rihanna, and yes, really.)
But with Beyonce, there’s something more. Note, for instance, one quote by Bikini Kill vocalist Kathleen Hanna that makes the rounds anew every month or so: “Beyoncé isn’t Beyoncé because she reads comments on the Internet. Beyoncé is in Ibiza, wearing a stomach necklace, walking hand in hand with her hot boyfriend. She’s going on the yacht and having a mimosa.” Never mind that this probably isn’t true — Beyoncé probably does read comments, considering she wrote an entire hit calling out people who compared Destiny’s Child’s lineup changes to Survivor and “dissed [them] on the Internet” — it fits her image perfectly, and thus it’s good as canon. Beyoncé’s entire career relies on this simplifying devotion. Songs like “Sweet Dreams” (a love song that sounds both like plaintive fear and Enrique Iglesias’s “Tonight (I’m Fuckin’ You)”; Beyoncé at her most vulnerable and radio trend-aware), “Ring the Alarm” (abrasive and mesmerizing, but too difficult to be inspiring) and “Hip Hop Star” (a fascinating early track where Beyoncé taunts you with her own untouchable image, even before that image truly crystallized) are shunted down in the canon in favor of more straightforward, triumphant fare, the sort of thing you’d imagine her singing as she ascends to the heavens. (In her “I Was Here” video, released as a United Nations cross-promotion, she does just that.)
“Other stars might have showier or higher-charting singles or flashier sets, but there’s simply no performer more on right now than Beyoncé.”
And where other stars cultivate irreverent, even flippant public personas — sassing the camera on Instagram, spilling tweet after casual tweet, Beyoncé remains one step distanced, descending every so often to Internet earth to deliver magnanimously crafted, meticulously designed proclamations on the issues of the day: Gabby Douglas’s Olympic victory, Frank Ocean’s now-famous letter about his sexuality. It’s not that she’s reluctant to adapt to new technology — on the contrary, her team’s beyond cutting-edge, displaying a remarkable knack for cultivating fan communities and spotting likely Buzzfeed-ready memes. (Meme MVP from last night: throwing up the Roc Nation symbol during “Independent Women.” While upstaging Destiny’s Child. The tags write themselves!) But she’s reticent with it, preferring to maintain an almost Old Hollywood level of mystique. Even her “intimate” moments, such as 2011’s highly touted series of Roseland Ballroom shows, are scripted and planned to the last smile. A recent feature in GQ shed even more light; not only does she apparently record close to every waking moment of her life, she archives it all, so she can retrieve and share it when it best suits her.
The other thing about that GQ profile, of course, was that it was roundly mocked — and not for the male-gazey stuff inherent in any “hottest-woman-of-whenever” roundup featuring a typically porny Terry Richardson photoshoot, but for that very archiving. Gawker’s headline was representative enough: “GQ Interview Confirms That Beyoncé Is Fucking Crazy.” It’s not crazy at all — it’s just a larger-scale version of PR reps saving clips — and an outtake further explained her reasoning: Beyonce wanted complete rights to her own footage. Given the trend toward pop stars moving to their own walled-garden social networks and all-encompassing 360 deals, it’d be surprising if this doesn’t become standard procedure by 2015. But the tone of the backlash highlights something else. The lip-synching scandal — which was silly, as major televised performances almost always have polished backing tracks at least — the surrogate-pregnancy scandal from last year, which was even sillier, the premature carping about 4’s sales — all were attempts to find the crack in Beyoncé’s Dereon-outfitted armor, the pop singer behind the diva curtain. The fact that Beyoncé is by far among the most successful and beloved women of color in the public eye, and uses this status to boost her colleagues — her site, post-Super Bowl, announced “what a proud day for African American women!” — doesn’t dissuade this and lends an undertone to the criticism that’s uncomfortable, to say the least.
That’s bad enough on its own, but even without it, it’s hard to side with the naysayers. Yes, it’s easy to reverse-engineer the marketing bullet points of Beyoncé’s career, and yes, it does seem at times like she’s impervious to criticism because she says she is. But if anyone’s worked to earn that status, Beyoncé has, and it’s hard to argue that this is a bad thing, whether for the girls inspired by her or for the music landscape that receives her unimpeded craft. Other stars might have showier or higher-charting singles or flashier sets, but there’s simply no performer more on right now than Beyoncé. And if last night’s halftime show ascends to the ranks of best of all time — it probably will — credit the image she’s strove for so long to perfect.