When Michael Jackson died, people clamored to determine the rightful heir to the King of Pop. None of the contemporary young male singers batted around – Usher, Ne-Yo, certainly not Chris Brown (despite his mother's grandiose claims) — satisfactorily fit the bill. Talent abounds, but none of these guys quite has MJ's levels of musical virtuosity, fascinating eccentricity and the ability to package them in appropriately surreal performance. Granted, the search seemed doomed, as the entire angle of Michael Jackson's celebrity was that there was only one of him. But now it is clear that by turning to men (and men-children), we were looking in the wrong place: the heir to Michael Jackson's throne is none other than King B.
Where soul-rooted pop star divas are concerned, Beyoncé is the greatest performer of her time. During last night's Super Bowl halftime show, this status was on display and confirmed to those who didn't know, those who haven't been paying attention to the thrilling last decade of her career. Like Michael Jackson, Beyoncé seems to exist in a bullet time that the moral eye can't fully absorb – she strobes energy, each staccato movement the seeming product of thousands of finely tuned micro-movements. Maybe most impressively, her voice maintains a studio quality despite her choreography's athletic strain on her body and the abandon with which she approaches it. (Shut up shut up she was singing shut up.) For 13 minutes last night, she owned the Superdome's and world's stage like she always does, reveling in her cocktail aesthetic of effort and comfort. Who runs the world? Beyoncé, in momentary flashes.
When Beyoncé faced the press last week for the first time since her Inaugural scandal, she explained her use of a backing track in a way that was predictable to anyone who understands Beyoncé: "Well, I am a perfectionist." Indeed, and in running through eight of her hits in thirteen minutes last night, there were no perceptible flaws. Coming off the biggest public controversy of her career thus far, stakes were high for Beyoncé. With a little bit more grit in her voice than usual – perhaps a sign of determination, perhaps one of anger, certainly one to suggest her singing was entirely live, lest you get it twisted – Beyoncé prevailed as Beyoncé does. Anything else would have been out of character.
Beyoncé's devotion to the pageantry of pop performance means she is calculated enough to make Madonna seem like an improviser. And yet, part of her intricate craft is telegraphing a rawness, an unpredictability, a wild-eyed attack like she's about to rip the arms off of her own songs. Even more than her great beauty, this mixture of sensibilities is why you can't take your eyes off of her when she is on the screen. At all.
Her show, directed by concert/events vet Hamish Hamilton, who was also responsible for Madonna's spectacle at last year's Super Bowl, zig-zagged across the stage and spanned her career, at times mesmerizing with video screens that projected a kaleidoscope of Beyoncés, and then an army of them. Her setlist was unpredictable to a fault at times ("Baby Boy" over "Countdown"?), but during others, it nicely broke from the typical methods of the music industry. She didn't perform the excellent new Destiny's Child single "Nuclear" with her reunited groupmates Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams, even though it seemed selling iTunes downloads was a big part of the point of them getting back together. (That track is nowhere to be found in the iTunes Top 200 – every other song performed last night is at the time of this posting.)
Instead, they opted for snippets of past hits "Bootylicious" and "Independent Women, Pt. 1." Bey then had them back her up for part of her solo smash "Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)." Rowland's and Williams' mics were audibly turned down below Beyoncé's. They couldn't touch Beyoncé's motor precision (Williams in particular struggled with the dance moves) and when they left mid-song, Beyoncé really went to town, getting bodied with a renewed lightness now that she was no longer burdened with having to carry the weight of mere mortals.
The Superdome's field displayed identical illuminated portrait images of Beyoncé staring at herself. This performance was Beyoncé's tribute to Beyoncé, a reminder of her great talent. Because of things like social media and hip-hop's cultural influence, bragging and self-congratulation are more socially acceptable than ever — leave it to a person whose image is based on being superhuman to deliver a new, refined spin on arrogance. Beyoncé's performance at the Super Bowl wasn't an apology for the Inauguration, but a correction. It's ironic that standing still and singing would seem to pose more of a challenge than do so while unleashing a stream of precise body flailing, but then it also makes sense. We're not talking about a normal human being, and Beyoncé's energy will not be contained.
[Image via Getty]