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On Trend The Year of Beyoncé

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On Trend: The Year of Beyoncé

Columbia Records

If you’ve walked through New York City lately (or, in all likelihood, any major city), you’ve probably been unable to escape Beyoncé’s face. It’s on the posters still pushing her heavily-rotated HBO doc, Life Is But a Dream; it’s on Pepsi ads that first emerged for her Super Bowl halftime show, sponsored by the soda; it’s on promos for Love Songs, the Destiny’s Child compilation album released earlier this year; and it’s on the cover of the March issue of Vogue, which unapologetically declares that the “Queen B” “rules the world.” Written by Jason Gay, the Vogue article, like the HBO film, isn’t especially revealing, and it feels as if it were shaped, to some degree, within the diva’s control, right down to the closing sentence that wholesomely acknowledges the promise embodied by Blue Ivy Carter, Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s one-year-old daughter. The story—which, in a rarity for Vogue, includes a straight-on shot of its subject smiling—registers as one more part of the carefully calibrated Beyoncé machine, which is programmed to put forth an image as sexy and glamorous as it is untarnished and accessible. Such is not to say, necessarily, that Gay’s article rings false, but that it, like the artist herself, carries a constant aura of choreographed perfection, which, now, in the wake of marriage, childbirth, and continuing endorsements from the First Family, is tinged with a new layer of human transparency. Perhaps that layer was always there, and is just now more apparent. In any case, of the many affirmations made within the commendatory Vogue spread, one that leaps off the page is already clear to anyone with eyes: This year, “Beyoncé will be in your life like she’s never been before.”

Outlets like Vulture have had some fun with the banal pearls of wisdom Beyoncé offers in Life Is But a Dream, a film that saw her co-direct herself as a makeup-free talking head. The things she says about growth, god, and connecting fateful dots aren’t about to change anyone’s life, but what she declares about her craft is, thus far, the most telling element of the ever-chugging Beyoncé train. She speaks of her influences, like Nina Simone, and pointedly laments, that, in our iTunes-driven culture, consumers “don’t listen to a body of work anymore.” Like Adele, Beyoncé is an artist who has the power to affect this truth, and she’s doing it. She talks further about bringing vintage R&B soul back to popular music, and expresses a desire to be deep and artful instead of “cool.” That Beyoncé and her team aren’t constantly keeping hipness in mind can’t possibly be true, but amid her current barrage, whose pieces, from an Oprah Winfrey interview to a forthcoming fifth album, seem keenly designed to help her take ownership of 2013, this passage seems the truest and realest thing to surface—a perspective that speaks to Beyoncé’s history and growing dominance.

While she’s always had a presence on the charts, Beyoncé isn’t a hitmaker like Rihanna. In general, her songs, even the mind-numbingly repetitive “Run the World (Girls),” are not typical, and though many are catchy, her oeuvre—or, rather, her entire “body of work”—isn’t a litany of crowd-pleasers. Since she’s gone solo, she’s developed tunes that, in part because of her booming voice, blur the line between ballad and anthem (“Irreplaceable,” “Halo”), and even some of her biggest hits, like “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It),” don’t sound like radio fodder—that is, of course, until they hook you. Give or take less novel tracks like “Sweet Dreams” or “Déjà Vu,” Beyoncé often seems ahead of the curve, increasingly finding ways to slyly channel those classic instincts into palatable pop. Furthermore, while she’s championed a bootylicious style and built the House of Deréon, Beyoncé hasn’t shown herself to be hung up on the superficiality of the look, which, post-Lady Gaga, has become an unspoken must for burgeoning pop princesses, some of whom, like Ke$ha, use it to help mask a certain lack of skill, while others, like Nicki Minaj, haven’t a clue of how to master it. Just as it quickly bailed her out of that inauguration lip-synch scandal (“Everyone knows she’s one of the best vocalists of our time,” sister Solange justified to EW), Beyoncé’s massive talent hasn’t needed the aid of bells and whistles. It speaks for itself. Like the finest contestant on a reality competition show, she may not have wowed you every week like her flashier peers, but for more than a decade, Beyoncé has remained uncannily consistent, and now she finally seems to be rising to the top, a winner.

I just turned 29. Beyoncé is 31. Whenever I want to make myself feel bad for not accomplishing enough, or measure myself against the great doers of my generation, it somehow always comes back to Beyoncé (okay, and maybe Mark Zuckerberg, too). In prepping for this piece, I realized that Beyoncé was only 19 when Destiny’s Child released “Survivor,” which, at that time, was already an evolutionary development for the group. She’s since collected literal armloads of Grammys, shown her range by repeatedly wowing crowds beyond her supposed demographic, and become one half of what’s probably the smartest power couple in entertainment. I’ve always been enamored of her and the professionalism she exudes. At last she seems to be taking her rightful place as musical royalty. You may think she’s always been there, but it hasn’t been at such a commanding level. Maybe it’s maternal strength, maybe it’s that all those dots she talks about have finally connected, but something Sasha-Fiercer than ever has stirred up in this starlet, compelling her to grab you by the throat and finally prove that, as friend Gwyneth Paltrow says in the Vogue story, “she is the best in the world at her job.”

Of course, those who’ve seen her perform live may have already known that. For every boilerplate confessional that pops up in Life Is But a Dream, there’s a graciously uninterrupted stretch of Beyoncé on stage that leaves you utterly gobsmacked. Pulse-pounders of near-impossible energy, like her performance of “Run the World” at the 2011 Billboard Music Awards, are paired with unadulterated beltings of songs like “Resentment”, which prove equally transfixing. Like Michael Jackson’s This Is It, Life Is But a Dream lets you pause and take in the brilliance of a performer who seems to simply have music coursing through her blood. It’s unlikely you’ve ever seen a live Beyoncé set that wasn’t perfectly executed. From movement to vocals, she is perpetually without flaw. As flimsy as it may read, a recent NPR article went so far as to say that Beyoncé would make a fine scientist, so precise is her excellence. Really, can anyone even remember a better halftime performance? There are only a few solo performers who can, or could ever, wholly command a massive stadium stage. Beyoncé is one of them. And now, in her prime, amid the rush of mass exposure, she unveils a world tour, “The Mrs. Carter Show,” which will support the new album that, as she tells it, should be fraught with soul and—make no mistake—listened to in full. The tour will let her command stadiums across the globe, which, in this moment, seems to be spinning on her finger.