Beyoncé's Identity Crisis

Beyonce sits courtside before the NBA All-Star basketball game Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013, in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Beyonce sits courtside before the NBA All-Star basketball game Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013, in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

On Saturday night, Beyoncé, birth-giver to our future overlord Blue Ivy Carter, capped off what can only be described as a month-long media invasion with the premiere of her self-directed "documentary" on HBO, Life Is But a Dream. I put the word "documentary" in quotation marks because, to the extent that a documentary is supposed to reveal a candid truth about its subject, a truth that can often only be sussed out by the presence of a third-party filmmaker, Life Is But a Dream is certainly not one.

Really, the film sees Beyoncé, who, at this point, is known as much for her authoritarian control over her image as for her talent, playing a bit of a clever trick on her devoted following: We're ostensibly getting a view into the "real" Beyoncé, but only the version of "real" that she has decided we're allowed to lay our non-Shawn-Carter retinas on. In fact, the biggest revelations about the ultra-private superstar in Dream are that, yes, she too gets sad, lonely and scared sometimes (breaking news: Beyoncé is not an animatronic robot!); that she loves her daughter and her family (um, no duh!); and that she and Jigga, a man who once rapped, "I thug 'em, fuck 'em, love 'em, leave 'em, cuz I don't fuckin' need 'em," also have super-dorky sing-a-longs to Coldplay's "Yellow" after a few Pinot Grigios. But the aforementioned Coldplay karaoke moment, while admittedly an extraordinarily touching, genuine and intimate moment, is about as deep as Bey gets in the film. What really makes this woman tick is still a complete and utter mystery, which I'm pretty sure is just how Beyoncé likes it. 

Or is it? Of course, the thing is that when I sat down to watch Life Is But a Dream with a bunch of other mega Bey fans (just to be clear: I own every record, have gone to every electrifying tour and know the entire "Single Ladies" dance, step for step, and will gladly perform it upon request), I knew we weren't going to get much. This is Beyoncé, after all. It isn't like she just woke up one morning and completely changed from the person who spent an entire decade denying her blatant romance with her now-husband. I wasn't expecting her to show up on HBO, shit-talk about Michelle Williams' lack of talent, girl-talk with us about Jay's favorite sex position and tell us what really went down between her and her Svengali father when she fired him as her manager. (She claims that she was searching for "independence," but we all know the child-star/stage-parent relationship is endlessly laden with complex emotions.) But all that is what leads me to my main question: If you're not really letting us in, why even make this "documentary" in the first place?

One of Beyoncé's most endearing qualities has always been the old-school mystique she has managed to maintain in the information age, a glamorous allure that has truly kept the focus primarily on her art. While her pop-star kin Rihanna, Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, like the rest of us laypeople, social media till their fingers bleed, until six months ago it was unclear whether Beyoncé even knew what Twitter or Facebook was -- which, when you think about it, is really kind of amazing and singularly charming. 

Indeed, Beyoncé has never built her name on being on the cutting edge of anything, including technology. Unlike the other ladies, Beyoncé doesn't need to portray "cool"-ness in order to attract our attention and garner our adoration: While we're certainly curious about her personal life, we love her primarily for her formidable talents as a singer and performer and for her class and grace as a superstar. Even her music and dancing often unabashedly reference the sounds and styles of the past rather than being on the vanguard of the future: the blaring Chi-Lite horns of "Crazy in Love," the Fosse steps that inspired the "Single Ladies" dance and the Tina Turner pumps she performs it in, and the traditional stance toward heterosexual love and sex that she often espouses (she sings in "Upgrade U," "It's very seldom that you're blessed to find you're equal / Still play my part but let you take the lead role, believe me.") 

But with that said, there is also no denying that the world has changed immensely since Beyoncé first broke through as the centerpiece of Destiny's Child in the late '90s. In 2013 we demand much more on a personal level from our pop stars, a demand that the majority of Beyoncé's contemporaries seem more than happy to meet. It is not enough for them to merely put out an album, tour and do label-sanctioned interviews with Rolling Stone and Vogue. We want access, or at least the appearance of access, to their day-to-day lives through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr and the like. The other important truth of note is that, though a truly accomplished and thrilling listen, Beyoncé's last record, 2011's 4, was her first that not only failed to produce a number-1 single but contained not one song that cracked the top 15. The record sold about a third of what her prior release, the far-inferior I Am... Sasha Fierce, did in 2008.

For a while, I was certain that Beyoncé was going to maintain her defiance on the social media front. Then, in the middle of last year, following the relatively soft sales of 4, she joined Tumblr, releasing a series of personal (albeit highly controlled) images of herself and her family. I was shocked. Later that year she joined Instagram, a platform dominated by a woman on the complete opposite of the pop-star spectrum, Beyoncé's primary foil in PopStarVille: Rihanna. I was floored. Was this the same Beyoncé who was not even seen in public with her boyfriend until six years into their romance? 

In contrast to Bey, Rihanna is a mediocre singer and dancer, but her music is very much rooted in in the now: She is a cool kid, and she is the most cutting-edge of her pop-superstar ilk. Rihanna also allows ample glimpses into her personal life through social media. She tweets, unfiltered, often 20 or 30 times a day and Instagrams pictures of herself smoking blunts, sticking her face in strippers' behinds and waking up with sex-face after spending a drunken night with her former abuser, Chris Brown (which, yuck). She also openly discusses her lack of desire to be viewed as a role model and her pursuit of the freedom to live her life and make mistakes, even if it means doing so in the public eye. 

By joining Instagram, Beyoncé is clearly admitting that Rihanna is onto something, and she's right: Since Beyoncé last reached the top 10 as a lead artist, Rihanna has graced the top 10 no fewer than 14 times. But Bey also knows that she is not Rihanna on a myriad of fronts. Unlike Rihanna, still a young woman on the ascent, Beyoncé exists in a weird space in her career, somewhere between contemporary pop star and living legend. This, coupled with her immense control issues, is where Bey is getting confused and may have even lost her way. Whereas Rihanna's social media presence presents her as highly flawed but genuinely intriguing and authentic, qualities that add to her overall appeal as an artist, Beyoncé's, much like Life Is But a Dream, comes off as a stiff, surface-level imitation, a portrait of a woman who can't ever fully let go of control and let her "freak flag fly." There is nothing "candid" about it. Sure, we are seeing her backstage at a show, but she is in full hair and makeup, posing for a picture clearly taken on a professional camera and selected to make her appear as perfectly untouchable as possible.

So here's my thought: If Beyoncé just accepted her role as the pop star who stands for old-school values and avoids social media and so-called documentaries, she may be taking a commercial risk but also would be staying true to her values. She would therefore be portraying a more inherently authentic version of who she she truly is: a private person whose art speaks for itself. The real truth implicit in her stilted attempts at "revealing" herself actually lies outside the world of filtered pictures and this odd film. The truth is that Beyoncé doesn't know exactly who she is and where she fits in the modern pop landscape, and she's a little freaked. In an interview that aired before the documentary, she disclosed to Oprah that releasing the documentary was a "really hard choice to make," a reluctance that is evident in the fact that she really doesn't "document" anything too vulnerable that we didn't already know about. The irony is that by attempting to reveal things but not actual reveal anything, Beyoncé is giving us the most blunt truth we've ever come to know about her: She is scared to let people know who she is, and she is petrified of losing of control of her image, but she is even more horrified by the notion of irrelevance, scared enough to at least attempt to make us feel like she is playing the "get to know the real me" game without actually playing it. 

Beyoncé, as an adoring fan, let me give you a little sage advice: Just be your dorky, control-freak, uncool but supremely gifted self and ditch this trendy shit. Rihanna needs to show us pictures of her blazing up and looking forlorn with Breezy, because she doesn't bring a ton of talent to the table. You have more to offer artistically in one flip of your glorious weave than Rihanna does in an entire lifetime of number-1 hits. Be that old-world star whom we don't know much about beyond what you present in your music. We may be frustrated and want more, but as you say in Life Is But a Dream, dissatisfaction is what drives us through life. When you're onstage, you give us more than enough of the "real" you. When you're onstage, I believe there is a God. That is enough. No need for sepia-toned Instagrams appearing in my feed next to snaps of Rih's pasties and my douchey friend's brunches. It's beneath you. And certainly no more of your "documentaries." That is just not you. I'm totally good with that. Are you? 

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