By Sarah Meier
So here’s what we know, on a very surface level, about Coachella. The annual music festival held just southeast of Palm Springs, has, in its almost 20 years of existence, grown into a cultural movement and namedroppable reference; the laidback but festive spirit of the three-day musical extravaganza inspiring countless fashion collections, and trends in everything from make up to set design and home decor. Performances at Coachella are much like other festivals in nature—raw and relatively intimate, with minimal support from back up dancers or visuals. Until Beyoncé happened.
Whether or not you like Beyoncé, it is difficult to argue this: that she is a consummate professional and easily one of the most celebrated artists and performers in pop culture today. Her work ethic is evident in the massive body of work she has released in her 36-year-long life, from world tours and music videos to visual albums and documentaries.
Now I’ve watched Beyoncé live twice, once in Manila and the other in Paris, some years apart, and it is phenomenal how she continues to challenge the upper limits of concert performance art. This is a high intensity solo artist that can go upward of two hours with minimal breaks and several remarkable outfit changes, all while diving headfirst into merciless dance choreography and vocals that are certain to leave a lesser artist panting.
This is what she brought to Coachella this year. A full concert, complete with dozens of dancers, dozens of marching band members, and a handful of very strategic and powerful guest appearances, fireworks, anthem reinventions, cultural references, and historical influences, all embedded in an otherwise nonchalant music festival setting.
This Beyoncé set at Coachella (so epic it has warranted its own name, “Beychella”) is a study in disruption outside of Silicon Valley, the pursuit of excellence, the importance of being political in pop, and the much-needed return of honor to glamor-less labor in a social media world that is primed to highlight only its fruits.
It is a study in how to create or establish relevance as a creative. An ephemeral quality so many artists struggle to achieve, relevance is a close (but undoubtedly more cerebral) relative of the elusive “X-factor” or “je ne sais quois.” In one single performance, Beyoncé was able to create and establish relevance by doing two key things.
First, making both subtle and overt cultural inflections to acknowledge race and heritage, and getting just political enough about it to ascertain that this was a very intentional move on her part. In her use of the marching band and school-themed emblem, Beyoncé immediately creates references to black collegiate communities. Relevance lives in her quick quip, acknowledging that she is the first black female to headline Coachella, then following that up with an “ain’t that ‘bout a bitch” anvil of a comment. Her use of vocals and dance moves, song choices, and nods to key figures in the black empowerment movement, all of this packaged together to make a statement in a post-Obama climate, that she will not be whitewashed into silence about her blackness.
Secondly, Beyoncé flaunts her mastery in relevance by giving us a figurative mic drop in her choice of guest appearances. She deftly shows people around the world that there are definite levels to creating “content”—the common-day commodity of the internet set—and that she is, indeed, Queen. By inviting her husband, Jay-Z, out onstage for a brief but thrilling display of chemistry, she shows the public that the tumult of their marital issues has passed, once again cementing the work the couple began with the albums Lemonade and 4:44. Both pieces of work have been heralded as significant conversation starters in the black community about young male attitudes toward fidelity, vulnerability, and love.
Her sister, Solange, coming onstage for a fun dance number, seals the beauty of a sisterly bond so many feared ruptured after a spat (over Jay-Z’s aforementioned marital grievances, incidentally).
Then there was the Destiny’s Child reunion, poignant if only for the manner in which Beyoncé steps back onstage, giving her former group members ample time in the spotlight that so many accused Beyoncé of stealing years ago.
The entire thing is a masterpiece in its intentions to remind us who, actually, in the words of Beyoncé, “runs this mother.”