Artists, Curators, and Beyoncé’s ‘Homecoming’

I love live music. I also have a thing for artists who are at the top of their genre or who’ve mastered an instrument or who’ve reinvented an entertainment paradigm or two. I try to throw a healthy variety onto my playlists, but most of the time, I end up curating lists of remarkables, memorables, earworms, and irreplaceables. (Daft Punk. Nina Simone. Nine Inch Nails. Janis Joplin. Lenny Kravitz.) It’s just what I’m attracted to.

Objectively speaking, Beyoncé has probably accomplished more in her field that any other pop performer of my generation. I say this as a massive Gaga fan; Gaga has more talents than I can count, but she got her foot into the pop game by essentially cosplaying the safest female identity possible: a shiny, party-ready, Top-40-friendly, dance floor spectacle of a blonde.

Interestingly, some of the same can be said for Beyoncé. Her first solo album dropped when I was a freshman in high school, but I distinctly remember reading and overhearing discussions of her appearance, speculating that she was capitalizing on being light-skinned and wearing her hair straight and blonde. “Crazy in Love” was her first solo single, and aside from the blaring retro horns and R&B beat at its floor, the structure and the format of the song are pure made-for-radio pop.

And let me tell you firsthand, as a 15-year-old who was on a dance team at the time, the music video for “Crazy in Love” was essentially YAY Now I Can Booty-Dance Too 101 for white girls. B had made a song that was fresh and addictive, but it was more or less a perfectly safe mainstream bop.

It’s appropriate, then, that 15 years — and a Lemonade and a Super Bowl and three kids and a newly Beckyless husband — later, Beyoncé opened her 2018 Coachella performance with the same song… only, with an unmistakably black, dirty south edit in the middle:

I watched the Beychella live stream last year along with millions of others, and the “Back That Azz Up” edit was the first of many times my jaw dropped or my eyes welled up or I leaned forward in my seat. I should’ve been tipped off by the Nefertiti regalia or the sheer number of Kangol military berets on her dancers… I should’ve realized early on that she was using this performance to do something way more significant than a run-through of her greatest hits with a big brassy marching band and some sick designer show costumes.

Let’s run through the obvious high points of why her Coachella gig was objectively a huge deal:

  • She was the first black woman ever to headline the festival. (“Ain’t that bout a bitch?”)
  • Her two-hour setlist consisted of 27 songs — more like 34, if you include instrumental versions and covers.
  • Those songs were arranged to be played by a massive marching band, blowing open the horizons on some of our favorite B songs from the past 2 decades. (The rich horns underneath “Formation” and “Drunk in Love” push them straight into deliciously savage versions of their original selves. Do yourself a favor and let those bang in your car.)
  • She assembled not just a backing band of her usual badass women… not just a handful of dancers who could keep up… but over 200 vocalists, dancers, instrumentalists, and steppers to occupy one stage. Each group had dedicated time in the spotlight as a part of Beyoncé’s own HBCU Homecoming experience.
  • She creatively directed every single detail of what was seen, heard, and projected on that stage… while rehearsing for 8 months prior while getting back into shape post-pregnancy with twins.

All of this is impressive enough to set the bar at a new and satisfying height for any performer. So when B’s Homecoming Netflix documentary was announced last week, I immediately had a question: Why there was a need for a documentary about a festival gig she did a year prior? Don’t get me wrong, I love a pop cultural Behind the Scenes joint for any reason, but this seemed a little redundant — and someone as intentional as Beyoncé typically doesn’t drop a new project without ensuring it’s going to have an impact all its own.

As it turns out, Homecoming isn’t just the slickly produced recorded version of Beychella we’d all been praying for. It isn’t even a simple, “Here’s what I did as a performing artist, and here’s what it looked like.”

This documentary is a framework for the why, not just the what. I’ve always liked that artists can take on a lot of functions beyond simply creating and performing — they can inform, reveal, question, motivate… Homecoming added a new verb to that list: Curate.

From an artist’s standpoint, Beyoncé gave a highly coordinated and stylized performance of some of her best work. Her documentary, though, details the meticulous research and collection process framing the entire experience: historical references, material resources, musical and stylistic inspirations, cultural touchstones, external talent.

(Side Note: If you’d like a fantastic analysis on some of that cultural source material, I highly recommend this episode of Still Processing from The New York Times, hosted by Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris.)

That’s the job of a curator: Bringing together pieces of history, art, industry, and culture to create an engaging experience with a cohesive story. It’s the kind of sophisticated arrangement you usually only see in museums, or maybe in films.

Lest you think that musical festivals can’t also be high art, you may want to think about how the narrative behind Beychella is the same approach the Carters took with the “APESHIT” video: Walking into a predominantly white-owned, white-operated, white-populated environment and continuing to achieve wild success specifically because she’s performing black styles of music for black people.

The entire point of Beychella … is that Beyonce took and ran with the chance to bring her own culture to a stage that likely expected her to assimilate to its usual fare.

Her third song of the Beychella set was a ballad I’d never heard of in my life: “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” It happens to be the black national anthem, penned at the start of the 20th century. It’s a thing I hadn’t known existed until last year, and I’ll bet you my next 5 years of pay that the flower-crowned white kids at Coachella were equally clueless about the significance of that tune at the time.

That may seem like an exclusionary statement to make about Coachella’s usual crowds — most people wouldn’t expect them to know that song. The entire point of Beychella, though, is that Beyoncé took and ran with the chance to bring her own culture to a stage that likely expected her to assimilate to its usual fare. To people who are only used to seeing black artists at certain events or in particular contexts, last year’s Coachella performance was an uncompromising declaration of who Beyoncé is as a popular entertainer, a black woman, and a citizen of the world.

It sounds like a dramatic assessment when you unravel it. Thankfully, at about 34 minutes into Homecoming, one of the B’s crew members deftly summarizes what her performance meant to those who were listening: “They heard her say it without saying it: Let’s get it together. Let’s move forward. Let’s unify.”

Pop culture fiend. Art + design enthusiast. Self-proclaimed expert playlist maker. Perpetual word nerd and advice dispenser. Five cents, please.

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