Beyonce for President
I’m still not sure how it happened. We headed out to Olympic Park on Friday with two other couples to see Beyonce’s Sydney show, planning to bop the night away to her awesome collection of insanely catchy dance tunes.
We ended up wiping away tears and struggling to speak as the concert turned into an emotionally-charged celebration of the best features of life in the west – women’s rights, civil rights, democracy, freedom of expression, a philanthropic sense of community.
The word “pop” of itself sounds frivolous and popular music is generally ignored or ridiculed as the shallowest cultural genre. But at some point during Beyonce’s show, the concert underwent a strange transformation, as if she’d read the “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” passage from The Declaration of Independence and decided to build a stage show around it.
It started when Knowles performed her spine-tingling cover of Etta James’ classic At Last – the song she sang at Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration – in front of a massive backdrop of images from the civil rights upheaval of the 1950s and 1960s, Sister Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat for a white passenger, footage of funerals for bombing victims in Alabama, Martin Luther King leading the march on Washington, and ending with Obama taking the presidential oath.
At a time when the polls suggest that Obama is now regarded as just another politician, the montage served as a reminder of the historic weight of Obama’s victory – especially to black Americans such as Beyonce who just a generation or two ago were seeing their people beaten on the streets, not running for office. It’s neither schmaltzy nor sentimental to remember what Obama’s victory represents.
But the night was less of a plug for the Democrats though than a spectacularly sexy feminist rally.
With the 20,000-strong crowd running at about 80 per cent women – almost all of them under the age of 25 – Beyonce invited deafening cheers as she pointed to her new and brilliant all-female band as a demonstration of how her “special purpose in life is to empower women.”
Rather than being a foil for her superstardom the band was allowed to shine individually on the night. It was more like a jazz concert than a pop gig. Each member of the band played solos, and the three enormously talented, enormously proportioned back-up singers did their bit to smash the myth that catwalk praying mantises have a monopoly on sex appeal.
Cynics would laugh it off as superficial pop-star nonsense, marginally more profound than the Spice Girls. But the 15,000-odd women in the crowd are more likely to take their cues for living from Beyonce than by delving into the feminist classics by Germaine Greer or Andrea Dworkin.
And at a time when parents of young daughters fret about the negative influence of everyone from Lily Allen writing songs about oral sex or the Pussycat Dolls mounting the bonnets of sports cars, you can point to Beyonce as a genuine feminist role model in that she’s independently successful, exceedingly talented musically, sexually confident without trivialising or demeaning herself, and determined to use her music to send a message to other women to get out there and succeed.
The most emotional moment came at the end, when Beyonce said that she wanted to use her concerts to give hope to people in need, and called up a little six-year-old girl from the crowd, who with her thinning hair appeared to be battling cancer, and held her tight as she sang “Halo” in her honour.
It was at this point that I felt two decades of hard-wired journalistic cynicism disappear, and as I looked down the row at my mates, realised with some reassurance that everyone else had lost it too.
Beyonce’s world tour has hit a bit of a hiccup today, with Malaysia’s radical Islamist party calling for this Friday’s Kuala Lumpur concert to be cancelled.
There is a certain perverse logic to their call. Not because “her skimpy attire and behaviour onstage are immoral and lead to unclean behaviour,” as the Pan-Malaysian Islamic party claimed today, but because her concert is a musical celebration of the best of western values - chiefly the conviction that people should be allowed to do whatever they want regardless of their gender or race.
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