It's Beyonce's World

Article excerpt

Byline: ZZ Packer

Just how did the pop star come to represent, well, everything.

Whether your assessment of Beyonce is that she's a pop princess, hip-hop diva, a conspiracy theorist's latest incarnation of the Illuminati, a feminist icon, an overexposed celebrity, or just another working mother--albeit one who seems to have Oprah, Prince Charles, and the president of the United States on speed-dial--one thing is for certain: we are now--for better or worse, for good or ill, or all the malaise in between--living in the Age of Beyonce.

She has become--perhaps even more than Michelle Obama or Oprah--the all-around compliment-by-comparison for any black woman. I got off a plane from Wyoming, and a gentleman said to me--"We thought you did great at Super Bowl!" It was quite obvious he had not mistaken me for Beyonce, as I am several sizes larger, bereft of Bey's honey highlights, and more than several sequins shy of Beyoncehood. Nevertheless, this comment was shorthand for saying he thought I was--ahem--comely.

How is it that Beyonce has come this far, this fast? It seems it was just yesterday Chris Rock was lampooning her--or rather her name--in one of his skits on The Chris Rock Show."Who goes and names their child Be-YON-say!" Yet that same Chris Rock was in attendance at the premiere of her HBO documentary Life Is But a Dream, a film all about Beyonce's ... well, being Beyonce.

A lot of the hullabaloo has to do with how Beyonce has taken the very same categories other female celebrities have rescued from stereotype--the glammed-up girl-next-door, the sultry songstress, the sex goddess, the demure stand-by-your-man "good wife"--and catapulted off the trail as though running through her own Hunger Games edition of America's Next Top Model.

Not since Oprah's talk-show hegemony has an African-American female celebrity appeared so powerful, so ubiquitous, and yet insistent on announcing their down-home humility. Not since Angelina Jolie's first forays as a special envoy and U.N. ambassador has a female celebrity combined pure star wattage with not-so-subtle nudges of interest in engaging in--or at least circling the periphery of--America's political scene. She's taken Halle Berry's sex-kitten image--itself an embroidering of Dorothy Dandridge and Eartha Kitt's smoldering sexuality from a time when whites preferred to think of black women as Amos 'n Andy's Sapphire or Gone With the Wind mammies--and one-upped it, taking a page out of J.Lo's brown skin-blonde locks combo, then stamping her own "bootylicious" label upon it, then continuing on to eventually triumph over J.Lo for "best derriere" assignation (no pun intended)--all while racking up hit after hit of billboard-topping singles.

In the early '90s, when hip-hop and rap were beginning to achieve crossover success, female artists had one of two paths--the R&B songstress route or the hard-edged female-rapper route--which itself branched off in either emulation of male rappers' bravado and sexual braggadocio (a la early Lil' Kim) or the pliant striptease sex object (a la late Lil' Kim). What Beyonce has managed to do is straddle the line between hard and soft, between ladylike sophistication and the more virile displays of the impresario; between potent diva and passive doll, between the virtuosic vocal melismas of powerhouses in the vein of Patti LaBelle or Aretha Franklin, and the more playful, sweet--and sometimes anodyne--stylings best suited to pop music's chronicles of heartache and heartbreak.

In short, Beyonce is a chameleon, a master of the quick change, noted for a record number of costume changes at the Oscars, as if some creature during molting season--but also in the sense of reconfiguring America's ideas of blackness and black female identity. Most black women orbiting within the satellite of rappers rarely become their wives the way Beyonce has become "Mrs. Carter" as she did after marrying Jay-Z, a. …