• Beyoncé Lessons

    LARB editors Michelle Chihara and Sarah Mesle went to see Beyoncé’s “Formation” tour’s recent stop at Dodger Stadium.  This is what they thought.


    Michelle: Sarah, we know the first thing we have to talk about is the shoes.

    Six-inch heels, she walked in the club like nobody’s business / Goddamn, she murdered everybody and I was her witness
    Six-inch heels, she walked in the club like nobody’s business / Goddamn, she murdered everybody and I was her witness

    Remember, this person was very tall, in black jeans. A knitted top, not a hoodie, but hooded. Their shoes were royal, fit for the queen’s court: four-inch silver rhinestoned stilettos on a gender queer person whose pronoun I did not manage to get, so I’m calling them “they.” They leaned down and told us, conspiratorially: good shoes are about “self-care.”

    Which, as you know, is something I agree with deeply.

    Shoes are about treating yourself, and self-care. Shoes are also about self-inflicted and exquisite pain. I wanted to ask everyone at that concert about their amazing over-the-top shoes — stacked wooden-heeled mules, lace-up strappy knee-highs in gold, over-the-knee crumpled suede Robin Hood numbers in black,pink booties with perspex spikes. What did those shoes mean to each of them, about indulgence and sacrifice and identity, and pain?

     Sarah: It’s funny how our love of Beyoncé attaches to our own objects: shoes, t-shirts, novelty cocktails, tote bags. Being a fan is about experiencing an outsized kind of love, a love that’s almost as much about the (often shared) experience of loving as it is about the object itself. So I guess it makes sense that our love spills outwards, onto memorabilia, onto these totems or icons of our affection.  And it makes sense, too, that this happens so profoundly with Beyoncé, who has made her own self-making central to her appeal.  Does it put her in a too-small box to say that her art is about the process of finding yourself to be worthy of your own creative admiration? A (male) friend once said to me, “Rihanna sings for men, Beyoncé always sings for other women,” and this struck me then as both an evocative and somewhat unfair account of Rihanna and an interesting account of the space Beyoncé has carved out for herself. Part of being a fan of Beyoncé, one way to demonstrate the intensity of your feeling, is by being committed to your own self-making. She asks us to show up for ourselves.

    But it’s hard to know how to do that. Michelle, the shoes I wore to this concert were these 90s throw back purple combat boots I got this year for Christmas.  When we asked the people in line for drinks to let us take a picture, I did not put my foot in the frame. I love the exquisite torture of extravagant shoes! But my back is out, and I was being practical. What kind of self care is it to wear shoes that you don’t feel call attention to yourself? Heels are about self-care, but they’re also often tied up in how you relate to other women.  You and I have both been judged by other women for our high heels. Does it seem true that often when you see groups of women, they wear shoes of the same height? Women perform their womanhood with their feet, and it can be hard for some women to not feel that your performance is about them.

    Michelle: Yes, this is part of what was so wonderful about Silver Stiletto’s conspiratorial tone, it dismantled any girl-on-girl  judginess. We were showing up for ourselves, in different shoes, together. I think that’s interesting about Rihanna. I have more to say about Rihanna! But for now, I’ll just say I’m really bummed you didn’t put your purple combat boots in the picture. That is a loss.

    Sarah: So dumb! I’m not going to beat myself up for it; let’s just flag it as a moment indicating some places I still don’t show up for myself.  But to the point: I feel that it’s these questions Beyoncé’s performance helps us navigate. Navigate by getting dressed up, singing along, and dancing?

    Michelle: In the song, “Six Inch,” she says “she work for the money.” We know what kind of work the song and the clear lucite of perspex heels refer to. We all want to wear the heels in the powerful way, we want the six-inches to be about self-care, but we also know what kind of work they get associated with. You can dance in shoes that don’t flex, but it’s hard to run and walk in them. In “Countdown,” Beyoncé sang: “All up in the kitchen in my heels, dinner time.” Was that about self-care? Or was that feminized sacrifice to the male gaze? And then the next time she sang about heels, they also maybe make her want to murder someone?

    Beyoncé and her fans clearly totally get this complexity.

    Sarah: Yes, as you say, shoes are both the fact and the symbol of mobility. One thing I took from this concert, watching Beyoncé cycle through a series of heels and over-the-knee boots, is that it may be true that associating our high heels with our own power is a fucked up complicity with the way that patriarchy wants to break our bodies, cripple us, slow us down, but that realizing that doesn’t lead you to any necessary course of action. If I recognize that high heels, or toe shoes to take another example, are signs of the patriarchy, must I also decide I don’t like the pitch of my body, balanced in heels? No. It feels fucking good! Watching Beyoncé march, I had the thought: “the only way out (of patriarchy) is through.” And then that was also wrong: “there is no out, here we are in this shit show, we all deserve these costume changes.”

    Michelle: We deserve all of our costume changes! She wore so many shoes, and so few pants! So fucking good!

    Also, we had to hike out in our murderous heels. The Uber flags were over-run. A straight man in a button-down shirt was yelling into his phone, “What do you mean you can’t see me, I’m the only MAN here.” We hiked down out of the stadium towards the grounds of the Barlow Respiratory hospital, but then, at the bottom of the hill, it became clear that there was no phone service in the park and no rides for at least a mile. I swear I saw the woman with the pink booties, carrying her shoes. And remember, we saw another woman starting up the hill in fluffy green slippers? I was so happy about the way it felt to take off my strappy black heels and walk barefoot to Echo Park Avenue. The cool crunch of shatter-proof glass and asphalt between my toes.  Me and all those other ladies, barefoot, together.

    Sarah: That is such a joyful pleasure! Even blisters can be such a pleasure, depending on what you have to do the next day! I often enjoy the surface woe of blisters, how you have to tend to them and be conscious of them. But I don’t fuck around with lower lumbar pain, which is what let me to my combat boots that night.  I think there is some metaphor here for different kinds of damage, and what they mean to us.

    Which, let’s just note: Beyoncé is a pop star, she makes joyful music! But this was a tour that was very much about being damaged: by love, by structural racism, by misogyny, by the way those things cannot be separated. It’s about being knocked down and also about getting down. I do not remember ever being in a crowd full of more joyful women! Even in the never ending drink line, nothing but good feeling! The women in front of us, younger than us, twerking, taking pictures of each other, talking about their children.  “I ain’t sorry!” proclaimed one woman’s self-made t-shirt.  Michelle: that woman was not sorry.

    Michelle: That t-shirt was glorious! Hand-drawn middle fingers UP, in glitter pen!! And the woman twerking wore a perfect off-the-shoulder cocktail dress in bright yellow Lemonade fabric. Also, I know you don’t love this song, but did you see, in front of us, maybe two rows ahead, the two girls of about thirteen in long hair and ponytails? I was very in love with them, especially during “Daddy Lessons.” One was swimming in a Formation Tour starter jacket. They knew every lyric, except for one or two early Destiny’s Child songs, because these girls were too young to remember Destiny’s Child. But for every song on Formation, they were on their feet. For “Daddy Lessons,” they had synchronized dance moves: wiping away each other’s tears for when “he told me not to cry,” and gun fingers for “my daddy said shoot.” When they got really excited, on the chorus, they interlaced their fingers and jumped up and down.

    There were so many wonderful multi-gendered but predominantly feminine groups: a mixed race mother and daughter team behind us, a pair of Japanese nationals to our right, way in front, a small group clustered around a stunning drag queen in a cream-colored bodysuit. But Sarah, I don’t want anyone to think of these people as cute. I don’t want anyone to think the Beyoncé show was like a slumber party. Or a bachelorette party. Or god forbid, a moms night out. Those girls in front of us were cementing a friendship and a stance towards the world, “watch out for your sister” but also “daddy made a soldier out of me,” for better or for worse.  How amazing to witness it.

    Sarah: A few years ago I saw The Breeders at a music festival, performing all of Last Splash. The festival took place in the LA “cornfields,” maybe a mile from Dodger Stadium where we saw Beyoncé play. At the first chaotic sound that opens “Cannonball,” women from all over the fields surged forward, pressed closer, rushing at the noise made by these fifty-something women in t-shirts, with softening necks and incredibly strong arms. My friends and I were jostled by the radiant masses of teenagers, twenty-somethings: they knew all the words! KIM DEAL! All of us loved her, and in the way that we loved her, together, we were also loving our own roughness, our unformedness. The Breeders’ unformedness too, up there on the stage, in midlife. They had made something perfect, thirty years before! And then a lot of shit happened, for all of them and for all of us and all these teenagers in the crowd hadn’t even been born, and yet all of us could agree on that song. It felt to me at that crazy crowd rush moment like everything that was possible for me the first time I heard “Cannonball,” when I was 17, was still possible: that the course of womanhood is long and variable and that I didn’t need to cast off my youth, its tastes and imperfections, to enjoy myself now or to be eager for where I was going. It’s a hard thing at 40, to forgive yourself for who you used to be.  That was a moment that sort of taught me how.

    The intergenerational appeal of this Beyoncé show was different, maybe partly because of the pop idiom she represents, but mostly because my own youth isn’t tied up with her. Her rise came at the time when I was most abstracted from popular music — college boyfriend guitar noodling; grad school; baby — and it was really only “Single Ladies” that made me sit up and pay attention to the amazing thing that was going on. Sometimes I’m sorry that my students, the young women I’m around, don’t have the music of the 90s around them: looking at them makes me grateful to have become a woman at a time when women didn’t feel like their noises needed to be pretty. (Pretty is great, I actually really value pretty, but as siren-voiced Beyoncé would be the first to tell us: pretty hurts). But I’m also aware that there was not, when I was young, a pop icon who could synthesize beauty, politics, dance, practice, womanhood, in the way that Beyoncé can. Being at this concert was less about solidifying my relationship with my own youth, than with being so grateful that I have all these young women — and Beyoncé is younger than us, too — to learn from.

    Michelle: I am fully prepared to love Kim Deal’s strong arms, and still learning to forgive myself for who I used to be. The Pixies are the perfect symbol of music I have always liked openly while secretly blasting “Independent Women” alone in my car! My heart has always been more pop than punk. Pop, with all its conflicted gender dynamics, still provides me with a lot of profound pleasure, much of it still alone in my car, now sometimes with my daughters. Going to see Beyoncé as a grown woman was part of my very late stage reclamation of an unashamed pop self. I felt like if I missed Beyoncé I would not only be missing an important moment in politics and pop culture but also betraying my lifelong fealty to Prince.

    I know that you know that Beyoncé sang “The Beautiful Ones” in tribute to him at an earlier Formation show. I know this because my friend sent me a clip, and I made you watch it a bunch of times.

    I think I found it over-powering when Beyoncé called herself “grown,” after all those pictures of Jay Z and Blue Ivy, because we are also grown. Not old, but grown. It was a realization of how much I have grown up with her music. Her transition from the African dance-influenced Freedom into Destiny’s Child’s Survivor was an intersectional moment of glory!  I am so grateful for her wondrous late stage reclamation of an unashamed politicized and powerful lady self.

    Sarah: One thing that really struck both of us was the beautiful wisdom of her set list: the way she would transform a song from her earlier career by playing it after a song from Lemonade. Two moments stand out: how she moved from “Hold Up,” Lemonade’s most fucked up adultary anthem, to “Countdown,” a tribute to a perfect kind of love that seems so much richer once you’ve been through “Hold Up’s” car-smashing intensity. And then, at the end, moving from “Freedom” to “Survivor.” Both of these song sequences left me gobsmacked. “Freedom” was the song I expected to be the showstopper, and the tour reprised her barefoot, baptismal performance with Kendrick Lamar at this year’s BET awards, including the intensely cathartic water splashing. It’s a song that captures “grown” Beyoncé: at the peak of her vocal ability, able to synthesize personal hardship with political vision. When you listen to “Freedom,” you think, damn, this woman has come a long way. You think: fuck yeah.

    So how bold of her, how wise, to go from the peak of where she is now backwards, to reclaim the song that really first made her a star. “Survivor” is a great pop song, for sure, but it’s no insult to the song to point out that she made it when it was basically a child, when she had not yet experienced what a grown woman in fact needs to survive. By playing “Survivor” after “Freedom,” the penultimate song of her show, she honors her own childhood, her own girlhood. As a child, she had the capacity to recognize what she would eventually need: she could craft a narrative that, as a grown woman, she would be able to fully inhabit. I feel like this is what’s so great about what Beyoncé is doing right now: she’s figuring out how to be a woman without casting any disparagement on girls, and that is such a rare thing. Our culture appreciates girls but doesn’t respect them; we respect moms but pigeonhole them in their motherhood; women we have no idea what to do with. How fucking beautiful, to live at a time when Beyoncé is willing to chart a path for us of putting all these pieces together.  I hate the phrase “having it all” so let’s just say: Beyoncé is carving out a space to be, as a human, in her body, not (as no one ever is) complete, but instead something better: real.

    Michelle: I think she may also have had to survive some stuff pretty young. But yes: fuck having it all. Instead, let us all find redemption in Beyoncé, grown, taking a knee to sing “Halo” in the shallow waters.

    Remember when Beyoncé gave the mic at one point to a woman in the front row? “I’d rather be crazy,” she shouted, making clear, at the very least, that the mic was live. The LA Times reporter who saw the show wrote that she “widened her eyes in mock terror, as though she’d been frightened by the fan’s intensity.”

    Of course, we were not close enough to see the queen’s face, in that moment, but that’s not how I read that moment. I don’t think you can scare her, now. I’ll always remember how vulnerable her face looked, plastered across the mega-screens, at the end of the concert. She is not about judging the intense emotion that her album inspires as some girl being scary. The whole show was about sisters owning themselves and their lives, not throwing shade.

    How do we write about not only our own emotions, but about groups of women, having emotions and wearing heels, together? It’s like we don’t have the words. I’d rather be crazy. Beyoncé may have looked stunned by what she has unleashed, but not frightened. Maybe taken aback, and honored.

    Also, regarding Becky with the good hair, which has been stuck in my head since I left the stadium: Beyoncé had AMAZING hair, for this concert, but it was definitely verging on blonde, held aloft for the entire show by what must have been a small army of industrial fans. A number of African American bloggers and podcasters have gone deep on the significance of the “good hair” line for that community. I look forward to many more years of speculation and analysis about “Becky.” I wonder whether one aspect of it is that “Becky” was Beyoncé’s translation of her own name, into white-person-speak. So the line is about some other girl, but also about a version of herself, and self-making. Hair, like high heels, can be a place where we can recognize our complicity with patriarchal or racialized expectations—but that still doesn’t tell you how to do your hair. So you might as well wear it like THIS.

    Beyoncé had very, very good hair, on the Formation Tour. All aspects of her looked very amazing. Like, historically, importantly, exquisite joy and pain amazing.

    Sarah: Amazing. Seeing Beyoncé two years ago in the “Love on the Run” tour with JayZ was phenomenal; it felt like you were watching the two most talented people in the world preach to you about the importance of Black Love in a time of structural racism, and like everyone not there was engaged in some less important activity, with less talented people, living some half-ass version of life. This show was different, though not lesser. This show, the energy was more dispersed, more democratic, spread out amongst us all. For me, a key moment was her acapella version of “Love on Top,” a song I like to play in the mornings: it’s a song with about seventeen key changes, built to show off an incredible singer’s range.  But Beyoncé didn’t really sing it: she made us sing it.  “Come on baby,” we sang to her, but also to each other, “it’s you.”

    [All together now!] I’m so glad we saw this concert together!!

    Michelle and Sarah in the crowd