Beyoncé, Pop's Warrior Queen, Is Sweaty and Transcendent at the Rose Bowl

Beyonce's Formation Tour at the Rose BowlEXPAND
Beyonce's Formation Tour at the Rose Bowl
Photo by Eve Barlow

Beyoncé, Formation World Tour
The Rose Bowl
May 14, 2016

Two of the Kardashians (I don't know which ones, I'm no expert) are sitting behind me at Beyoncé's show tonight and they're on their iPhones the whole time texting. Who knows to whom. Maybe it's brother-in-law Kanye West, who's perhaps chilling on a couch somewhere with pal Jay Z, trying to find out exactly how angry/happy/smug Bey's face is (it's overjoyed) when she twice delivers her most cutting line ("Better call Becky with the good hair" on the track "Sorry") in front of 90,000 people at the Rose Bowl.

That's the line that set the entire width of the Internet alight a few weeks ago when she surprise-dropped her latest, infidelity-themed album, Lemonade. Outside the Rose Bowl, it's a circus of "Forgive Jay Z" placards held up by Hova apologists with megaphones and T-shirt vendors making the most of the catchiest controversial lyrics. (By the way, the Kardashians leave before Beyoncé even gets to "Bootylicious." While this review is here to judge Beyoncé, I implore you to judge them. Judge them more.)

Something that's often said about major superstars who defy the abilities of mortals is that they "make it all look so easy." Take Michael Jackson moonwalking, for instance. He pioneered a previously unfathomable dance trick with a breezy, casual air you might struggle to muster when simply vacuuming the living room. But with Lemonade, and here tonight at the Rose Bowl, Beyoncé has not made the business of being Beyoncé look remotely breezy. Quite the opposite. All-singing, all-dancing, all-fiery-gazing Beyoncé makes it look like war, because Beyoncé is a warrior. Think of this venue as her gladiatorial arena, where she's descended to seek bloody retribution for her own shit, and for your shit (she's motherly like that). She's also come for your children's future shit and for your children's children's future future shit — because Bey knows it's not gonna end, and unlike most pop stars who sell a lot of records but don't actually do anything that important, she's decided to search for a deeper purpose to her pop stardom. Beyonce wants to make a difference. “Suck on my balls,” she snarls on "Sorry," with a Yoncé smile.

Tonight marks the eighth show of the Formation World Tour, which is steeped in Lemonade's themes of black power, female pride, love, remorse and anger. Yet its overarching message is simple and borrowed from Jay Z's grandmother Hattie: I was given lemons and I made lemonade.

“The most important relationship is the one you have with yourself,” Beyoncé tells the crowd. “Every other relationship is a bonus.” The message she preaches is one of turning the trials of life into sweet success, propelled by your own self-worth, which she delivers from a position of strength: in the first of several leotards. In leotards Beyoncé not only has an effective uniform allowing her to get to work, she appears totally exposed and flawless. In her words — she woke up like this, and there's no denying the brute athleticism, sensuality and dominance of her physique as she throws herself into countless iconic choreographed routines.

It does chip away at your own self-worth somewhat when you realize you probably couldn't handle what she's doing with one limb, never mind four. On a serious note, the backstory of Lemonade is never far from your thoughts. “What a wicked way to treat the girl that loves you,” she sings on "Hold Up." I mean, really, how could anyone belittle The Bey?

Beyonce, seen here in 2013 on her Mrs. Carter Show tour
Beyonce, seen here in 2013 on her Mrs. Carter Show tour

Despite her omnipresence as a pop icon, Beyoncé has always seems hushed, subtle, in control. You get the impression she's quiet company. Perhaps more of a listener, a sponge, always striving for perfection. Perhaps she's just less-is-more. A case of this tonight is her costume-change-allowing tribute to Prince. The stage is simply a purple screen. "Purple Rain" blasts into the stadium. The torches of 90,000 iPhones rise up into the air and Prince's spirit touches down from heaven. It's typical Beyoncé: Without saying a word, or even being present, she has us all captivated. Many cry.

On this stage, Beyoncé has a controlled environment in which to exorcise her demons in the most powerful way, by turning them into a glorious pop spectacle. The opening empowerment anthems of "Formation" and "Run the World (Girls)" feature the support of her gang of back-up dancers and her all-female band. It's Bey's own fiercely independent stance, however, that's always most arresting. Just her on a stage as wide as the Ganges, sometimes lying down or kneeling, belting out the powerhouse vocals of "Halo" or "Love on Top" as if they're the last declarations of love she can utter.

In such moments, you're prepared to accept that Beyoncé is an alien being, absolutely not composed of the same malfunctioning bodily materials as you and I. But then she begins to reflect on the past 20 years, bringing up childhood performance footage, smashing through back-catalog classics such as "Countdown"and "Independent Women," reminding you that this is all about one person's path to victory, despite the odds. It's the defiance and physical exertion of the show that transcends the usual frolics of pop escapist entertainment, resulting in a two-hour call to arms to realize your true potential, without saying anything nearly as cheesy.

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The emotional climax comes with "Freedom," which is spliced with Destiny's Child's "Survivor." It sees the world's biggest female superstar dancing barefoot, while treading in a pool of water, grimacing with each and every pulse of her body. “I'ma keep running 'cause a winner don't quit on themselves,” she hollers, stomping through puddles with elegant rebellion, like her whole career has been a march toward this high watermark.

Beyoncé would have you believe that being a pop star is not a walk in the park. “Celebrate your life tonight,” she says. Her tights are now so worn they're laddered all the way to her backside. Her toenails, painted pink, are chipped. Her face is covered in sweat. Beyoncé embraces the wear for us because she can't afford to be bitter. Beyoncé is better.

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