People dismayed by Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016 got what they wanted last week when Beyoncé took the stage at the Coachella music festival in California: a rich woman flanked by men in uniform and exploding rockets, singing the praises of “leaning in”, diversity and sexual freedom. As an image of imperial neoliberalism – that borderless, business-friendly ideology shared by centre left and right – it was unequalled.
“My persuasion can build a nation,” she sang, “Endless power!” Accompaniment by what looked like a historically black college marching band was meant to show Beyoncé’s radicalism, but even a member of the Republican Study Committee could get down to lyrics such as “I dream it, I work hard, I grind ’til I own it.” Then there was the recording of the novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie lamenting the fact that girls are taught to aspire to marriage, rather than compete for jobs – feminism as the handmaid of capital.
Critics hailed Beyoncé’s headline appearance at Coachella – the first by a black woman – as historic. The New York Times said, “There’s not likely to be a more meaningful, absorbing, forceful and radical performance by an American musician this year, or any year soon,” and suggested that Beyoncé should be given the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The Atlantic compared the concert to a Nazi rally as filmed by Leni Riefenstahl – but still cheered the spectacle, because Beyoncé “channels the dynamism of mass movement to make statements that are, relentlessly, democratising”.
I’m not sure “relentlessly democratising” is the description I’d choose for someone known as Queen Bey. But it is easy to see why people revere her royal highness. Is there a more wonderfully sad pop song in the last 10 years than XO? A more delightful description of marriage than Countdown? Compared to the pale, mewling dauphins of twee, Bey is a queen indeed.
Still, it is illuminating to compare her performance to the music festivals of yore. Woodstock opened with Richie Havens’s improvised performance of Freedom and closed with Jimi Hendrix’s noodling national anthem. Both expressed a sense that liberation was found in individual challenges to authority. Now that the counterculture has gone mainstream, liberation is achieved by conforming to the commands of the new authorities. Cops march in the gay pride parade and suits issue HR directives on diversity.
Beyonce’s brand of lockstep sexiness is the artistic expression of conformist liberation. Rather than an individual improvising on stage, she is the leader of phalanxes in freakum dress uniform, backed by a marching band. It is amazing how many of her lyrics take the form of commands – “Bow down bitches, bow bow down bitches” or “OK ladies, now let’s get in formation.” Freedom is now enforced.
Martin Luther King warned his congregation about this kind of thing in the sermon that predicted his death: “There is deep down within all of us an instinct. It’s a kind of drum major instinct – a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first.” It makes us want to display wealth, join fraternities, subdue enemies – all the things in which Beyoncé exults. Against the demonic vices of envy and pride, King preached Christian humility.
In fairness, Beyoncé is merely giving us what we want. There is something typically American in the Atlantic’s description of how “the hundreds in her Coachella bleachers hit their marks impeccably, echoing or complementing their leader’s every shimmy and twerk … a teeming mass, bobbing each to their own rhythm, individuals together”. E pluribus unum.
In The City of God, Augustine offers a sketch of late-imperial decadence that reads like a description of Beyoncé’s set: “Let the people applaud … those who provide them with pleasure,” he wrote. “Let there be everywhere heard the rustling of dancers, the loud, immodest laughter of the theatre; let a succession of the most cruel and the most voluptuous pleasures maintain a perpetual excitement.” Augustine detested these scenes for expressing a libertine ethic of consent: “Let everyone with impunity do what he will in company with his own family, and with those who willingly join him.”
Augustine knew what the response would be to those who dared object: “If such happiness is distasteful to any, let him be branded as a public enemy; and if any attempt to modify or put an end to it, let him be silenced, banished, put an end to.” Perhaps that is why the reviews of Beyoncé’s Coachella set have been so unanimous, so uncritical – – forgiving even her fascist aesthetics.
Amid the glowing festival reviews, one report stood out. Vera Papisova of Teen Vogue interviewed 54 women, all of whom had been harassed or assaulted during the festival. (In 2015, one man infamously wore to Coachella a T-shirt that read: “Eat. Sleep. Rape. Repeat.”) Papisova herself was groped 22 times during the 10 hours she spent at the site. It is grim to contemplate how many assaults occurred while Beyoncé was hymning female empowerment. Were there enough to relieve one from the obligation to applaud such displays?
Matthew Schmitz is senior editor at First Things
This article first appeared in the April 27th 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here