So far as one could tell from the Internet, the winner of this year’s Super Bowl was Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter. She spent the game’s halftime show striding around like a Titan, clinching her status as American pop’s reigning megastar; her performance inspired more tweets per minute than the half-hour blackout its energy demands were rumored to have caused. That rumor was a metaphor, naturally—a treat for anyone who wanted to believe Beyoncé’s feminine fierceness was so powerful it literally short-circuited the masculine ritual around it. Football may be America’s sport, but portions of this nation are more invested in the sport of venerating Knowles: comparing her to monarchs and deities (“#PraiseBeysus”), reveling in her superhuman flawlessness, lifting her up to that aspirational folk-heroic realm where we hold Oprah and Michelle Obama. The gushing last Sunday night seemed more appropriate to biblical miracles than showbiz.
Beyoncé is, after all, talented, successful, and fearsomely hardworking; she’s rich, beautiful, and comports herself in a manner that’s about as dignified as pop stars can manage. She’s married a covetable partner, Jay-Z, and birthed the most famous baby in the hemisphere; she even excels at those small things that, much like Michelle Obama’s upper arms, are poor indicators of human value but require impressive effort and attention to detail (e.g., hair, nails, fitness). She and her husband are vaguely chummy with the Obamas, creating a fantasy of black-power-couple synergy that’s irresistibly seductive. We may not actually know much about Beyoncé, but there is a model of perfection we would like to see in her, and the fact that she can sustain that image suggests she has it really, really, rigorously together.
The world has its criticisms of her, of course. You can probably expect to hear them all as we push onward through what has become the Winter of Beyoncé. There was her performance of the national anthem at the president’s second inauguration, followed by hysterical debate over her use of a backing track. (Beyoncé, imperfect?) Her old group, Destiny’s Child, reunited for a single, an album, and a Super Bowl cameo. Pepsi launched a massive advertising endeavor that will put her face on millions of cans. A new solo album is planned for spring. And those who aren’t yet suffering from Beyoncé fatigue may hit their limit February 16, when HBO airs Life Is But a Dream, a documentary about Beyoncé’s life, directed and executive-produced by noted Beyoncé expert Beyoncé.
Life Is But a Dream is many things, including too long. There’s concert footage, studio footage, gestating-a-child footage. A convincing case is made that pop stardom is hard work, a bleary infinity of fixing video cues, reviewing performance tapes, evaluating set design. There are views into Beyoncé’s life that feel personal mostly in the sense that a Tumblr photo blog is personal; you look at images, objects, and settings and triangulate a person who might belong among them. In between, Beyoncé rests barefoot on a couch, being interviewed by a young man whose purpose is to help us forget that Beyoncé created this film and remains wholly in control of its narrative. The main story she’d like to tell is that of her transition from superhuman pop star to independent artist with emotions. “I want to be able to sing about how much I hate myself that day, if that’s how I feel,” she says. “Forget being cool, I’m gonna be honest.” She keeps reminding herself that she’s allowed to have feelings: “I don’t have to kill myself and be so hard on myself”; “If I’m scared, be scared.”
Here, after all, is a criticism one hears of Beyoncé qua pop star: that she is “flawless” in an empty, dutiful way. That beneath the warrior-queen performances and public togetherness, there lies a robot. Or, if not a robot, then something like the kid who’s been so pressured and trained to master a skill that he lacks any kind of feeling beyond his perfect technique—a well-schooled, imposing blank.
But that misses something huge, just as worshipping Beyoncé the Invincible misses something huge: Some of Knowles’s best and richest music is literally about how it feels to be an obsessive overachiever. It’s about the joys of power, discipline, and competition, and about the anxieties that accompany those joys. (And—this being R&B, a genre ferociously attuned to the interplay of power and romance—about the modern predicament of being an obsessively overachieving woman who dates men.) The mood of it isn’t new to pop. Michael Jackson was like this, in an infinitely more damaged way—perfectionist and paranoid. Whitney Houston could be like this; she made vocalizing sound like an athletic endeavor, singing steely songs about achievement and will. But with Beyoncé those things come out from the shadows of subtext and become more feature, less bug.
Consider this highly selective overview of Knowles’s career. As a child, she is, according to family, shy and near friendless—until she starts singing and dancing and a completely different kid emerges. When a child shows interest in something as unlikely as becoming a pop star, or a professional athlete, there are parents who say, “You can do anything you put your mind to,” then resume reading the paper, and there are parents who take the child out in the yard and make him practice jump shots for six hours. Mathew Knowles clearly hails from the latter school. The first thing Beyoncé says in Life Is But a Dream is that her father knew she craved his approval and strategically withheld it to motivate her.
By 9, she’s singing and dancing with the act that will become Destiny’s Child. By 13, she’s doing it in heels. After they lose a Star Search challenge, Mathew quits his job, takes over their management, and doubles down on their focus, running a pop “boot camp.” (In the morning, they jog while singing, ensuring Beyoncé will one day be capable of doing high-impact choreography while belting to the edges of the Superdome.) In an episode of VH1’s Driven, you can watch video of Mathew interrupting a major-label audition to inform the girls that they sound stuffy: “You see the price you’re paying for going swimming the other day?” Either you can enjoy the pool like normal children or you can become pop stars.
They become pop stars. They sing like people who have absorbed a high level of discipline and have no patience for those who haven’t. A high percentage of Destiny’s Child singles are spent telling off anyone who would distract them from their greatness: You sing along and become part of a righteous sisterhood giving the business to cheaters, stalkers, haters, moochers, and assorted trifling good-for-nothings. Another reason they’re relatable: They can sound anxious, defensive, and protective of their status. Two of their biggest hits are inspired by criticism; compare the group’s revolving membership to a reality show and we get “Survivor,” comment on Beyoncé’s weight and we get “Bootylicious.” They gloat over those who doubted them: “Look at us now, see how we live.” How Beyoncé is actually living is like any teenager who’s suffering depression: “I didn’t eat. I stayed in my room.” She’ll eventually reconcile the difference between reality and showbiz by inventing an alter ego, “Sasha Fierce,” to describe the haughty superwoman she becomes onstage.
The launch of her solo career coincides with finding a new romantic partner—future husband Jay-Z, whose voice introduces her first solo single, “Crazy in Love,” from the album Dangerously in Love. The record luxuriates in romance; the production’s slinky and sensual, and the second track even nods to Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby,” history’s ultimate luxuriating-in-the-ecstasies-of-love song. But those titles also suggest that love is dangerous and crazy, a reckless loss of control: “You’re making a fool of me,” she sings. Here’s a perennial topic: What happens when an achievement-driven, independent woman confronts the risks and surrenders of love?
This turns out to be the crux of her next album. B’Day, recorded in a three-week flurry, is criticized for being scattered. It’s the opposite: It’s obsessed with ownership, power, control, and the market values of both goods and people. Literally: “Suga Mama” and “Upgrade U” revel in the singer having the money, power, status, and sexual prowess to give a man anything he could want. “Irreplaceable” warns a man that his value isn’t as high as he imagines—“I could have another you in a minute”—and suggests that everything he owns fits in a single box. “Ring the Alarm” is a panicked song about infidelity, but its chorus focuses on the luxury items at stake. Beyoncé sounds like a superhuman colossus, flexing her muscles and testing the limits of her dominion, working her distinctive voice—her eccentric syncopations and knots of harmony—for all it’s worth. But she also sounds like an empress who’s just heard rumblings of a palace coup.
Then a two-disc set called I Am … Sasha Fierce, the notion being that one disc belongs to Beyoncé, the other to that alter ego. It’d be easy to dismiss Sasha as a hackneyed concept, if we weren’t talking about an artist trained from youth to perform pop’s gestures whether or not they matched her experience—an artist who, like some athletes, claims to leave her own body when performing. When she’s onstage, someone quite different from the careful public Beyoncé emerges, someone campily demonstrative. Between bits of choreography, she’s like a lovable cartoon of someone feeling the spirit in church, bugging her eyes and making sudden, elaborate stank-faces. And when Beyoncé releases an album split into an “I” and a “Sasha,” you can’t help noticing that Sasha sounds like Beyoncé normally does; it’s the “I” that’s different, singing introspective pop-rock ballads with more technical aplomb than spark.
There’s that criticism again. One pithy expression of it comes, aptly enough, from Mary J. Blige. “It’s not like Beyoncé can’t sing,” she tells Women’s Wear Daily. “But what’s missing is the personal. Those girls are groomed to be pop artists, to be perfect, to go to modeling school and learn how to walk and talk. Whereas we had to go through the trenches and get beat up and knocked down by life to learn how to articulate ourselves properly. And there’s no school for that. There’s no school for organic.”
Nobody but nobody (and/or Keyshia Cole) competes with Blige as queen of “organic,” in-the-trenches R&B. But what that quote reveals, mostly, is the gap between the Gen-Xers running nineties music and pop’s modern age, driven by millennials like Beyoncé. The nineties grew skeptical of the formal craft of show business, delighted in dressed-down rawness, quirk, and grit. Pop today seems to share much in common with the generation listening to it: It’s driven, hypercompetent, sensitive to public scrutiny. (Maybe it was overscheduled and helicopter-parented as a child.) It’s obsessed with achievement and esteem and has a fraught, anxious relationship with whatever personal fulfillment is meant to result from them. So what if, in a certain light, Beyoncé’s catalogue offers a rich examination of how it feels when drive and discipline really are your organic personality, and your feelings fight against layers of self-control and pragmatism, and the documentary you make about yourself shows you working hard to relax and experience your own emotions? “Stop pretending that I have it all together,” Beyoncé says in the movie. “I don’t want to never be satisfied. I don’t think that’s a healthy way to live.” What if plenty of today’s young women in particular have reason to relate to that dynamic every bit as strongly as 1992 related to getting beat up in the trenches?
So Life Is But a Dream has Beyoncé, dewy and relaxed on that couch, explaining her transformation. “My goal,” she says, “was independence.” That goal involved severing managerial ties with Mathew Knowles in 2011; she explains that she needed a father, not a manager. (Classily unmentioned here are the child he had outside his marriage, the Knowleses’ divorce, and allegations that he’d mishandled finances.) Cut to Beyoncé singing “Listen,” a song she co-wrote for the Dreamgirls soundtrack: “I’m more than what you made of me / I followed the voice you gave to me / But now I’ve gotta find my own.”
She says she wants to step away from the “crippling” rat race of pop stardom. (“You can’t grow.”) She credits her husband with teaching her “about being an artist—not a musician, but an artist.” The new vision of artistry she lays out is, true to Jay-Z’s Gen-X status and that I Am … disc, mildly conservative: People “don’t make albums” anymore, she says; they “don’t even listen to a body of work.”
It doesn’t typically bode well when someone’s artistic aspiration is to rewind into the past. And yet the album we see her working on in the documentary, 2011’s 4, was a terrific one. A few years ago, Beyoncé “killed” Sasha Fierce—or, rather, reintegrated Sasha, a process I wish Carl Jung were alive to ask her about. And what do you know: The beauty of 4 is how it infuses all the regal, traditionalist balladry of I Am … with the campy theatrics that animate Beyoncé’s stage persona. (See the batty, full-octave whoops on “1+1,” or the giddy chewing on the syllable boof in “Countdown.”) It’s her most cohesive solo album, and maybe her most interesting—piles of quirky sonic ideas integrated into a record about couplehood, the R&B album as screwball romantic comedy. One of Beyoncé’s lines from “Survivor”—“You thought that I’d be stressed without you, but I’m chillin’ ”—used to stick out, mostly because it never felt convincing; her appeal was that of someone who would clearly rather dominate than chill. But the version of her we see lately seems different, a figure with more goofy grace and less of an edgy, striving knot inside.
Still: Given 90 minutes of HBO airtime to sell us any story she wants, she paints a rosy, responsible, carefully composed picture of someone who is, at most, making baby steps toward being less of a perfectionist. The parts of Life Is But a Dream that show us a “real” and “vulnerable” Beyoncé feel like the parts of job interviews where someone’s asked about their greatest weaknesses. Not a thing about it, from its cheery poise to its feminist commitments (“It’s not about equal rights; it’s about how we think”), runs any risk of rejecting the over-the-top hero worship that’s accumulated around her, or her status as an impossible yardstick of fulfillment and achievement. It is, perhaps, bad news for the friend who recently told my wife she found that Super Bowl show a little depressing: “You feel like you’ve got it together, and then you look at her.”
*This article originally appeared in the February 18, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.