On June 7th, at the Citified show of Beyoncé’s Formation Tour, a tall white box stood prominently on stage. Flanked by two flat screens tilted toward the sides of the audience, the box’s function was a mystery until the start of the show. In the moments before Beyoncé even stepped out on stage, the box began to turn and each side flashed a different image of Beyoncé with an orchid erupting from her mouth. The sides of the box , it turns out, were each screens in themselves. As the concert got underway each side showed unique images visible only to people with specific vantage point. Unsurprisingly, the visuals and screens were an integral part of the show. Both the side screens and box sides, not only showed what was happening on stage, but elevated them with graphics, backgrounds, and effects. The scope of the screens and the intricacy of the visuals made it advantageous to sit farther back, in order to fully take in what was happening. The visuals were Beyoncé’s way of making sure that anyone, in any seat got their money’s worth. The people up front got the chance to see Beyoncé up close, the people on the sides saw some exclusive images, and the people in the back got to drink in the killer visuals.
One of Beyoncé’s most remarkable traits is her ability to innovate. Be it through the integration of visuals with her music or her sparse album promotion, Beyoncé takes nothing in the music industry for granted. Where most artists see rules, she only sees guidelines that can be broken and bent for the purpose of elevating the public’s experience of her music. Her use of screens in the Formation tour is a perfect example of that. Here, she took a practical tool of projection and transformed it into a platform for creativity, for art.
In his piece for The New Yorker on The Formation Tour critic Hilton Als commented on Beyoncé’s stardom and artistic development, comparing her to singer Erykah Badu.
Badu has worked to form herself as an artist, even when it has meant jeopardizing her popularity… Beyoncé, however, would never risk being unpopular; she wouldn’t know what the world was without her star hovering above it…
Al’s observation points out the tension between Beyoncé’s popularity and artistic vision. Despite her innovation and increasing authenticity, Beyoncé hasn’t forgotten how to please the public and remain relevant. Consideration of the consumer in the artists process may seem sacrilegious. People tend to hesitate calling things with mass appeal “art” because, for some, art is inherently exclusive. Calling something art would imply that it possesses a sophistication that is beyond that of the public. Yet art cannot exist without acknowledging the consumer. To deny art this freedom would confine its creation manifestations of unedited consciousness, but that is not all art. Art can be groomed with intention to capture certain audiences. Whether that audience is the intelligentsia or the masses, shouldn’t cheapen the cultural and creative value of a piece.
That being said, Beyoncé’s ability to create her art is supported by pre-existing popularity, giving her the financial resources and dedicated fan-base that allowed for her to opt out of promoting her album and build the giant box for her Formation Tour. In other words, Beyoncé has managed to get away with a lot of this stuff is because she is Beyoncé. And Beyoncé she will stay it seems. Even in recent years, as we watched Beyoncé’s artistic arc unfurl, she has never strayed too far from her public image. Rather than a departure, her primary focus has been clarifying our understanding of Beyoncé as a cultural figure by adding new dimensions to herself by employing more raw and gritty lyrics. An interesting question to posit, then, would be whether Beyoncé would ever risk her popularity if her artistic vision ever pulled her toward a transformative, Dylan-gone-electric style shift? What would that even look like? As it always seems to be with Beyoncé, the question du jour seems to be: where will she go from here?
Throughout the concert, bright rectangles of iPhone screens appeared across the dark stadium. Each one no doubt, chronicling the Beyoncé experience for Snapchat, Instagram, or Facebook. My phone sat temptingly in my backpack, and during the wait before the concert started I indulged myself by taking a couple photos of the unlit stage and adding them to my snap story with captions like “Ready 4 U Yoncé.” That’s it, I told myself. No more after the show starts.
I’m generally wary of using social media at concerts because I’m afraid that if I get too attached to documenting it, I’ll just end up watching it through my phone and miss the experience of actually being there. However, this fear is countered by my fear that simply “being in the moment” won’t be enough to leave me with real memories. Concerts are the kinds of unique experiences that you want to hang on to, that you wish you could relive and accurately replay at will like a scene in a movie. Especially at great concerts, I know that I won’t be able to remember everything I enjoyed or found moving because things are happening so fast and changing so frequently, that moments are pushed out of my head by the next one, before they have a chance to truly settle in. My impulse to grab my phone, open up the camera app, and never let go comes from a desire to remember; This evidence on my phone will stymie the avalanche of memories slipping through my fingers by giving myself something to hold on to when I’m back in bed and the concert becomes a giant blur.
I bring up social media in this post because about a quarter of the way through the Beyoncé show I had a major revelation about it. The worth of social media as explained by think pieces about “youth” is generally described as either entirely good or entirely bad. As I described in the paragraphs above the reality lies somewhere in the middle. Even the best medicines have side effects, and so do the powers social media. The revelation I had at the Beyoncé show is that social media’s effect on people largely depends on how they use it.
The trigger for this revelation came when Beyoncé gave a short speech to the crowd about overcoming heartbreak and how women are inherently strong, all to make the larger point that at the end of the day the most important relationship we have is with ourselves. She then launched into the empowering track about self love “Me, Myself, and I.” Up until that point I had made good on my promise to stay off social media and my phone had remained untouched in my pocket. Since I didn’t know “Me, Myself, and I” as well as the songs she played earlier, I figured it didn’t matter as much if I was taken out of the moment for a quick minute to record a video. As I opened up Snapchat and uploaded the video to my story, I found myself agonizing over the quality of my video and the number of people who had viewed my story. Did I set the time too long? I wondered, Were people getting bored? Were they watching all my snaps? Or should I just give it more time to acculumate views?
These worries beg the logical question: Why the hell are you freaking out about Snapchat views when Beyoncé is literally right there serenading you with her brilliant vocal chords? Though I wasn’t prepared to admit it at the time, part of my motivation for posting to social media was in part to prove to my followers that I, too do things and have a great life. Social media can be a great way to express your self-worth, but it’s not where you should derive your self-worth from. If you put something out on social media with the intention of proving something about yourself, then you leave your validation up to the reaction of your followers, making yourself vulnerable to insecurity in the process.
The reason for this goes back to exactly what Beyoncé said: The most important relationship you have in your life is the relationship you have with yourself. Part of having a good relationship with yourself means being secure enough to not rely on external influences like social media to define the worth of a moment. If you’re having fun, that’s all that matters whether you are at a Beyoncé concert or at home, eating pizza, and watching South Park.