There’s one thing to be said for HBO’s 24/7 marathon presentation of Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s On the Run concert, which I have now seen almost in its entirety (two-and-a-half hours is a lot of ask of a fan, let alone a non-fan): it’s (almost) made a Beyoncé and Jay-Z fan out of this middle-aged half-Jewish gay white man from Long Island. Almost.
The first thing that needs to be said about this concert is that the production values are spectacular. Beyoncé and Jay-Z obviously spared no expense in mounting this tour, from video and lighting to dancers, backup singers and band. But those things are available to any artist who has achieved a certain level of success. (An instructive documentary on this subject is Who the F**k is Arthur Fogel, about the concert promoter of such artists as the Rolling Stones, Madonna, the Police, and Guns 'N Roses.)
But then you have to look past the production values to the actual musical talent (or lack thereof) of Beyoncé and Jay-Z. And that’s where I run into some problems.
I’ve always admired the virtuosity of Beyoncé’s voice, but some of her songs sound like she’s performing vocal scales: either they don’t have any hooks or it’s just one long chorus (i.e., “Love on Top”). She’s just trying to impress you with her octave range.
I think a lot of Beyoncé’s appeal has to do what I call The Cult of the Diva: the fascination among gay men for powerful women who behave in a dramatic fashion and/or seem larger than life.
For me the high point of the show was a song called “Resentment,” about a lover’s (Jay-Z’s?) infidelity. Again, this is not exactly the kind of song whose melody you’ll be whistling after you leave the show, it’s more like a dramatic monologue. And it’s here that Beyoncé goes into full diva mode, as she literally brushes her female competition off her shoulder like so much dandruff and delivers such lines as “She ain’t even half of me/That bitch will never be.”
This is the kind of stuff that typically drives gay men wild. It’s like watching a woman doing an impersonation of a drag queen (which, of course, is a man doing an impersonation of a woman).
Then there’s Jay-Z. This is the part of the show where I would normally go to the bathroom and/or get a drink.
The problem I have is not so much with Jay-Z, per se, as it is with rap “music” as an art form. (I hesitate to even call it “music” because music is inherently melodic and rap is more about rhythm, or saying words rhythmically to be precise.)
The most successful rap songs usually sample a melodic “hook” from a song such as Chic’s “Good Times” (Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight”) or Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” (Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby”). Occasionally, there may be an original melodic line underneath (Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message”). Or, sometimes, the rhythm itself is catchy in a call-and-response way (Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks”).
Similarly, Jay-Z’s best “songs” sample the work of songwriters like Alicia Keys (“New York State of Mind”) or Alphaville (“Forever Young”). And I’m sure no one was more surprised (or more happy to count their royalties) than Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin when Jay-Z decided to sample one of their songs from the Broadway musical Annie, “It’s a Hard Knock Life.”
OK, so the fact that my rap references are at least 30 years old may mean that I’m not exactly a rap connoisseur, but at least it gives you some idea of where I’m coming from. Hip-hop may have become the dominant force in pop culture, but when I hear lyrics like “H to the izz-O. V to the izz-A” (which even I have to admit is kind of catchy on a strictly rhythmic basis), my reaction is “Whaaaaat?”
But that explains why Jay-Z and Beyoncé can fill a stadium in Paris. Because minorities are the majority. And that’s why middle-aged white guys like me feel left out (unless we pretend we’re from the “’hood”).
It’s interesting, too, to see Beyoncé and Jay-Z appropriating aspects of “white” culture such as Bonnie and Clyde and punk rock. But I guess that means the culture has come full circle.
So when Beyoncé makes her last appearance in a fabulous dress that looks like the American flag (except its colors are black and white instead of red, white, and blue), it makes perfect sense.