If Beyoncé’s fanbase, the Beyhive, is something of a cult, then her live performances are their holy pilgrimage. Although I had been on three previously, in Boston, Amsterdam and London, I felt relieved when she had to cancel her Coachella performances in 2017 due to her pregnancy – there was no way I could afford to get myself to Los Angeles, let alone buy a ticket.
Fellow Beyhivers half-joke that her shows are like going to church, and by the time of her rescheduled Coachella date in 2018 – becoming the first black woman to headline the festival – it felt like the return of the messiah. By some divine miracle, a friend who had an artist performing at Coachella added me to their entourage as a “backing dancer”. The desert air was cool, but there was a hot rising giddiness in the crowd, mixed with musky clouds that some were exhaling. The festival’s proximity to LA’s celebrity bubble gives it a glittery, superficial vibe; everyone thinks they are a star or can at least buy their way into the VIP area. But even the most faux-nonchalant influencer was having their chill eroded by anticipation.
The pressure in the audience burst to the sound of marching drums, as the stage was filled with a complete band, and Beyoncé was revealed on a catwalk with a royal headdress and a long sparkling cape with Queen Nefertiti emblazoned on the back, flanked by furiously fit dancers wearing catsuits featuring imagery of the sphinx. Olivier Rousteing, Balmain’s creative director, later described designing the costumes as “the biggest challenge of my life”– the stage was filled with the most visually rich, symbolic imagery we’d seen since her Superbowl performance two years previously.
She changed into a yellow hoodie with the letters BAK sparkling across her chest, a tribute to the Divine Nine, black fraternities and sororities founded at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in America. By wearing Balmain’s take on the hoodies worn by their members, Beyoncé was centring a part of African-American culture not often seen in the mainstream. Every detail, more than just a random aesthetic choice, dripped in meaning.
She teamed the hoodie with denim hotpants, evocative of the iconic video to her 2003 breakthrough solo hit Crazy in Love, the opening song on the soundtrack to the millennial woman’s journey from girlhood, and first track to the show. Performing Drunk in Love, Beyoncé towered above the crowd on a contraption that looked like a ladder to heaven, and it really did feel like a spiritual experience. She looked like an angel, and the music itself (later released as a live album) felt celestial. Her entire discography was reworked with live instrumentation, and enhancing the jazz tones via the brass gave it a timeless feel. It felt like a richer, more unified body of work, the ultimate…