Beyoncé Is A Mystery We Can’t Stop Trying To Solve

After all the confessional albums, candid footage, and memeable moments, Beyoncé still feels as distant as ever.

On June 22, a Twitter thread did almost as much as Naomi Campbell’s cellphone attack and Kim Kardashian West’s career arc to highlight the absurd difficulty of working as a celebrity’s personal assistant. The viral post, “Being Beyoncé’s assistant for the day: DON’T GET FIRED THREAD,” is a series of choose-your-own-adventure–style questions that invites users to imagine what it might be like to work for the pop star. Equal parts Seventeen quiz and Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, the game has the felicity of the first and the latter’s escalating stakes: For breakfast, would Beyoncé prefer strawberries and granola, or a five-star buffet? Should she hide out at a hotel to avoid the paparazzi or risk being spotted at a super-secret event at which she’s set to appear?

Creator Landon Rivera told BuzzFeed News that the game was “pretty much divided off common logic and some Beyoncé trivia.” Getting fired in the game would mean getting a shady dismissal from Rivera, but participating lets you psychoanalyze American pop culture’s most mysterious personality. “I hope [Beyoncé] would laugh and not be too offended,” Rivera said of his viral thread. “Especially since I kind of twisted her persona to be a cliché celebrity.”

Rivera’s admission prompts a compelling question: What exactly is Beyoncé’s persona? There are as many answers as there are Bey eras. Badass girl-power advocate? She’s been that. Soul-pop cyborg preempting sorry dudes and their dumb lies? Yep. “Unapologetically black” activist? She’s been that too. Pop perfectionist, R&B torchbearer, conscious recoupler, black Madonna: yes, yes, yes, etc. Maybe she’s still all of those things. But the “common logic” part of Rivera’s statement is so intriguing for what it telegraphs about the public’s perception of Bey.

The fact that Rivera, a Beyoncé fan, edited her persona into that of your standard, paint-by-numbers celeb doesn’t seem all that incongruous given Bey’s public arc over the past few months. In fact, it’s seemed that her persona, which long ago moved beyond “cliché celebrity,” has recently transitioned, via intense public engagement with her image, into the blank-slate status of a cultural demigod. That’s where the irony of “common logic” comes in: Although Rivera’s phrase is predicated on us knowing Beyoncé, the fervid response to candid clips of Bey suggests that we actually don’t. Recently, engaging with Beyoncé’s celebrity outside of that Twitter thread has felt a lot like trying to be her assistant, or at least like trying not to get fired from the pop-cult milieu. You wanna know: What’s she thinking?

What exactly is Beyoncé’s persona? There are as many answers as there are Bey eras. 

A series of recent candid viral videos of Beyoncé have only heightened the public’s obsession with her inscrutability. Consider this viral clip captured during Game 3 of the NBA Finals earlier in June. Sandwiched between her husband, Jay-Z, and Nicole Curran, wife of Golden State Warriors co-owner Joe Lacob, Beyoncé alternates between smiling and frowning as Curran talks over her to Jay Z.

According to Curran, she asked Jay-Z if he wanted a drink, he replied with his order (“vodka soda”), she asked if he wanted lime, all the while inching ever closer into Beyoncé’s personal space. In the midst of Curran’s obnoxious encroachment, in which she is basically bending over the star’s lap, Jay and Bey pause to say hi to someone across the arena. Jay-Z waves at the acquaintance across the hardwood. Bey smiles, and then happily acknowledges the person. (The fact that there’s an offscreen figure eliciting a gleeful response from the couple adds to the clip’s richness, since it adds a contrast to Curran.) After the schmoozing is over, Curran continues to lean in past Beyoncé to confirm Jay’s drink request. A shadow spreads over Bey’s face, she frowns, possibly because of Curran’s interloping, and then not-so-subtly extends her left elbow to create more space between herself and the oblivious woman next to her.

The video prompted intense media attention, with viewers enthusiastically interpreting its meaning. It also triggered the Beyhive’s wrath; in a saga that lasted a couple days, fans spammed Curran’s social media accounts and sent death threats, leading Curran to confess an apparent new understanding of cyberbullying. The fiasco led to Beyoncé’s publicist calling for a detente on Instagram.

The viral assistant thread, the Curran debacle, and the ensuing Beyhive controversy highlight the public’s deep interest in all things Beyoncé, and perhaps more so, our desire to know her. Add the still-mysterious Met Gala elevator footage to that, along with the candid video of her rocking back and forth at another NBA game, and she’s somewhat of a cipher, especially in the Instagram age. This inaccessibility (which she shares with most public figures — it’s impossible to really know a celebrity) contrasts with early tape of her during the Destiny’s Child era being petty and ungenerous and, well, more relatable. Now she lets the Beyhive express all the emotions she can’t, or won’t publicly reveal, or is above now. After all of the confessional albums, documentaries, and groundbreaking live performances, Beyoncé still feels as distant as ever.

It’s true Beyoncé’s not the only huge star the internet tends to watch religiously, but she is one of a select few who performs her celebrity so neutrally and offhandedly, which ironically invites a level of obsessive attention from fans and cultural critics. She’s different from other celebs: Perpetually swathed in eveningwear, Mariah Carey is always on. Drake wears his heart on the sleeves of his OVO Fest hoodies, which makes all the sussing out about what he might be thinking not particularly fun. Kim Kardashian West? Via Keeping Up With the Kardashians, she’s even more on than Mariah. Kanye West vacillates between being ham-fistedly provocative and metabolizing the backlash he receives from his outlandish behavior into content. Nicki Minaj has a radio show, where she dishes on her personal life and occasionally insults other stars, which is something Bey would never do. Taylor Swift, Cardi B, and Ariana Grande publically engage like true millennial entrepreneurs: They communicate with fans and (selectively and strategically) divulge sometimes-prickly interpersonal and/or business-related goings-on through the scrim of social media. Rihanna’s either eager to play into her fame and its unique benefits, such as openly crushing on LeBron James, or subverting her entryway into celebrity music by gleefully posting about her expanding business empire and playfully shutting down fans who demand her next album.

But Beyoncé plays her fame as ambivalently as a repeat pageant queen, and in doing so elevates her celebrity (revering it too much to comment on it all the time) and naturalizes it (grins and bears it, as we see in the candid clips). In doing so, her position becomes lofty and aspirational but not entirely knowable. That approach is rare, and therefore infinitely interesting.

Many other famous people are constantly unpacking what it means to be famous: Kanye’s penchant for contrarianism and direct allusion (think of the “Famous” video), Lady Gaga’s balancing act, which combines an embrace of camp and critique (the album titles, costumes, and starring roles) with straight up fan-service, and Sia’s extreme privacy are all ways of commenting on their celebrity. Where their ongoing articulation of their fame demystifies it, Beyoncé’s neutrality shrouds hers in secrecy and creates a slate for memes and obsessive deconstruction. To be clear, she’s just as likely as her peers to cannibalize her public foibles (“Of course sometimes shit go down / When it’s a billion dollars on an elevator”) and the conspiracy around her own aura (“Y’all haters corny with that Illuminati mess”) in music. But she has been, so far, loath to dramatize or perform it in any easily recognizable way outside of a musical context. Because she resists making her fame a thing, we can’t help but do it for her.

Beyoncé’s current omnipresence was presaged by a different kind of ubiquity almost two decades ago. In E!’s Destiny’s Child Revealed, which aired in 2002, former Vibe editor-in-chief Emil Wilbekin details the group’s overexposure after the massive crossover success of the 2001 album Survivor. “Everywhere you looked there was Destiny’s Child,” he explained. “They’re in the Target ad, they’re preparing for their Christmas album. They’re going to be at the All-Star game ... You just kinda got the sense that it was too much.” In “Beyoncé,” MAD TV’s parody of Destiny’s Child hit “Emotion,” the show flipped the original song’s chorus to poke fun at Beyoncé’s lead-singer image and the attention that came with it: “It’s just Beyoncé who’s taking it over / Caught up in her image, lost in her weave.”

To say that she “took over” her group suggests she didn’t have control from the beginning. Although Beyoncé’s father and former manager Mathew Knowles insists that his daughter never exercised any outsized influence over the group, in footage from the late ’90s and early ’00s, Beyoncé is the group spokesperson and unequivocal leader. She’s funny, a little abrasive, and talks off the cuff.

Beyoncé plays her fame as ambivalently as a repeat pageant queen.

In “Beyoncé’s Shadiest/Diva Moments,” a YouTube compilation of early Destiny’s Child interviews and concert footage, she’s slightly catty, rolling her eyes at the other members of the group, making snarky comments, delivering subtext in side-eyes. That kind of candor seems unlikely today. It’s almost like Bey’s responded to that early overexposure, or the embarrassment of having her impoliteness exposed to the world, by making herself scarce, as you’d expect her to do the more her star rose, anyway. Her romance with Jay-Z, which began in 2001, made her less apt to talk about her personal life. (In a 2003 interview with Oprah, Bey wouldn’t even publicly acknowledge her relationship with the rapper. When they married in April 2008, the couple was mum about the nuptials.) In an interview from May 2003, a month before the release of her debut album Dangerously in Love, Beyoncé spoke in somewhat defeatist terms about her upcoming solo stardom. She told Carina Chocano that she’d rather opt out of the tedious aspects of fame, namely things like interviews: “I always want to make music, sing, and perform on stage ... And, I think, make movies. But everything else that comes with it? If I had a choice, I wouldn’t do it…. Putting out the solo album, there are things you have to do ... because you do!”

As Michael Cragg notes in an essay about 4’s impact on Beyoncé’s reinvention as an artist, the singer’s previous album, 2008’s I Am... Sasha Fierce marked a turn in Bey’s persona:

The existence of Sasha Fierce helped Beyoncé, naturally shy and reserved, become a powerhouse on stage. But it also added another layer of distance between the artist and her audience, at a time when the idea of the aloof, otherworldly megastar was being steadily challenged by tell-all social media and girl-next-door normalcy. Towards the end of the 4 campaign, Beyoncé joined Instagram, giving fans a glimpse into her life.

Enter: 2013’s Life Is But a Dream. A spiritual successor to 2011’s Year of 4 documentary, in which Bey took viewers through the yearlong gestation of her album 4, Life Is But a Dream documents the singer’s preparation for an iconic performance of “Run the World (Girls)” at the 2011 Billboard Music Awards and a four-night run at Revel Atlantic City. The doc, which aired on HBO, is also a True Life–esque vlog of her nascent pregnancy with daughter Blue Ivy and offers an uncharacteristic peek into her family life and marriage with Jay-Z. Suffused with backstage footage, the documentary was immediately compared to Madonna’s Truth or Dare (1991) documentary, but it reminded me more of Janet Jackson circa Control and Rhythm Nation 1814. Both Year of 4 and Life Is But a Dream could be considered elaborations of the “Pleasure Principle” and “Miss You Much” videos, meshing love and desire with perfectionism and hard-body physicality in a way that’s both more audacious and wholesome than Madge’s provocative doc. (Bey’s a noted Janet Jackson fan; there’s cellphone footage of Beyoncé and Kelly Rowland dancing at the star’s Vegas residency this May.) It’s clear that control is at the forefront of her mind in Life Is But a Dream: She details her decision, in 2011, to split with her dad Mathew and become her own manager; we see her editing with her graphics crew and project-managing her team’s Revel prep; she delivers a pointed message about privacy.

When I first started out, there was no internet — people taking pictures of you and putting your personal life, or exploiting your personal life as entertainment. I think people are so brainwashed. You get up in the morning, you click on the computer, you see all these pictures and … all you think of is the picture and the image that you see all day, every day, and you don’t see the human form. And I think when Nina Simone put out music, you loved her voice. That’s what she wanted you to love, that was her instrument. But you didn’t get brainwashed by her day-to-day life, and what her child is wearing, and who she’s dating, and, you know, all the things that really … is not your business. And it shouldn’t influence the way you listen to the voice and the art. But it does.

As she talks, audio of Beyoncé harmonizing in the studio slowly fades in, moving from b-roll status to the main footage, climaxing in a 30-second scene of her singing with the session band. That transition is crucial because she’s telling us how to read her: Music is the A plot, and the only plot. (From there she goes on to describe kicking people out of the studio who distract her from singing.) Though skewered by critics who called the film “equal parts vanity project and calculated act of image control,” and “an infomercial,” and “less a documentary portrait than a micromanaged video diary exploring the R&B superstar’s relationship with her laptop,” it works as a credo of sorts, a key to understanding Beyoncé’s relationship to fame. It also reinforces her approach to privacy, foregrounds her interest in recording herself, and hints at where she would go with her savvy image-crafting: more event television.

In a 2013 GQ cover story of the star, Amy Wallace described what she called “the official Beyoncé archive,” a high-tech “temperature-controlled digital-storage facility that contains virtually every existing photograph of her ... every interview she’s ever done; every video of every show she’s ever performed; every diary entry she’s ever recorded while looking into the unblinking eye of her laptop.” All of it, the archive, the “visual director” she hired in 2005, who “has shot practically her every waking moment, up to sixteen hours a day,” is an obvious attempt to take back some of her agency, not unlike celebs who confront paparazzi by taking pictures of them. Apparently the Bey archive is not one-way — it’s “rigged with a camera and microphone that is capturing not just her every utterance but yours as well.” Wallace puts a fine point on the implication: “These are the ground rules: Before you get to see Beyoncé, you must first agree to live forever in her archive, too.”

As the music-first iconography ramped up and the Beyoncé archive hummed with new images and video footage, the private dispatches petered out. Beyoncé’s image as a girl-power activist (circa 4) and sex-positive feminist (2013’s eponymous album) were prioritized, and there was less room, and less fodder, for a discussion of her personal life. It wasn’t until the elevator incident during 2014’s Met Gala that any internal discord in the Knowles–Carter clan made its way public. The silent footage of Solange Knowles kicking and slapping Jay-Z in an elevator at New York’s Standard hotel as Beyoncé’s bodyguard Julius tries to keep the peace (and protect Beyoncé most of all) was a big pop culture story when it was leaked in May 2014, spawning conspiracy theories and all kinds of super-close reads. Years later, both Beyoncé and Jay-Z referenced the incident in songs. In 2018, Mathew Knowles told Wendy Williams that his daughters’ responses in the Standard hotel elevator felt appropriate given their personalities. Where Solange’s behavior on the elevator tape speaks to her unpredictable, “firecracker” sensibility, he explained, “Beyoncé would be in the corner quiet,” avoiding the drama.

After the elevator footage leaked, Beyoncé and Jay-Z used that fiasco and the turmoil of their private lives for a series of semiautobiographical musical works. There was Lemonade (2016), a palimpsest of Beyoncé’s heartbreak and allusions to both familial and historical depictions of black womanhood. That album was followed by Jay-Z’s 2017 album 4:44, which charted his redemption, and then their shared album Everything Is Love, a sometimes-cloying record that sees the couple reconciled and love-happy, repurposing their hardships in song. On the heels of that trifecta came Beyoncé’s 2018 Vogue cover story, which is an article composed of quotes Bey gave to a journalist. In the Vogue piece, Beyoncé walks back some of her early appraisals of the internet, saying, “The beauty of social media is it’s completely democratic. Everyone has a say. Everyone’s voice counts, and everyone has a chance to paint the world from their own perspective.”

That vocal democracy has gone into overdrive. Months after the elevator incident, a November 2014 video of Beyoncé swaying at an NBA game after an apparent squabble with Jay-Z gained currency, as did a candid photo of Beyoncé seemingly looking over Jay-Z’s shoulder at his phone. (Another fascinating part of the crowdsourced component of these clips is the process by which certain ones become memes, and how competing imagery can nullify or counteract the established viral narrative. This video, from the same game, shows Beyoncé and Jay-Z sharing a pretzel, as lovey-dovey as can be.) After the elevator incident, Beyoncé transitioned back into more tightly controlling her visual image: There was Lemonade’s visual album, which aired on HBO in 2016, the public debut of her twins in a maternity photo posted to her Instagram in 2017, her and Jay-Z’s vow renewal footage included in the On the Run II Tour in 2018, and then this year’s Homecoming, streaming on Netflix, which Beyoncé wrote, directed, and executive-produced. (Her family is also protective of her likeness: In late June, Beyoncé’s mom Tina Knowles shared a video of her trimming the star’s hair on Instagram — we can hear Bey saying “Mama, that’s really annoying,” — and then later took it down.)

In her 2017 book Listening to Images, Barnard College professor and photography scholar Tina Campt argues that analyzing black subjects in certain photographs requires not only looking at the images, but engaging their sonic quality, assessing their “volume” by a few different factors: who arranged the pictures, the images’ historical context, the lived experience of the people whose pictures are taken. Campt focuses on “dispossessed black subjects” and images that have been “historically dismissed and disregarded.”

In the clips, Beyoncé’s way of conducting herself is low-key and reserved; it seems like she’s holding a lot back, that she’s hyperaware of the stakes of any move she makes. 

Neither Beyoncé nor these off-the-cuff videos are any of those things exactly, but it’s tempting to read them in this context, because there seems to be little else that accurately gets at the muted sensibility and tension within them. And there’s something about being an extremely famous person, being possessed by so many, that strips a person of a part of their selfhood. In that way, she might be an extreme version of what being dispossessed looks like. Beyoncé is often described by family and journalists as “quiet,” and “shy.” In these viral clips, that characterization comes through, as well as an intense self-protection of the “human form” she vaunted in Life Is But a Dream, though without the outspoken energy of her previous pro-privacy statement in that film and the more ostentatious gestures of her contemporaries.

These videos aren’t “quiet” just because they’re usually recorded without sound. In the clips, Beyoncé’s way of conducting herself is low-key and reserved; it seems like she’s holding a lot back, that she’s hyperaware of the stakes of any move she makes. In the clips, she embodies what Campt calls “black fugitivity and refusal,” or the resistance to being fully captured in these images. In the November 2014 video of her hiding in the corner of a parking garage as her bodyguard scopes out the scene, presumably waiting for a car to arrive, she’s literally, physically, refusing to be available for paparazzi or fan scrutiny.

Even if Beyoncé isn’t entirely dispossessed, dismissed, and disregarded, there’s something about her public presence that — ironically — seems underanalyzed, and it feels like it has something to do with her being a black woman celebrity. I don’t mean that she isn’t written about. But how often is she seen? In an interview, the poet Morgan Parker, whose 2017 book There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé interrogates the intersections of black womanhood and performance, among other things, said she was interested in how the star is “a symbol for all the different ways that black women are revered but also surveilled in a really intense way, put on display.”

The candid clips and Beyoncé’s counter-archive evoke other black women who spent significant stretches in the public eye: Aretha Franklin, who became a meme icon in part because of a picture of her using a camcorder in public. And Diana Ross, whose nickname “The Boss” stems from a song and album of the same name, where she bragged about her onetime ability to “turn emotion on and off,” but also because of her disco and pop dominance in the late ’70s and early ’80s. (Her legendary 1983 Central Park concert anticipated Bey’s Coachella performance, as far as pop culture–altering public spectacles go.) Ross was on top for so long you wonder what the compartmentalization needed to be a top star did for her, and to her. For Ross, who was a really famous, well-regarded star with innumerable demands on her time and energy, what did it mean to turn emotion on and off outside of a romantic context? I have similar questions about Beyoncé. The Curran video revived the antic public projection of the singer’s personal life and image, reinforcing the fact that just as much as Beyoncé has her own archive, she’s a part of the public’s too. ●

Niela Orr is a writer from Philadelphia. A former BuzzFeed Emerging Writers Fellow, she is a columnist for the Baffler and an interviews editor for the Believer. Her writing has also appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Elle, and McSweeney’s Quarterly.

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