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Leah Carroll: Beyoncé and the Real Girl

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February 25, 2013

How do you solve a problem like Beyoncé? With her autobiography pic and some drag artists from the ’80s.

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Image from Flickr via asterix611

By Leah Carroll

In the final moments of Beyoncé: Life is but a Dream, the singer stands on stage, hair whipped about by a wind machine set to full gale. She is clad in a bright red figure-skater-cum-superhero leotard, and expressing her gratitude to the audience. She is, she tells them, “the luckiest girl in the world.” The audience is ecstatic and Beyoncé mirrors their ecstasy. She is fierce. She is demure. She is sexy. She is a mother. She is a daughter. She is a lover. She is scorned and she is scorched earth. She is…wait, what is she exactly? After ninety minutes of a film about Beyoncé, the Queen Bey remains an inscrutable presence.

So, how do you solve a problem like Beyoncé? As a celebrity she has managed to control her image and branding to an unprecedented degree. In this month’s GQ cover story, Beyoncé revealed that her “inner sanctum also contains thousands of hours of private footage, compiled by a ‘visual director’ [she] employs who has shot practically her every waking moment, up to sixteen hours a day, since 2005.” In her struggle for control over the business that is Beyoncé, she has trapped herself in a kind of hall of mirrors: Beyoncé may be the boss of her own brand but we, the consumers, are the bosses of Beyoncé.

I couldn’t escape the thought: what if what the superstar guards so ferociously, is not, as she insists, her real life, but is instead her “Realness”?

It is within this hall of mirrors that Life is but a Dream exists. Equal parts video diary, concert footage, and Barbara Walters-style one-on-one, the film is lushly edited and benignly endearing. Beyoncé answers questions and delivers platitudes like, “There’s nothing like a conversation with a woman that understands you,” while sitting cross legged and barefoot on an expensive-looking sofa, her hair bundled atop her head in braids, her makeup expertly minimal. We get a few extended shots of Beyoncé cradling Blue Ivy, her child with husband Jay-Z, certainly a clearer glimpse of the baby than anything the couple has offered up before. We see some footage of Bey and Jay on various yachts being in love with each other (don’t fear, while the setting may evoke Pamela and Tommy Lee, our couple prefers to document a Coldplay sing-along in place of racier expressions of love). There is footage of Beyoncé the performer working her stuff like the boss she is at various awards show and concerts. (And let me be clear here, I can’t think of many contemporary performers more dynamic and committed than Beyoncé.)

And then there is the footage shot with her laptop. Here she addresses the viewer straight on and it is here where we get to see her vulnerable side—her very carefully cultivated vulnerable side. She is distressed by a falling-out with her father, later she is overjoyed at the first kicks of her baby. It’s clear that in the publicity onslaught that preceded the documentary’s premiere, this is the stuff that comprises the much-hyped “inner world” of the secretive superstar. After years of keeping her fans at arm’s length, Life is but a Dream purports to finally let them in, to finally let them see the “Real Beyoncé.”

Watching Life is but a Dream, I was reminded of a very different film: Paris is Burning, Jennie Livingstone’s 1990 documentary about the drag subculture of 1980’s New York. At fashion shows known as balls (the title of the film takes its name from one such extravaganza, the Paris is Burning Ball), contestants strut in an endless array of categories. They dress as schoolgirls, executives, fashion models, and military officers. The ultimate objective is “Realness” and it is here where a documentary about a tenacious and tiny underground bumps up against the Beyoncé’s film. Realness is the opposite of camp; here the aesthetic goal is verisimilitude. This realness is, as an early review of Paris is Burning put it, “the ability to pass on the runway as something you are not, as in rich for poor, female for male, straight for gay. In life, realness can be a matter of survival, as in passing for straight to avoid homophobic violence.” Or as Willi Nina, one of the starts of Paris is Burning, explains, “Even men who go to corporate executive offices are in drag. That’s their office drag. They have a whole new personality when they step into the office from their home. It all comes down to details, and you will get over better. That’s what realness is all about.”

In the way we refer to all tissues as Kleenex and all internet searching as Googling, Beyoncé gets over better when she’s in her Beyoncé drag.

I couldn’t escape the thought, as I watched Beyoncé reveal her baby bump to her Macbook: what if what the superstar guards so ferociously, is not, as she insists, her real life, but is instead her “Realness”? She is a woman who has been groomed since early childhood for stardom. She is a machine, and I mean that in the best way possible. She doesn’t disappoint us with unsound decisions like Rihanna, or antagonize us with antics like Madonna. She has perfected her brand to such an extent that she is inseparable from it. In the way we refer to all tissues as Kleenex and all internet searching as Googling, Beyoncé gets over better when she’s in her Beyoncé drag. She is at maximum Realness with her sequins shimmering, performing in her signature flawless, diva-inflected, notes-erupting-from-the-center-of-her-very-soul style.

And so the confessional moments feel stilted. “I’m an artist and I’m sensitive about my shit,” Beyoncé says with a shy grin as she walks out of a listening session for record executives. It’s a great candid moment, sweet and even a little edgy, but the words are not hers—she’s quoting Erykah Badu. She talks a lot about learning that she doesn’t have to be polite to be a successful manager, but she comes across as nothing less than a consummate professional every time we see her in a business setting. Because Beyoncé is keenly aware of her celebrity, she treads lightly in life and saves her rawness for the stage. I can’t say that I understand her any better after watching Life is but a Dream than I did after watching her Superbowl performance.

So while it’s nice to witness the Beyoncé machine in production, to see her baby, who is of course adorable, and to confirm once and for all that she is gorgeous even in bare feet, the closest glimpses into her “real life” that Life is but a Dream provides are not the moments when she stares earnestly into her MacBook, but the ones in which she is onstage, giving her heart and soul to the audience and thanking them for the opportunity.

Leah Carroll is a writer living in Brooklyn.

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