**DISCLAIMER: This is not a specialist work on music, or on Beyoncé, it’s more about cults of personalities I guess…**
I’m not the biggest Beyoncé fan in the world. Of course not, who could lay claim to such a title! The person who founded the Beyhive? The scores of superfans who buy tickets to her every concert? Jay-Z? No, I’m not even close to being Beyoncé’s biggest fan, but I, like most people, quite enjoy her work. And I always know when she’s got new work out because I find out, not through the radio or TV or magazines, but through other people. Ever since social media hit it big way back when in 2006, I don’t think the woman has had to actively promote a single thing that she does. Which leads me to hypothesise: is Beyoncé a genius?
First, a note. When I say genius I’m referring: a. to her self-promotional abilities (I don’t know how her maths skillz are), and b. to the machine that is Beyoncé. Beyoncé is not an individual – she does not exist in a vacuum. She, like all other hyper-famous, is surrounded by a team whose sole purpose in life is to Beyoncé (v.). Plus she’s got the BeyHive – slam Beyoncé, even in passing, and prepare to close you’re twitter account, sink into bed in tears, and never get a job again. Was it this group of Beyoncés that are responsible for Beyoncé having never had to fork out so much as a single promoted tweet to support her next stop-drop-and-roll- because -the -internet- is- on- fire moment, or is this part of the natural evolution of social media and its participants?
As a student of Chinese history, the obvious cult of personality that has built up around Beyoncé strikes my very soul with its dictatorship-esque proportions, and so I really can’t help myself, I just have to analyse. What is it that one needs to form a cult of personality, and are these the same things Beyoncé used to form hers?
We all knew when Adele was bringing out a new album, and U2 had to literally shove theirs down our throats in 2014, but in 2013 Beyoncé dropped her eponymous album Beyoncé in the middle of the night (depending where you were). Within three days, without any promotion whatsoever, it had become the fastest-selling album in the history of the iTunes store (take that, U2). It almost broke the internet, with 5,300 related tweets per minute on the first day. Now, with a new album on the brink of release, the internet is just about ready to explode with think-pieces about what exactly ‘Lemonade’ means for black women everywhere. So let’s look at what factors exactly have allowed Beyoncé to have such a hold over so many people.
Talent: From charm, to tactical ability, to mad oratory skills, all those who lead their own cult of personality have to have some manifest talent in order to be respected by their followers. Beyoncé is undeniably talented, beautiful, and rich, which is something a lot of people aspire to. It’s really not hard to admire – worship? – someone you want to be like, so this one pretty much answers itself. But there are lots of talented artists out there, so how has Beyoncé’s star risen to this level?
Mass appeal: Whether aiming for the adoration of 100 or 1 billion people, personality leaders all have to have something – whether manufactured or organic – that gives them enough appeal to draw in their target audience. For Beyoncé this target audience is everyone who listens to music. Her weapon? A cross-cultural blend of hip-hop/pop that appeals to listeners of all colours with inoffensive, relatable, repetitive lyrics, and an inherent message of ‘slay’. Seriously, why do we play Single Ladies, Crazy in Love, Drunk in Love, 7/11 (the list goes on) on repeat? Because they give us that very loose feeling of ‘empowerment’ and allow us to transpose our own experiences onto very vaguely defined material, thereby making it relatable. This is what cult leaders do: give out a bare-bones message and people will find their own way to make it about themselves. Beyoncé is an expert at this.
Lack of actual personality?: Often cult leaders are reduced to catchy one-liners, while their real thoughts and feels are hidden behind a glossy veneer that only their innermost circle ever gets to peek beneath. They also tend to stay away from factional politics, floating above their peers on a pedestal. Unlike celebrities who have public feuds for publicity, or who voice their opinions on political or social issues either through social media or through their music, Beyoncé has steered clear of this side of celebrity life, maintaining a pure, ‘all-about-the-music’ vibe. She’s never had a breakdown like Britney, nor a feud on the Elton John-Madonna scale. When you do read or hear comment by Beyoncé, they come across a little vacuous and, dare I say, normal. She stretches the word candid to its limits – documentaries, meant to provide an ‘inside look’, are curated masterpieces, controlled from beginning to end, and any images that don’t conform to the official Beyoncé image disappear without a trace. Her severe lack of public comment, combined with her extraordinary talent, has allowed her to almost transcend normal celebrity status into a goddess-like icon to be worshiped as opposed to ‘listened to’. She exists almost only as music, seen in person by very few, passing down her creed through the occasional album.
The image behind it all: Beyoncé isn’t just a great singer. She’s a business woman, a wife, a mother, and (slightly more recently) an activist. She’s also friends with the president. All cult leaders have a specially crafted image that they present to the public, which is often a mix of fact (the above are all facts) and propaganda (e.g. ‘natural’ photos of Beyoncé carrying Blue Ivy, lovingly oblivious to all else). Celebrity social media profiles are as carefully crafted as their tour wardrobes, and Beyoncé’s is a perfect blend of stunning photos of her performances and general existence, and beautifully candid photos of her family and friends. It paints the same unattainable, rose-coloured existence portrayed in the propaganda of socialist states, though with just enough realness to make her seem human.
Of course, Beyoncé isn’t a socialist state, she’s just another wealthy American. But does that mean that the crafting of her perfect image wasn’t propaganda? That it was all organic? She surely doesn’t seem like a cult leader on the surface: she doesn’t own any land (per se), and her followers live online. But she does have followers, millions in fact, and she is a ruler of sorts. This fan base certainly grew organically – until very recently there was rarely a time when there wasn’t a Beyoncé song playing on the radio. We were flooded with Beyoncé hit after hit until about 2010, when iPods and the 90s revival meant it no longer mattered how often we heard her songs on the radio. We had everything from Bills, Bills, Bills to Formation at our fingertips, at all times. There’s no way Beyoncé could be behind the digital revolution (could she?). We feel in love with her naturally.
But, without a doubt, a large part of Beyoncé’s image is crafted. There’s probably a reason she doesn’t talk all that much, and she’s beautiful enough and talented enough that it doesn’t matter what we don’t see, because what we do see is so much and so perfect. Her silence is deliberate: she gives only one interview every few years, and, after one almost disastrous experience in 2013, even these seemingly insightful pieces are prepared, packaged, and designed to fall in line with the rest of her image. Any time she does speak, she’s very careful and quite clearly rehearsed: her response when asked if she was a feminist was “that word can be very extreme… But I guess I am a modern-day feminist. I do believe in equality”. What other kind of feminist would you have been? 19th century? This craft even pervades her lyrics: she appeals to no single race, country, age, or even gender (bar the obvious exceptions); just enough r’n’b songs to keep diehard fans on the leash, and has more recently begun to be more vocal on the issues black American women face, but the rest is state of the art hip-pop designed to reach the masses. Just compare Sweet Dreams, Halo, Diva, and Video Phone, all from the same album.
It’s worth bearing in mind also that propaganda machines become self-sufficient after a while. The stunts themselves help create their own publicity, thus engendering any future publicity. If you surprise people once, they’re going to expect you to do it again, and they’ll continue to expect greater and greater things from you.
So far, Beyoncé has yet to let us down.