T Magazine, The New York Times’ fashion/culture/travel supplement, published a lengthy essay this weekend trying to identify how exactly Beyoncé went from regular old pop star to pop culture supernova of the universe.
The moment on December 13, 2013 when Beyoncé released her visual album with no advanced notice and took over the Internet shows just how bright her star shines, but it’s more evidence of what makes her so wildly popular than the moment that she became the phenomena that we recognize now.
In fact, it’s her blend of untouchable and totally recognizable that makes her so interesting to so many.
“From the beginning her message has been professionalism, perfectionism, power — ideals exemplified in her fearsome live performances and dramatized in songs that view romance through the lens of finance,” the article says. So Beyoncé has always been all business. But there’s nothing really so new about that. Hard work, quality output = success. Sounds familiar.
What’s compelling about the essay is the fact that the “visual album” paints a picture of the Beyoncé brand as something that includes a little of this and a little of that.
Beyoncé represents down-home earthiness and impossible glamour, soul-woman warmth and diva hauteur, a nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic and garish 1 percent excess. Her new album is sexed-up to the point of lewdness, with punch lines about body fluids on evening wear and intimations of rough sex. Yet the sex — in the limo, in the kitchen, everywhere, apparently, but the bedroom — is married sex, family-values sex, which, the album makes clear, produced a bouncing baby girl, a result perhaps even Bill O’Reilly can feel good about.
She’s full of contradictions, just like real life.
And maybe that’s the most important quality of her brand — it’s both aspirational and tied closely to what we all live in our reality. It would be nice to have the money and the access to the President she has. Maybe a magazine cover or two would be nice. But that’s the celebrity part.
For most, life is a mix of diva days, long to-do lists and the great moments when you can just hug a friend or loved one. (And some of that “sexed-up” spicy time that makes you ask the driver to roll up the partition please.)
Not all brands can play both sides of the coin this way. Part of what makes this work for Bey is that she’s in the pop culture business, a mixed bag of words, images and phrases that work together somehow. A consumer product, for instance, probably wouldn’t be able to pull off being reliable, yet unpredictable. But having some level of flexibility — that ability to surprise fans while also relating to them in a fundamental way — is a lesson all brands should learn.