Beyoncé used to be uncertain about the F-word. “I need to find a catchy new word for feminism, right? Like Bootylicious,” she said in 2011. But there it was, emblazoned in huge letters on a screen at the start of her O2 Arena show, accompanied by a recording of the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. “Feminist: a person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes.”
It’s easy to cavil at Beyoncé’s emancipatory credentials. You can’t imagine Emmeline Pankhurst, say, reclining on a grand piano trilling “Make love to me-e-e-e!”, as the singer did in her routine for the ballad “1+1”. The inconsistencies are glaring on her self-titled new album, where hyper-sexualised display coexists with sentiments about not being judged for your looks. But the Beyoncé brand of feminism makes a lot more sense on the latest stage of her Mrs Carter Show world tour, re-jigged to incorporate new songs.
The concert opened with “Run the World (Girls)”, Beyoncé materialising on stage amid siren-like beats to survey the adoring throng in calf-high white boots and bodysuit, hand on hip, mane of hair stirred heroically by a wind machine, as though posing for an epic portrait by a modern-day Delacroix. Then it was on with the slickly staged, superbly vibrant show, the first of six at the O2.
Backed by an all-female band and troupe of dancers – a pair of identical twins were the only men present, exotic curiosities in the court of Queen Bee – she adopted a variety of guises. “Flawless” gave the call for sexual equality a harsh, competitive hip-hop setting, with aggressive bass and thug-rap imagery (grills on teeth, powerful cars, pitbulls). “Cherry” was a celebration of happy sex (primary colours, disco décor, 1980s pop-funk). Then came the kinky sex of “Partition” (grinding rhythms, much hair-shaking and pelvic-thrusting from Beyoncé and her dancers).
Audience hysteria reached critical mass when Jay-Z joined her for a husband-wife duet of “Drunk in Love”, its strange aura of hedonism, domesticity, violence and erotic mania made even weirder by 20,000 people singing along to it: big pop songs don’t get more complex. Meanwhile “Crazy in Love”, a memento of the pair’s courtship from a decade ago, was boldly tossed off towards the end with a truncated, Jay-Z-less rendition, elided with “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)”.
The aim was to present a rounded, complex picture of womanhood, bound by a conservative set of identities (lover, wife, mother), but brought to life with immense power: Beyoncé is currently without peer as an all-round performer, a dynamic dancer and knockout vocalist. Not since Madonna has there been as forceful a female presence in pop.