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Sticking to her story

Beyoncé is electric in concert yet reined in by her show's post-feminist theme. Why not just let it be about her musical prowess?

September 02, 2007|Ann Powers | Times Staff Writer

"The Beyoncé Experience," the show 25-year-old dynamo Beyoncé Knowles is due to bring to Staples Center tonight near the end of her summer-long world tour, is one of those modern superstar spectacles that casts the artist's reality onto the level of myth.

As with Madonna, who recently crucified herself (minus nails) onstage, or U2, which announced the death of the band's own innocence with the hucksterism of the 1992 "Zoo TV" tour, Beyoncé's "Experience" plays off the performer's well-known struggles and triumphs to build a story that will make fans both gawk and relate. The maddening thing about this dazzling entertainment, though, is that the tale it tells is partly the wrong one.

This doesn't stop the show from being a blast. Beyoncé's hits, with their tricky rhythms and rapid-fire vocal lines, are fascinating contributions to hip-hop-era R&B. The girl can dance better than Bono and act better than Madge, and her commitment to showbiz flash is unrelenting. A visit to the show when it hit San Diego's Cox Arena last Sunday revealed a performer totally in command. Yet the production kept steering away from what makes Beyoncé so important to pop, even as it pleased her adoring audience.

As a pop queen, Beyoncé is almost too perfect. A tumble down the stairs onstage in Orlando and a subsequent "wardrobe malfunction" in Toronto garnered far more attention than was warranted partly because these mistakes contradicted her fiercely athletic style. She projects a fearsome level of proficiency when performing -- the camouflage outfits her male dancers sometimes wore in San Diego felt right for a show that sometimes seemed like a military operation, expertly executed.

As she vamped and belted her way through club favorites such as "Crazy in Love" and massive ballads including "Dangerously in Love," her superhuman-seeming body moving in thrusts and waves, Beyoncé hit every daunting bit of choreography, every careening vocal cue. She was a wonder -- until it came time to emote.

In films, Beyoncé is a competent if not wildly charismatic actress, relaxed and fairly natural on camera. Pop spectacle, however, requires something different: intensified intimacy.

A performer's ability to seem like a regular person while surrounded by undulating dancers or perched on a giant acrobatic bar (both scenarios Beyoncé has tackled during "Experience") makes sense of the sensory overload that dominates most major concerts now. The star grounds the show, not with her musical performance, but through her personal charisma; she's like a magician showing the secret of a few tricks so that his willing victims feel thrilled, not fooled, when the big illusion overtakes them.

In San Diego, Beyoncé didn't pull off the big illusion. Miming the roller-coaster emotions of true love during the ballad "Flaws and All," she grinned and scowled like a bloody ingénue in an Ed Wood horror flick. Later, shimmying in on a lips-shaped sofa during "Speechless," she tried for sexy but wound up contorted.

Why should this intelligent, extremely gifted, decade-long veteran of the pop charts have this problem? Maybe it's not Beyoncé's fault. Perhaps spectacle itself is to blame.

Beyoncé's work has grown over the years to become truly groundbreaking. She is often cited as the singer most able to connect with the breakbeats and cut-and-paste sonic templates of hip-hop; she also might be the closest pop has to a jazz singer right now.

The absolute best moments of "Experience" came when Beyoncé turned away from all the show and immersed herself within a musical challenge. Joining her backing vocalists for some gospel-tinged call and response, she radiated joy. Her scatting recalled a young Ella Fitzgerald. At one point she even turned the soul singer's most reliable cliché, melisma, into something unexpected: yodeling.

The crowd enjoyed these high points. But because they signified growth as a musician, not in her personal life, they felt almost extraneous to the spectacle's hungry digestion of Beyoncé the Personality. The need for a nonmusical story kept Beyoncé from ever settling into music for music's sake; instead she kept returning to the theme she first claimed a decade ago.

That theme is female empowerment, especially in the face of no-good men. So many of Beyoncé's songs tackle this subject, starting with Destiny's Child's breakthrough single, "Bills, Bills, Bills," that it sometimes seems as if she can write about nothing else.

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