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CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

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

Yet Beyoncé has, in many ways, outgrown such preoccupations. Not a milligram of tragedy has ever stuck to her, even when Destiny's Child went through litigious infighting or when her boyfriend of many years, rapper and mogul Jay-Z, was rumored to be cheating with Beyoncé's young musical rival, Rihanna. (How did the self-described queen bee fight that? She co-wrote "Ring the Alarm," the most ferocious song of her career. Now there are whispers that the triangle was a hoax to get some sweet publicity.) Her fierce messages of self-sustenance are meant for all women, but their connection to her own life seems more theoretical than real.

Beyoncé may still play the love avenger simply because it works so well with fans. "Irreplaceable," the big hit from her 2006 album, "B'Day," is a steely hearted, if justified, dumping and was the biggest single of her career. But stacked up over two hours, Beyoncé's post-feminist anthems start to get repetitive, making their originator seem rather soulless and calculating.

How rich it would be if Beyoncé could present herself merely as a musician -- a gyrating, sequin-wearing musician who has her own fashion line and Armani-sponsored perfume and endorsements with L'Oréal and Samsung, if she must. If she could put her sonic experiments front and center, she'd seem more sincere. There's no doubt that making music makes Beyoncé happy -- the angelically goofy grin that would sneak up on her face after she executed a tough phrase or high note proved that. Live, she could focus on reminding people that it's the music, not the back story, that makes a hit -- and makes it art.

She did so occasionally during "Experience," especially on a rowdy version of "Get Me Bodied" that foregrounded the connection between Beyoncé's percussive vocal style and her love of street dance.

But the power of that other plot line sometimes overshadowed her intentions. Take her band. A big buzz surrounded this group, because all 11 players are female. Each got a solo turn during Sunday's concert -- a show of womanly prowess, yes, but also a way Beyoncé could slip in extra demonstrations of musical virtuosity, whether it was a hard, honking saxophone solo by Kathy Rodriguez Harold or a bit of "Flight of the Bumblebee" from pianist Rie.

Most commentators have barely noted the musicianship of Beyoncé's band, simply marking it as another element in her ongoing saga of female empowerment. Really, though, it's just as much a part of her musical empowerment, and more interesting for that.

ann.powers@latimes.com

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