If you're as stubbornly naive as I used to be, you probably think that following up a performance of the National Anthem at Barack Obama's second inaugural with one sizzler of a Super Bowl halftime show would be exposure enough for anyone. A pop-cult twofer that unprecedented might tempt even the most driven of superstars to rest on her laurels until, say, early March. So it's a relief to learn that Beyoncé Knowles—known throughout the Milky Way, of course, as plain and simple Beyoncé—has her head screwed on right: "I don't want to never be satisfied. I don't think that's a healthy way to live."
Honest, that's how she feels. If you're so minded, you can see and hear her say so in Beyoncé: Life Is But A Dream, airing on HBO on Saturday. She's credited as both "director" and executive producer, and adding "star" would be redundant at a level to invite the gods' mirth. Her 90-minute self-portrait hits cable under a month after she serenaded Obama's swearing-in, and a shade less than two weeks after Super Bowl XLVII. It's such a shame to see her get so complacent about retaining her grip on our attention.
Am I making fun of her, you ask? Perish the thought. I've been on Team Beyoncé since way back, by which I mean the Super Bowl. Before that, I couldn't have hummed any of her hits at gunpoint, and probably still can't. To claim "The Star-Spangled Banner" as the exception is to pretend the damn thing is hummable, and anyway, Beyoncé on the Capitol steps—lip-synching or not, who cares?—didn't make me a convert.
But after years of geriatric halftime headliners out to recall past glories—sadly, Madonna only stood out because she didn't know it—Beyoncé wowing 'em at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome was another story. You can't lip-synch a hip shake, and razzle-dazzle that charismatic will have its way with me every time. Besides, talk about unfazeable. Even Madonna treated the invite as some sort of benediction of her career, but to Beyoncé, playing the Super Bowl was just another pit stop in the Milky Way.
By her standards, Life is But A Dream is a relatively trifling exercise in the self-love she's always happy to share with millions of strangers. In no sense is this "documentary"—or map of her soul, or infomercial for her heart—a useful account of her career. Instead, it presumes Beyoncé's ubiquity. That she's married to Jay-Z, that she was ever in an unmentioned group called Destiny's Child before going solo—and so on and so endlessly forth—are not topics but givens.
Instead, the format is basically a video diary of Beyoncé's most intimate thoughts and private pains. These usually cue blockbuster performance clips of the songs said thoughts and pains inspired. To picture F. Scott Fitzgerald mournfully confiding "And then Zelda went to the bughouse" on Skype just before masses of dancers frantically mime to a smash hit called "Tender Is The Night!" wouldn't be an unfair analogy. We also get plenty of behind-the-scenes glimpses of Beyoncé preparing for work, abetted by small armies of technicians and other henchpersons whose industry would do NASA proud. But instead of snickering at her reliance on so many elves, you may end up marveling that the whole, vast combine ultimately depends on her being able to deliver the goods.
Those goods' musical quality doesn't interest me much. The (very) vestigial rock critic in me can hear the extent to which those three-octave pipes of hers are mostly put to work mimicking her betters, though she can mimic a variety of them in sometimes novel combinations. Granting that to say I'm not her target demographic is putting it kindly, the thought of listening to a CD of hers for pleasure at home wouldn't cross my mind in a century. From my decided distance, though, I revel in Beyoncé-the-phenomenon just the same. Narcissism this paradoxically generous-minded is what showbiz is all about.
So far as I can tell, virtually everything about her persona—the empowerment anthems, the shrewdly packaged confessional heartbreak, the tycoon wrapped in diva's clothing—is beyond cliché, unless you count how she puts forward the diva and the tycoon alike as useful role models for young women wondering how to control their fate. But clichés in overdrive and renovated by razzle-dazzle have their Pavlovian appeal, especially since the distinctiveness of Beyoncé's razzle-dazzle individuates her more than the music does. Anyhow, I don't think her fans are wasting either their time or their hard-earned leisure cash, however little the sunny thunderousness of it all will mean to them in their old age. As for me, maybe I'll just always be a sucker for people who are this good at their jobs. That my curiosity induced me to sit through all of Life Is But A Dream without complaints is no modest tribute, believe me.
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