Beyoncé: a pop phenomenon that all women can be proud of

The beauty of Beyoncé's performance at Glastonbury was matched by the power of her message, says Harriet Walker

As she stomped and high-kicked back and forth across Glastonbury's Pyramid Stage on Sunday night, Beyoncé Knowles also marched straight into the history books as one of the few women to have headlined at the festival.

"Thank you to Glastonbury for recognising women, for feeling that we have the strength and power to headline," she said before her performance. "I'm so honoured that I'm the chosen woman, and I promise you ladies: I'm gonna rock!"

The consensus was that she did just that. Appearing in a sparkling gold sequined blazer, belted at the waist and worn over only the briefest of hotpants, and backed by an all-female band, Beyoncé had the 75,000-strong crowd enthralled. It's only the latest in a long line of achievements for the 29-year-old, who can safely be called one of the biggest megastars on the planet and the voice of a generation.

The outfit may have had something to do with 50 per cent of the audience's admiration, but much of Beyoncé's massive appeal lies in her accessibility. She mixes musical innovation with the catchiest of tunes and the most universal of lyrics – songs such as "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)", which is a warning flare to commitment-phobic men who dither about marriage, and "Why Don't You Love Me?", which includes the line: "Even your friends say I'm a good woman", have become anthems for an entire demographic. They are practised in the mirror and yodelled outside pubs the world over.

"She's a good case of a successful woman who is calling the shots," says Sasha Frere-Jones, music critic at The New Yorker. "If we're talking about empowerment, that's what her songs are – this terrible thing happens and she's going to make a fuss, not by weeping but by making a decision. Beyoncé has this position of identity – she's never the victim, and she's deliberately fabulous."

It makes a change from usual female refrains in pop music, which run the thematic gamut from "where is my one and only?" to "why hasn't he called me back?" Songs such as "Irreplaceable", in which a steely Beyoncé gives her boyfriend his marching orders, and "If I Were a Boy", which looks at the different ways in which men and women deal with break-ups, are delivered in her signature dramatic monologue style. Knowles also favours the blues tradition of mimicking a reported conversation – it's another reason why she holds such allure for women; they feel a certain rapport with her and their shared experiences.

"Sometimes people are just gorgeous and talented," adds Frere-Jones. "She's a talented, appealing, good-looking person – which is kind of dull. But she's also got this monopoly on a sort of dignified anger. Which is really wise, because she can't really do transgressive, and she's too likeable to be weird. So she really owns this 'wronged woman who is not in any way pathetic' thing."

Beyoncé's music has always had this personal slant; she shot to fame as part of the girl group Destiny's Child, who made their name with song titles such as "Survivor", "Independent Woman Part 1" and "Bills, Bills, Bills". Each hit was more damning of their male counterparts than the last, and the lyrics were uplifting, witty and intelligent.

"These are messages that cut straight to ordinary women's fantasy versions of themselves," says celebrity writer Paul Flynn. "She's explicitly on the side of women."

But global superstardom came with Knowles's solo career, which has so far yielded four albums and 13 Grammys, making her one of the most decorated female artists in history. "My message is for women," Knowles told BBC Radio 2 at Glastonbury, "and I always try to make songs that I think we need to hear to encourage us."

Her most recent release, which she performed towards the end of her hour-long set, is called "Run the World (Girls)", and she also played a song from her new album, 4, called "Best Thing I Never Had", which includes the lyric: "I bet it sucks to be you right now". "Sing it to the fellas!" she exhorted the crowd. "Sing it to your ex!"

But, of course, a modern celebrity cannot expect to be judged for their work alone, and Knowles's private life also plays a part in her public adoration. She married the rapper Jay-Z in 2008, after dating him for six years, and they are known as a powerhouse couple driving forward urban music both at home in the US and across the rest of the world. The boards that Beyoncé trod on Sunday supported her husband's weight three years earlier, when he became the first hip-hop artist ever to headline the festival.

"She's very dignified and gracious in public," says Jean Hannah Edelstein, author of Himglish and Femalese. "There's something genuine about Beyoncé – her talent, yes, but also her approach to a career as a performer. She's sometimes criticised for being a bit ruthless, but she's got what she wants so women can't help but admire that."

Knowles has also recently starred in a campaign to try to fight obesity in the US (it features a dance-exercise video of her shimmying alongside bemused and starstruck high-school students), which has been promoted by Michelle Obama. And it was Knowles who serenaded Barack Obama and his wife at their Inauguration Ball, singing Etta James's "At Last", a jazz standard that she has since worked into her tour routine and sang at Glastonbury.

So, it's no wonder that Beyoncé's star is in the ascendant – she's a politically aware, socially minded and beautiful entertainer. But there were other female artists who shone this Glastonbury – from electro-soul diva Janelle Monáe (whose sales on Amazon increased by 5,000 per cent after her performance) to folk singer Laura Marling, there was a sense that the women really took this festival by storm.

Beyoncé's backing girls
By Adam Sherwin

* She might be soul's foremost diva, but Beyoncé would be far less impressive without her hand-picked, all-female live band. The singer auditioned thousands of female session musicians to make up her slick, 10-piece group, which first accompanied her on the 2007 Beyoncé Experience tour.

Between concerts the band members, who perform under the name Suga Mama, teach improvised jazz classes to music students and work on solo projects.

Most of Suga Mama are classically trained to the highest level, such as drummer Nikki Glaspie, who enrolled at Boston's prestigious Berklee College of Music. Bassist Divinity Roxx is a graduate of the equally influential, if less academically renowned, Bootsy Collins' Funk University.

They are kept in line by Bibi McGill, guitarist, musical director and yoga teacher. Her job, she says, is to "tell everyone what time they have to be there, being responsible to give the cue for the stage to rise, being responsible if Beyoncé wants to change something in the middle of the show, talking in my mic to everyone who has in-ears [earpieces] and making it look seamless".

In addition to Sugar Mama, Beyoncé employs three regular backing vocalists, Montina Cooper, Crystal Collins and Tiffany Moníque Riddick. Cooper, like most backing singers, hankered after the spotlight herself. After signing as a solo artist, she fell into a career singing with Kelly Rowland, Beyonce's former bandmate from Destiny's Child, and Jamie Foxx, before joining Beyoncé's live band.

The Mamas are fiercely loyal to their bandleader. Roxx says: "Beyoncé is a hard worker and she inspired me to work hard and push myself beyond what I thought I was capable of doing. I will forever be indebted to her for that."

However, not everything heard on stage is the live work of the singer and her band. McGill admits that there is a programmer backstage who triggers pre-recorded sounds from Beyoncé's recorded hits, which not even a 10-piece group can reproduce.

Beyoncé's instructions to the band are simply to "play things like the record" and "enjoy the show". And whilst the singer parties with her rapper husband, Jay-Z, after a performance, the Suga Mamas often head off to a club to play an improvised funk set and let their hair down.

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth


Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee