The signals are mixed. There’s a poster on the Jubilee Line for a concert called Chime for Change at Twickenham in June, co?founded and artist-directed by Beyoncé. It’s aimed at promoting issues of girls’ and women’s health, justice and empowerment, with an all-female line-up headed by Beyoncé herself.
Within the first five minutes of her 02 show, however, it’s clear that equality isn’t on the gender agenda. It begins with a film, which segues into a live-action entrance, depicting a regal Beyoncé, wearing Bourbon white face and Marie Antoinette wig, being attended to by crinolined ladies-in-waiting, who present her with a crown on a cushion. The song this heralds asks “Who runs the world? Girls!”, but everything about the regal absolutism of the visuals screams singular rather than plural.
What message, I wonder, are her young fans – who have somehow stumped up £85 for the privilege – getting from a woman who calls her tour The Mrs Carter Show? An old-fashioned girl Beyoncé may be, but this is ridiculous. (If her husband Jay-Z calls his next outing The Mr Knowles Tour, I’ll take it all back.) The woman who told us “it ain’t easy being independent” could try a little harder.
Beyoncé was the subject of controversy last week. The incident in which her people attempted to suppress unflattering pictures taken at a live performance – and the ban on photo passes during this tour – is an ugly piece of media management. That isn’t the sort of thing a pop star does. That’s the sort of thing a monarch does.
The show’s a bog-standard arena-pop affair: pyros, burlesque dancers, and some pretty neat Op-Art effects on the long letterbox back screen. To be fair, the rhinestone cowgirl, whose outfits are always cut to ensure we don’t miss her (fantastic) legs, can really dance. And, she makes a point of reminding us, sing. As the encores approach, backstreet bookies in the corridors are taking bets as to the exact duration of the first “I” in “I Will Always Love You”.
The set list is oddly unsatisfying. “Crazy in Love” is an absolute juggernaut, of course, but several of Beyoncé’s major hits – “Baby Boy”, “Check on It”, “Déjà Vu” and “Best Thing I Never Had” – are omitted. She does, however, interpolate other people’s: The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” in “If I Were a Boy”, and Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby” in “Naughty Girl”.
For much of the evening, I’m more entertained by the overwhelmed fangirl behind me, given to semi-surreal outbursts (“This is not happening!” and “Why do people like this exist?!”). Rather that than the hokey “inspirational” nonsense we hear from Beyoncé’s monologues during costume changes. “When you become a woman, you celebrate what you are ... Your sexuality is a power ... How will you use it?”
LAURA MVULA (KOMEDIA, BRIGHTON)
There’s a battle for the soul of soul, if that’s not too inelegant a phrase?: the booty-shaking of Beyoncé is on one side, and the futuristic inventiveness of Janelle Monáe on the other. Or, in this country, Laura Mvula. The 27-year-old, shaven of head and possessed of an easy charm that goes beyond the usual false modesty, is a former receptionist and supply teacher whose years of study at the Birmingham Conservatoire have evidently not gone to waste.
Her debut album Sing to the Moon – which might as well come with stickers saying “Mercury Music Prize nominee 2013” already attached – is an astoundingly imaginative piece of work, using the progressions of modal jazz rather than simplistic pop melody, painting impressionistic patterns using tools ranging from harps and church bells to laptops and polyphonic harmonies, and unafraid to use silence as a colour. Hearing it, I think of The Beach Boys’ Smile and Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants. Mvula also clearly owns a copy of Baduizm and The Archandroid.
It’s an often complex piece, and in order to re-create it in a live setting, Mvula’s band, including her brother and sister James and Dionne Douglas, have their work cut out. Every member is miked up vocally, and no one shirks their harmonic duty, but sculpting those elements into the shape of Sing to the Moon is a tall order. The guy behind the sound desk is almost an extra member.
She encores with an impossibly beautiful, stripped-down, vocals-and-bass version of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature”, a song which – as chance would have it – is thrown away in passing in Beyoncé’s show.
It’s handled with the assured restraint of an artist who knows she doesn’t have to bellow in order to be heard. We’ve got a special one here.
Post-punkers Savages celebrate the release of their debut album Silence Yourself at Norwich Arts Centre (Sun); Bodega, Nottingham (Tue); Old Fire Station, Bournemouth (Wed) and Ministry of Sound, London (Thu). Meanwhile, Liverpudlian synthpop legends OMD tour with support from the equally venerable John Foxx.