Beyoncé 'calls the shots' while leading the way for women

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As she stomped and high-kicked back and forth across Glastonbury's Pyramid Stage on Sunday night, singer Beyoncé Knowles also marched straight into the history books as one of 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 told the media 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. 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 has become one of the biggest stars on the planet and the voice of a generation.

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)" that have become anthems for an entire demographic.

"She's a good case of a successful woman who is calling the shots," says Sasha Frere-Jones, a music critic at The New Yorker magazine. "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 is a change from usual female refrains in the pop-music canon, 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 are delivered in her signature dramatic-monologue style. Beyoncé also favours the blues tradition of mimicking a reported conversation, which is another reason why she holds such allure for women – they feel a certain rapport with her because of their shared experiences.

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

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

But global superstardom came with Beyoncé's solo career, which has so far yielded the performer four albums and 13 Grammys.

"My message is for women," Beyoncé told BBC Radio 2 at Glastonbury. "And I always try to make songs that I think we need to hear to encourage us."

But of course a modern celebrity cannot expect to be judged for their work alone, and Beyoncé's private life also plays a part in her public adoration. She married rapper Jay-Z in 2008 after dating him for six years and thay are known as a powerhouse couple driving forward urban music at home in the United States and throughout the rest of the world.

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 Monae (whose sales on Amazon increased by 5,000 per cent after her performance) to the folk singer Laura Marling, there was a sense that the women had really taken this festival by storm.