First Night: V Festival; Chelmsford, Essex


Haircuts are to pop idols what logos are to brands. The acres of Rapunzel blonde, which saw the Princess of Pop through Destiny's Child to solo domination, have this summer been ruthlessly lopped, and this weekend Chelmsford's ode to commercial culture ushered in a whole new - asymmetrically bob-cut - Beyoncé.

The appeal of the Bey is, of course, not all about music. While we're all partial to a little Love on Top, the tunes are only a fraction of a broader slice of entertainment. The new Beyoncé is a blossoming of the original. The strut, the booty, the bubblegum girl - these are all intact, but she has, since the birth of Blue Ivy, taken on a new earth mother-ish persona: “Heyyy Mrs Carter”, chanted the audience at her request. She has an innate talent with a crowd, an almost tribal ability to lead. Her every turn, glance and flash of teeth only add to an aura of cool feminine domination. She is musically lukewarm, but theatrically unique.

Her art department is not to be underestimated. Presumably with the kind of dollar a life of galactic stardom earns one can afford nothing but the best. Her many costume changes (I counted at least five, from tiered leotards to nineties jumpsuits) were synched with video interludes that were far more sophisticated than the typical look-at-my-art-angles MTV fare. They marked chapters in a piece of true pop theatre, which led us from the doldrums of Irreplaceable to the anthemic Crazy in Love. The Single Ladies were, of course, in attendance.

The pre-Beyoncé crowd had been warmed up with Essex's answer to the alpha female, the ever-animated Jessie J. Fresh from a stint on The Voice, she was a guaranteed, teen-approved favourite, complete with some truly daring costuming (her monochrome two-piece, like her provocative dancing, left little to the imagination) and a fairly unimaginative array of pseudo-R&B staples. She did indeed Do it Like a Dude. In light of the Beyoncé set, however, it was apparent that enthusiasm is no substitute for charisma.

Sandwiched between the two juggernaut females, the mellow and unremarkable rockers The Script were flatlining in comparison. No amount of on-stage aggression could gather the hype necessary for a headline act, and aside from the obligatory Man Who Can't Be Moved singalong, moved, the crowd were not. In a spell of inexplicable crassness, frontman Danny O'Donoghue got hold of a fan's phone, singing 'Am I better off dead?' to her ex-boyfriend. The boy promptly hung up on him.

The V Festival is not, perhaps, one of England's proudest cultural institutions, but this weekend it was alive with booze, beats and genuine pop passion. An acquired and synthetic taste, live pop is a staged reality in which art and guitar smashing are secondary to slick commercial performance. Through familiarity, branding and a whole lot of choreography, even the shakiest of artists can satisfy the mob. But it's possible to get it very, very right. Take notes from Mrs Carter