For the past three decades, Bruce Springsteen has been the go-to pop star for pundits who want to gauge the mood of young Americans, and sometimes even young Europeans. But this summer, the American flag backdrop is passing to a new set of artists. Beyoncé Knowles-Carter and her husband Jay Z stopped by Baltimore last night during their “On the Run” tour, bringing with them both a great party vibe and a complicated new set of American ideas.
If Springsteen’s power has come from the consistency of narrative and ideas in his music, Beyoncé and Jay Z are somewhat more protean figures.
Even as he amassed wealth and fame that took him far his Freehold Borough childhood, Springsteen found new ways to focus on class in the United States, whether he was touring with Pete Seeger classics or launching a macro critique of the economy with “Wrecking Ball.” Jay Z has made his rise from the margins of the U.S. economy to its pinnacle an explicit subject of his work, going “From standing on the corners boppin’ / To driving some of the hottest cars New York has ever seen” in 1998, and 15 years later, dreaming of Picassos and Rothkos.
Knowles-Carter’s evolution has less to do with class than with artistic independence. Her career began in girl groups, but she has stepped forward as a dynamic solo artist. In 2011, Knowles-Carter jettisoned her father as her manager. “4″ and “Beyoncé,” the two albums she released in the wake of that decision, are a rich exploration of marriage, sexuality, parenthood and the pleasures of professional accomplishment. The latter includes an explicit statement of feminist principles, something of a rarity in the contemporary entertainment industry.
An overwhelmingly female crowd cheered that definition of feminist, articulated by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adiche as “a person who believes in the social, economic and political equality of the sexes,” when it was projected on screen at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore last night.
Knowles-Carter’s feminism broadens from that starting point in ways that might confound her predecessors. This is an audience that takes obvious pleasure in Knowles-Carter’s enjoyment of her own body and sexuality, and a group of listeners that can accommodate a reference to an ugly incident of violence between Ike and Tina Turner in a love song with the idea of Knowles-Carter as a liberated woman. (It was also a crowd that gleefully chanted along with choruses of “Tom Ford!” in Jay Z’s song of the same name from the cheap seats — Knowles-Carter’s class analysis doesn’t extend much beyond the idea of pay equality.)
Jay Z is a sparer performer than his wife, which is not to diminish his ability to give a crowd an excellent, stadium-vibrating time.
While Knowles-Carter ran the audience through a wide range of emotional experiences, alternating between poses as a dominant mogul, an abandoned woman and a joyful lover, Jay Z, dressed in the flag, posing in front of flag backdrops and bathed in red and blue light, evangelized for the idea of partying as an act of liberation. “Ni**as in Paris,” the song he recorded with Kanye West for their 2011 collaboration “Watch the Throne,” and which made a triumphant appearance last night, is a louche celebration of the idea that black access to wealth and certain cultural experiences carries an almost moral force to it.
Springsteen’s characters had more modest dreams than partying in Paris or knocking a Warhol off its place in a foyer. But they never had to assert their rights to aspire to better things in the first place.
The central conceit of the “On the Run” tour, a series of videos that feature Jay Z and Knowles-Carter on a crime spree together, does not really hang together. However many thongs Knowles-Carter dons on stage, there is a wholesome quality to her celebrations of marital sexuality and discipline in business that makes her an implausible outlaw. Jay Z’s acting talents don’t extend particularly far beyond looking impassive through a cloud of cigar smoke.
Even though the video interludes mostly serve the functional purpose of building in time for costume changes, by the end of the evening, I wondered if they were building to something larger. Knowles-Carter ended the evening in a dress with a black-and-white American flag print, delivering a tender serenade to home videos of the couple’s daughter Blue Ivy, Jay Z standing by her side and urging the audience to sing along with his wife.
This is what it means to be fully human, and to live out a complex vision of the American dream. You can play with outlaw tropes while retaining your essential respectability. You can remember your past without being weighted down by it. You can take pleasure in sex and love without being rendered unfit for professional success, and without being branded a slut.
It is only a small slice of Americans who have access to that ability to defy easy categorizations, much less to the Tom Ford suits, bottles of Armand de Brignac and the high-end art acquisitions that accessorize it. If Bruce Springsteen set the standards for the minimum his fellow citizens might be able to achieve, Jay Z and Knowles-Carter are exploring audacious new territory. It is up to those of us filing out of the stadium to figure out how to achieve both Springsteen’s floor and Jay Z and Knowles-Carter’s limitless ceiling.