Beyoncé. Qualcomm Stadium. 05.12.16
When people asked me how the Rihanna concert was, my immediate reply was “incredible!” When the same thing happened after the Beyoncé show, my reaction was very different. “It was quite the production,” I would say, before adding “she really puts on an incredible show.” That got me to thinking. Why simply ‘incredible’ for Rihanna, but all the added fluff when it came to describing Beyoncé’s performance?
The obvious answer is that I personally prefer Rihanna’s music to Beyoncé’s (with the exception of Lemonade, which just might be my favorite album this year), but I couldn’t help but think there was something more to it…so I started breaking down the differences between the two shows.
The first major difference was the choice of venue. Rihanna’s Viejas Arena was almost intimate compared to Beyoncé’s Qualcomm Stadium, but each artist took advantage of their respective spaces with costumes, lighting, musicians, dancers, and various technological enhancements, so I don’t believe the venue had anything to do with my level of enjoyment. Beyoncé drew a more diverse crowd as well (her audience was literally five times larger), but the energy level around me was similar at each show. I also couldn’t think of a single complaint about my seats, the sound, or the setlist either night, so I really couldn’t explain myself to myself.
A part of me wanted to just let it go. I was lucky enough to see Rihanna and Beyoncé perform back-to-back shows in San Diego. And I had a blast at each show. So why the hell was I analyzing how I felt about the experience? Then the answer hit me. But we’ll get back to that later.
The first indication that The Formation World Tour would be a cinematic experience, as well as a sonic one, was when the THX logo appeared on the side screens, along with the signature deep note. A few seconds later, the sixty-foot, three-dimensional, rotating, multimedia display came to life with pulsating black-and-white nudes of Queen Bey spliced with footage of a hawk flying high above its prey.
“Welcome to the Formation Tour, can I hear you say ‘I slay!’”
Beyoncé, along with a dozen dancers donning wide-brim hats and black leotards, marched down the catwalk in true formation. Visual clips and poetry about being “Sorry” eased the transition into the track with the deceptive name; all while 50,000 people filled the San Diego stadium with screams that could be heard in Mexico. And as if Bey couldn’t express her discontent with her own two hands, she instructed her dance troupe to line up behind her with arms outstretched; providing an octopus illusion of “middle fingers up” while she told that “boy bye”; before she was left alone to perform an acapella version of “Kitty Kat” in between the hook and the famous verse about “Becky with the good hair.”
If you’ve seen the film that accompanies Lemonade, as well as all the videos for the Beyoncé tracks, then you get an idea of what was happening on the gargantuan display as it twisted, turned, and at one point (during the darker intro to the 2014 remix of “Crazy in Love”), opened up to expose an Amsterdam-type scene where Bey was joined by other women stuffed into compartments that resembled the windowed rooms in the red light district. If you’ve been to a large 4th of July celebration, you can picture the explosion of fireworks as they flew high above the stadium during “Bow Down” (“bitches!”). And if you’ve ever been up close at an arena-sized metal concert, you are familiar with the warm, blinding sensation that washed over the crowd as hundred-foot flames lit up the night sky when Bey claimed the world for all the girls.
I could go on and on about the special effects, and costume changes (although they were all just different colors and styles of leotards), and how almost all 30+ songs on the setlist had samples of other songs embedded within them in one way or another. I could also talk about how she thanked the crowd for coming out and getting all dressed up for her, and about how she’s been doing this for 20+ years, and about how she has her fans to thank for it, and about how she does it for all the girls and women and survivors out there…
But it’s all been done and said before, right? If you’re a Beyoncé fan, you’ve seen the live footage, you’ve heard the speeches, and you’ve probably been to the shows. The only difference about this one was in terms of scale (and the new songs, of course). The Formation World Tour is the first ever all-stadium female tour in history. That is quite an accomplishment, especially in a time when stadium tours are extremely rare. And Beyoncé took full advantage of that status to provide flawless visuals, sound, and choreography. Even when prerecorded vocals were used, they were done so in a tasteful fashion that didn’t take anything away from the live experience. I’m sure she meant every word she said in between songs as well. However, I don’t think there was anything particularly unique about what happened in San Diego versus what has happened (and will continue to happen) every night of the tour.
That being said, I do have a few personal ‘musical’ highlights of the night. Her solo performance of “All Night”, a song she described as her “favorite on the whole album…about forgiveness and redemption and all the sweetness that comes after,” was seriously moving. It might have been followed by one of the cheesiest guitar solos I have ever seen, but the one-two punch of “Don’t Hurt Yourself” and “Ring The Alarm” just proved those songs were meant for each other. “Drunk in Love” (with Kendrick’s “Swimming Pools” perfectly sampled) was powerful enough on its own, but blurring her image into intoxication while a conveyor belt turned the catwalk into her own personal ‘surfboard’ was nothing less than genius.
As I said before, her vocals were a mixture of live and recorded, but there was one point in the set where her voice became everything. “1+1” bled into an acapella “Love on Top”, before she got down on her knees to pay tribute to Prince with an absolutely mind-blowing interpretation of “The Beautiful Ones”. If there was one moment during the entire set that convinced me she had earned her status as Queen, it was when she was followed that chilling performance by removing herself from the stage to let Prince eulogize himself. With everything bathed in a violet glow, “Purple Rain” played over the PA while 50,000 lights lit the stadium. Everyone sang along at the top of their lungs. It was a fitting farewell to a legend.
When the show ended, with Beyoncé descending into the stage after a beautiful rendition of “Halo”, I couldn’t help but notice that the runtime of 2 hours and 5 minutes was comparable to that of a feature film. The THX intro made so much sense at that point. As I fought the crowd to get out of the stadium, the immediate replay of the show in my head was a visual one. Instead of humming a particular song she had performed, I had images of her and her dancers splashing around in a pool of water at the end of the catwalk. The photo of her with a razorblade in her mouth flashed through my brain, before I was watching her home movies all over again. The video of 90-year-old Hattie White giving her birthday speech gave way to gigantic neon cherries hanging above red-leather clad dancers who were miniature in comparison. I didn’t feel the same way I usually feel after attending a concert. I felt like I had just been witness to the live filming of a blockbuster movie.
So that brings me back to how I responded to people who asked about the shows. What hit me was that I felt like I had really seen Rihanna…and it was incredible to see Rihanna. In contrast, I just didn’t feel like I had really seen Beyoncé. I felt like I had seen Beyoncé play a part in the biggest pop opera ever performed. The Formation World Tour, as incredible as it might have been, was an extremely choreographed event. Nothing was left to chance. It was a Beyoncé production. Sure, she starred in the production, but I didn’t walk out of the stadium feeling like I had just spent time with Beyoncé Knowles-Carter; at least not the way I walked out of the arena feeling like I had just spent time with Robyn Rihanna Fenty.
Don’t get me wrong, the Anti World Tour was heavily choreographed as well, but it had a rawness to it that Beyoncé would never allow. Every aspect of the performance at Qualcomm (down to the expressions of gratitude and supposedly off-the-cuff comments) was meticulously planned ahead of time. Queen Bey claimed to have “woke up like this,” in her sparkling leotard and perfect curls, but seeing Rihanna in an over-sized trench coat, performing a rough version of “FourFiveSeconds” while her eyes rolled up to her messy hair, I actually believed it.
It’s been said you should never meet your idols, and I think it’s safe to say that Rihanna and Beyoncé will never let their fans really know them, but Rihanna exposes herself in a way Beyoncé doesn’t. It could all be an act (an illusion masquerading as a real-life girl), but if the true Rihanna is something completely different than who she portrays herself to be on stage, she is a much more convincing actress than Beyoncé will ever be.
None of this means either show was definitively superior to the other, but it does explain how two of the most successful pop stars in history (who happen to exist at the same time) can be so similar in so many ways, yet bring something so completely different to the stage. It also explains why I thought one of them put on an incredible show, while the other one was simply incredible.
Run the World (Girls)
Me, Myself and I
Runnin’ (Lose It All)
Don’t Hurt Yourself
Ring the Alarm
Drunk in Love
Love On Top
The Beautiful Ones
Crazy in Love
End of Time
* Some of these songs were not performed in their entirety, and there were many snippets and recordings of other songs during the show and during the interludes.