Beyoncé Liberated

4.8.2014

By Aaron Hicklin

Behind the scenes of the world’s most powerful brand.

Photography by Santiago & Mauricio | Styling by Lysa Cooper | Additional Styling by Ty Hunter Makeup: Mally Roncal | Hair: Neal Farinah | Nails: Lisa Logan

If you pooled the collective memories of the staff at Parkwood, the small, can-do entertainment company that Beyoncé built, you would have enough material for the world’s longest biography. That it would also be a hagiography goes without saying; for those who work closest to her, Beyoncé is, quite literally, flawless. Again and again you will hear that she is the hardest-working person in showbiz, the most demanding of herself, the least complacent. And all of this, you will realize, is most likely true. But in all of the accolades and glowing character references, you will also find little shafts of light that fall on their subject in illuminating and lovely ways.

There is Angie Beyince, vice president of operations, who grew up spending her summers with her cousins, Beyoncé and Solange. “They loved Janet Jackson,” she tells me. “We’d talk all night and watch Showtime at the Apollo and my snake, Fendi, would just be crawling around. He’d sit on our heads while we watched TV.”

There is Ed Burke, visual director, who had never heard of Beyoncé when he met her 10 years ago, responding to a request from a friend to shoot her for a day. He spent the next seven years trailing her around the world with a camera. In Egypt, he and Beyoncé scaled a pyramid together as the rest of their group gave up or fell back. “It smelled like urine because there are no bathrooms up there,” he recalls. “She looked like Mother Teresa, wearing this white dress and a head wrap, and when we got to the top she sang Donny Hathaway’s ‘A Song for You.’ ”

There is Ty Hunter, her stylist, who was working at Bui-Yah-Kah, a boutique in Houston, when he first met Beyoncé’s mother, Miss Tina, on the hunt for outfits for Destiny’s Child. The two clicked. That was in 1998. “Miss Tina reminded me of my mother,” he says. “I call Bey and Solange and all the girls in Destiny’s Child my sisters. The family is just, you know, humble—not what people think it is. The picture [of Beyoncé] is ‘diva, diva, diva,’ but I’ve been here this long because she’s not.”

There is Lee Anne Callahan-Longo, the general manager at Parkwood, whose Boston childhood was informed by the music of Carole King, James Taylor, and Carly Simon. It was Callahan-Longo who came up with the arm motions that Beyoncé uses in her video for “XO.” “It’s so hilarious—I have a credit in the DVD for choreography,” she laughs, throatily. “If anyone knows me, I’m not a dancer. Never have been and never will be.”

EXCLUSIVE: LISTEN AND DOWNLOAD REMIXES OF 'XO' & 'BLOW'

And there is Yvette Noel-Schure, the publicist, a kind of den mother to them all. She grew up on the Caribbean island of Grenada, and has a soft, floral accent to prove it. “The only music in the house was Catholic hymns,” she recalls. “Once in a while I heard some calypso on the radio.” Noel-Schure was with Destiny’s Child in Los Angeles on September 11, 2001, when news of the attacks on New York and D.C. reached them. “My mom’s not here, so I guess you’re our mommy today,” she remembers Beyoncé telling her. “And I said, ‘My kid’s not here, so I think you guys have to be my kids today.’” She breaks into a faraway smile. “With or without this job, I will probably always feel connected to those young women in some way, shape, or form.”

If you want to get to know someone, it helps to get to know the people around them. In Beyoncé’s case, there was no alternative. The opportunity to write about her materialized with an unusual condition: There would be no face-to-face interview. The musician was in the midst of an intense international tour, dramatically overhauled to accommodate 10 songs from her new, eponymous album. And although I would get to fly to Glasgow to see her perform the revised set, I would have to settle for an email exchange for this story. But—and this was the silver lining—I would have unprecedented access to Parkwood Entertainment, the tight-knit, furiously devoted team at the heart of Brand Beyoncé. This was more than a concession—this was being invited into Bey’s inner sanctum.

That sanctum is hidden in a nondescript Midtown office block in New York, high enough to have good views of the city, and a short walk from Macy’s. Decorated like a boutique hotel—plush sectional sofas, hardwood floors, an enormous contemporary chandelier—the most visible sign of Beyoncé are the 17 Grammys that line one end of the conference room and a cool portrait of a young Michael Jackson, her idol. It was in that room, on the night of December 12 last year, that the staff at Parkwood (named for the street Beyoncé grew up on) gathered to mark the countdown to the surprise release of Beyoncé, her fifth album. For such a solid hitmaker, the new material was a departure, suffused with a raw, earthy sexuality that was more personal than fans were used to—and less polished. And by managing to keep the album under wraps until the moment of its release, Beyoncé was able to do something that has become all too rare for a global star: control the way in which her fans experienced her music. It’s hard to remember a major album of the past few years that wasn’t leaked in advance, or that didn’t reach the critics and overly opinionated bloggers before it reached the fans. As Noel-Schure likes to say, “Perception unchallenged becomes reality.” That’s actually a line from Motown: The Musical, but when she heard it earlier this year, it resonated. “The Internet is equivalent to a nice big jar of glue,” she tells me in her office. “It doesn’t go away.”

SLIDESHOW: EXCLUSIVE PHOTOS OF BEYONCÉ

But there is a corollary to this: The Internet is one big beehive—or BeyHive, as Queen Bey’s vocal, possessive fans are dubbed. Like Lady Gaga’s Little Monsters, they are a powerful force if you know how to use them. In the 12 hours after its surprise release, the new album generated 1.2 million tweets, reaching a high of 5,300 tweets per minute at its peak. Within three days, Beyoncé had sold 828,773 digital copies, making it the fastest-selling album ever in the iTunes store (the fact that it was an iTunes exclusive helped; in response, Amazon and Target refused to stock the CD, a pissing contest they will likely not risk a second time. Amazon has since relented; Target hasn’t.). In the following weeks and months it would be augmented by a tsunami of viral fan stunts: three grandmas reading the lyrics to “Drunk in Love” (and confusing Jay Z for Kanye West in the process); the a cappela outfit Pentatonix abbreviating the entire album into a brilliant six-minute medley; and the inevitable appropriation of lyrics into the everyday vernacular. Right now, “I woke up like this—flawless” and “surfbort” seem to be tracking nicely to be on par with “put a ring on it” or “bootylicious.” (It’s a testament to Parkwood’s canniness that they had Flawless and Surfboard sweatshirts ready to sell soon after the album’s release.) And all of this was achieved without resorting to the traditional marketing machine: the endless rounds of interviews, the elaborate release parties, the in-store promotions. Instead, by appealing directly to the people who mattered most—the fans—Beyoncé and her team at Parkwood conquered the age-old challenge of politicians, business titans, and Hollywood moguls: to control the message.

But there was something else, too. Beyoncé was designed to be the most personal statement of the musician’s career, an album not crafted to fulfill the usual dictates of the industry. Beyoncé, in an emailed response to one of my questions, described the process as “much freer than anything I’d done in the past. We really just tried to trust our instincts, embrace the moment, and keep it fun.” As an illustration she singled out the video for “Drunk in Love,” a fan favorite. “We were in Miami for Jay’s concert, and it was just the two of us, on the beach, amazing weather, and one outfit! It’s beautiful in its simplicity. If you want something to feel real and urgent, you can’t overthink it.”

Of course, other artists—Adele comes to mind—have shown that the more visceral and personal an album, the less there is a need for bells and whistles. But Adele was still building her career when she released 21, and had less to lose. For Beyoncé, after 10 years at the top, the most obvious direction to go was down. Instead, with the aid of her stealth team, she pulled off a career high. “I really feel that 20 years from now—50 years from now—people will remember December 13, 2013,” Noel-Schure says. “People are going to remember because it will have shifted the way business is done in the record industry.”

This may seem like so much hot air in an industry that thrives on it, but you need only compare Beyoncé’s game plan to Lady Gaga’s, with Artpop, to realize just how successfully Beyoncé has managed to insulate herself from the brutal cycle of hype and backlash that has become the industry norm.

Out: Your new album is also your most sexually liberated project. The confidence and maturity and the fantasy speak to women almost as if in code. How do you create this conversation?

Beyoncé: I’d like to believe that my music opened up that conversation. There is unbelievable power in ownership, and women should own their sexuality. There is a double standard when it comes to sexuality that still persists. Men are free and women are not. That is crazy. The old lessons of submissiveness and fragility made us victims. Women are so much more than that. You can be a businesswoman, a mother, an artist, and a feminist—whatever you want to be—and still be a sexual being. It’s not mutually exclusive.

It is a Friday night in February in Glasgow, Scotland, and the wind is whipping brutally around the corners of the Hilton, where team C of Beyoncé’s tour group is staying (team B is in the more charming Malmaison Hotel; the whereabouts of team A, which presumably includes Beyoncé, are a closely guarded secret). I have arrived from New York that morning, and after a quick excursion for a sandwich and a coffee, I make my way along the rain-lashed highway to the Hydro arena, where Beyoncé has been rehearsing for most of the day.

SLIDESHOW: MEET THE BEY CREW

Tags: Music, Beyonce, BeyOut
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