By Aaron Hicklin
Themes of money, gender, and power have coursed through Beyoncé’s music since 1999’s “Bills, Bills, Bills,” with Destiny’s Child, but the in-your-face sexuality of her new songs is reminiscent of Madonna’s Sex. “Gone are the days of people making you feel guilty because you’re sexual,” says Noel-Schure, who recalls the younger staff watching carefully for her reaction the first time she listened to the album. “This is not the old days. We need to teach the young responsibility, but you’re not gonna tell somebody, ‘Don’t be sexual.’ Let’s just call a spade a spade.”
Spade-calling is something of a nascent role for Beyoncé, who unleashed her inner activist on Instagram last year, posting messages of support for marriage equality and the Justice for Trayvon Martin campaign. Like Madonna, she appears to have found her voice as she’s grown and blossomed into a global star and businesswoman. It’s no small feat for a black woman to be able to express both her power and her sexuality without being reduced in the process to a whore who has forgotten her place. As she says in a new campaign designed to help young girls develop self-esteem, “I’m not bossy—I’m the boss.” It’s a hackneyed sound bite, but on stage, where Beyoncé is at her best and most powerful, you witness how that same confidence resonates and connects. With her all-female backing crew, the Sugar Mamas, Beyoncé gave her Scottish fans a show to remember that night, but she gave them something else, too: a role model.
Out: Your fifth album has been noted for being feminist, but a number of people in the LGBT community also identify with it. Were the lyrics ever written consciously with different groups in mind?
Beyoncé: While I am definitely conscious of all the different types of people who listen to my music, I really set out to make the most personal, honest, and best album I could make. I needed to free myself from the pressures and expectations of what I thought I should say or be, and just speak from the heart. Being that I am a woman in a male-dominated society, the feminist mentality rang true to me and became a way to personalize that struggle…But what I’m really referring to, and hoping for, is human rights and equality, not just that between a woman and a man. So I’m very happy if my words can ever inspire or empower someone who considers themselves an oppressed minority…We are all the same and we all want the same things: the right to be happy, to be just who we want to be and to love who we want to love.
When you talk with the team at Parkwood, it’s striking how often Thriller comes up in conversation as a kind of Holy Grail for the music industry. “The way music is distributed is so greatly different than it was in the ’80s and ’90s,” Lauren Wirtzer-Seawood, head of digital, laments one afternoon. “You don’t have those three or four iconic albums a year; you have 400 albums that came out in a year, and you have to remember what you listened to.”
At Beyoncé HQ, as the team embarked on the project of releasing the fifth album, the specter of Thriller became something of a catalyst—the model of a cultural moment that the music industry no longer seemed capable of engineering. Part of the challenge was how to win attention long enough to give the music a chance. “I watched a 20-year-old lady go through the Miley Cyrus record in less than 35 seconds on iTunes when it came out,” says Jim Sabey, head of worldwide marketing, grimacing at the memory. “She listened to seven seconds of each song, and I looked at her and she’s, like, ‘Ugh, it’s terrible.’ I said, ‘How do you know? You didn’t even listen to it.’ ”
This, then, is the flipside of the limitless new world in which musicians find themselves. No longer under the thumb of out-of-touch record executives, they find themselves instead at the mercy of ADD-afflicted music fans, surfing multiple sites at one time. You can imagine the anxiety at Camp Beyoncé as summer turned into fall, and they witnessed first Lady Gaga, then Katy Perry, stumble. Both those artists’ albums, ArtPop and Prism, came freighted with expectations, and both were leaked prematurely and almost immediately pronounced disappointments. “Beyoncé put two years of her heart and soul into this album,” says Sabey. “Any artist—a 13-year-old in Atlanta who puts together an album and puts it on YouTube—wants you to go on the journey. They want you to experience the art the way they intended it.”
But the 13-year-old in Atlanta doesn’t have the support team that Beyonce has so assiduously nurtured—a team that has known her for much of her adult life, and in some cases longer. “She’s kept true to the people who have kept true to her,” says Kwasi Fordjour, creative coordinator. “I think that’s amazing—you rarely see artists who keep hold of their A-team throughout their career.” (In an email, Beyonce returned the compliment, saying, “I call them the underdogs because so many people doubted the team I put together.”)
Much of Beyoncé was recorded in the summer and fall of 2012 in a purpose-built studio in the Hamptons. “It was kind of like Survivor or The Real World,” recalls Melissa Vargas, the brand manager. “We slept in there. Everyone had a room. There was only a certain number of people that could come, so if you were vibing with her and everything was going great, you would stay for longer. We had a chef, and every single person in that house sat down at dinner with Jay and Beyoncé.”
It was Beyoncé who decided not to preempt the release of her album with a single, or the typical campaign. She would simply upload it to iTunes, in one go. A big part of the challenge was how to fit the making of all those videos around Beyoncé’s global tour, which had kicked off last April. “Honestly, I was, like, ‘You want to do what?’ ” recalls Vargas. “How are you going to shoot videos when she’s on tour? I mean, directors need to prep.” Beyoncé, too, worried she was losing control toward the end of the process. “I was recording, shooting videos, and performing on the tour every night, all at the same time. At some point I felt like, What am I doing? Is this too ambitious? Even the day the record was to be released I was scared to death. But I also knew if I was that scared, something big was about to happen.” Vargas found herself on a plane to Paris to shoot videos for “Flawless” and “Partition” with the English video director Jake Nava (who’d made the video for 2003’s “Crazy in Love”), and proceeded from there to hopscotch around the world—Puerto Rico, Brazil, London, Paris, Australia, New Zealand, and Houston, where the video for “Blow” was filmed in a much-loved roller rink from Beyoncé’s childhood.
“What the visual album did for people was, they stopped and they watched the entire thing,” says Sabey. “There was no way you could listen to the first six bars of Beyoncé and skip to the next song. You were going to experience this album as a body of work.”
Or, as Carl Fysh, Beyoncé’s U.K. publicist, tells me over a pint of beer after the show in Glasgow: “My generation remembers the excitement of knowing an album was coming out—you saved your pocket money, you went to the record store, you queued up, you got the album and took it home, but you hadn’t heard a thing about it. You looked at everything, you put it on, and you played it 85 times. I think Beyoncé, by doing what she did, let this generation have that experience—of having the album to yourself.”