People who get struck by lightning report a curious phenomenon-- just prior to being struck, they describe a moment's ominous apprehension. A tingle, a growing numbness, a cosmic foreshadowing that something major and dangerous is about to occur.
And then whammo. Pants on fire, shoes blown halfway across the golf course. Lying on your back, dazed and smoldering, wondering what in the world just happened.
So it was at Beyonce's show last night at the Target Center. Whatever the capacity crowd at the Target Center thought they would be seeing, the reality of Beyonce proved so much grander, so much more moving, so much more elegant and so much more visceral, that everyone in attendance seemed in a daze of eiphany as they poured onto the street.
Beyonce struck hard and fast. The lights dimmed, the curtain parted, and there she stood, in an Amazon pose of defiance, of near menace, her hip cocked, a pose she kept for nearly a minute before ripping into heavy hitters like "Crazy In Love, "Naughty Girl," and "Get Bodied." For this opener, her stage presence did the heavy lifting-- it was more strut than dance, and she belted the songs while standing at the edge of the stage while her dancers backed her like delirious handmaidens.
That tingle that lightning victims sense before the strike? It came five songs in. Her dancers outfitted her in a blooming whtie bridal gown and headdress. As Beyonce began the first notes of Sarah McLauchlin's "Arms of an Angel," the goosebumps arose. And when she glided into the hymn "Ave Maria," the tears took hold. Before thousands of living ears, Beyonce's voice transformed into a mezzo-soprano so operatic and so deeply impassioned, that the top-40 radio hits that she belted so strongly to begin, and the sexed, empowered pose she struck so confidently, seemed like figments of a distant, waking dream.
The middle movement was lifted by up-tempo hits like "Radio" and "Check On It." Her strut returned. There were high-flying trapeze acts that brought her soaring over the crowd, turning midair somersaults before descedning gently on a sattelite center stage. There were raptly choreographed line dance numbers. There were stunning face to face rejoinders with her audience, in which Beyonce showed a marked fearlessness to be at once remote and achingly present, at once tender and demanding.
But the dimension of her character that she illuminated during her performance of "Ave Maria" is what defined the show, and what made her something more than a pop-icon swapping costumes as quickly as she swapped songs and come-hither glances at the growd. It was a mood she repeated when performing "At Last," the Etta James classic that she sang for the Obamas during their inaugural first dance. Behind her, the video screens were alight with footage from the civil rights movement-- of black protestors marching on Washington, of the million-strong throng that crowded the reflection pond for Obama's inauguration.
It was a mood she repeated once more during "Halo," which she dedicated to Michael Jackson, and which she performed on her knees, the music dimmed to a quiet murmur, while a photograph of Jackson in his enigmatic prime stood behind her.
As a performer of big hit dance numbers, no comparison to any of her peers is appropriate. Beside her, the competition seems inert, dim-witted, and unsophisticated, and she is better compared to Freddie Mercury than to Spears or Aguilera. In party mode, Beyonce tapped into the old-soul allure of Tina Turner, of Aretha Franklin in her prime days.
But as a performer of soul-rending slow songs, Beyonce revealed something much more complex about herself-- that she is deeply aware of the human soul, and of what it regards as lasting and permanent. The thousands in attendance will certainly remember the sass with which she tossed her sweat towels into the crowd, or the dexterity with which she changed costumes, or the empowered thrill she derived from commanding the sell-out crowd in a call in response.
But they'll be secondary sensations. What will last from last night's show is the sudden, alien sensation of being brought to an emotional precipice and being made to dangle there, helpless. Of the persistent sense that we were all, for the two and a half hours that she kept the stage, being held in the palm of her hand. And that her chrome exterior of glitz and glamor is nothing but bait in a beartrap-- the truth of Beyonce is as powerful, as affecting, and as truthful as the best we've ever known. When we say that we have never seen anything like Beyonce Knowles, we mean it in the most literal, awe-struck sense.