Beyoncé has achieved the American Dream. Not just the money part, although she’s reportedly worth $450 million. Not just accruing property, although her newborn daughter is said to have a nursery suite in Barclays Center that costs $1 million per year. Not even just the dream about the perfect family, though her “Drunk in Love” duet with Jay Z at the 2014 Grammys revived the institution of marriage in a way unmatched until SCOTUS cast a rainbow over history this year. No: on top of all this, there’s one American Dream that Beyoncé claims almost uniquely, a type of power that eludes even (and especially) the very powerful, summed up best by a sentence in a New York Times article from May 2015: “Beyoncé, a representative explained, has not answered any direct questions for more than a year.”
Her representative meant questions from journalists, presumably. (The Times article was about her vegan meal delivery service; Beyoncé supposedly “dodged” phone calls for a month before finally opening her email correspondence with: “It’s important you know I’m not a vegan.”) For a pop star—and a female one—to not only make herself unavailable to the New York Times but also to insist, as she did when Amy Wallace profiled her for GQ in 2013, that she be the one to record her interviews with journalists, it’s a remarkable refusal. While the President of the United States is going on podcasts and doing Twitter Q&As, Beyoncé has simply stopped answering questions altogether. She’s a woman from whom everyone wants everything, yet she does not have to answer to anyone at all.
This is also, of course, the basic definition of a queen. And the name Queen Bey feels barely hyperbolic for Beyoncé, who is outsized and legendary not by lineage but by her own will and design. She commands her Beyhive, the most rabid fan base in existence; she inspires Illuminati jokes that don’t feel entirely like jokes; she signifies such broad sexual power that bell hooks called her both “slave” and “terrorist.” While black women in America are still politically erased and economically devalued to a degree that makes every exception notable, Beyoncé—rich, powerful, seemingly invulnerable, and nearly universally celebrated, desired, and admired—seems both to forecast a better future and to bring it closer within reach.
Beyoncé is an object lesson in the specific, underused power of sheer withholding.
Through a decade where the nature of pop celebrity has shifted wildly, Beyoncé has won her position by exerting an unprecedented level of control. She dictates the means of production: there was the legendary surprise album drop, its production surely requiring a forest of NDAs. She manages her image compulsively, Instagramming constantly but only ever tweeting eight times. She will refuse to do interviews even for her own cover stories, as she did with T magazine in 2014. She was on this year’s coveted September cover of Vogue, but gave no quotes; instead, the accompanying story was populated by praise from collaborators and friends. She swerves her narratives: though people still whisper that she faked her pregnant belly with Blue, she shut down rumors of a second pregnancy with a single uncaptioned photo posted to her Tumblr in which she sat on Jay Z’s lap and drank a bowl-size glass of red wine. And, by releasing an extended promo reel and calling it an “HBO documentary” (2013’s Life Is But a Dream), she made it clear that her story is not a conversation but a monologue. Willing to present herself but never explain, Beyoncé is an object lesson in the specific, underused power of sheer withholding; she’s also a reminder of how long and perfectly you have to grind to even get to a place where you can give this tactic a try.
Beyoncé, after all, has spent three times as much time in the music business as the eight years that God gave her to get ready. (And when those eight years were up, they were up: her dad used to make her run a morning mile while singing to build up her endurance.) At 33, she’s a better vocalist and dancer than anyone else working, with her phenomenal natural talent continually honed by the fact that she’s such a professional—and/or perfectionist—that she watches concert footage after every show, like an athlete reviewing tape. She said, in her GQ profile, that she critiques herself, her outfits, her hair, her dancers, and her cameramen in her hotel room and that, in the morning after the show, everyone gets their notes.
The control Beyoncé exerts on her image and narrative is self-perpetuating. She has arranged her looks, angles, abilities, and performances so that the biggest possible crack will still be infinitesimal; she has fixed media expectations so that everyone knows that Queen Bey is going to detachedly get her way. The effect, in practice, is flawlessness, which further enlarges her legend: as she becomes even more legendary, she gains ever-increasing power to further her own control.
It’s part of Beyoncé’s genius that, to some extent, she’s open about the fact that her perfection is won with considerable effort.
This feedback loop can be somewhat terrifying. As the American political machine gears up for its next presidential election, Beyoncé’s self-produced, self-directed documentary seems to foreshadow a world in which we get a pre-packaged narrative or nothing at all. But Beyoncé, like any contemporary politician, is careful; she’s pinned her name to fundamental ideals. Who can argue with sex, money, hard work, family, and hip-hop? Who can argue with feminism when it’s Beyoncé proclaiming it? After the 2014 VMAs performance that felt like the crown jewel in her PR strategy—her royal body silhouetted against the word “FEMINIST” written sky-high—she seemed far above the “is she or isn’t she” identity-politics games that play out on the internet. The image was indelible, and Beyoncé didn’t have to explain exactly what she meant.
It’s by sticking to images, ultimately, that Beyoncé’s iron-fistedness will help her last. On her Instagram account, she wordlessly conveys the personality that came out in early interviews, the shy girl with an electric undercurrent of ego. Sometimes she’ll post a photo that looks doctored, like her thigh gap was carved out in Photoshop. But who would be surprised by that? It’s part of Beyoncé’s genius that, to some extent, she’s open about the fact that her perfection is won with considerable effort. “Pretty Hurts” and “Flawless” managed a trick that, today, perhaps only Taylor Swift can replicate: using vulnerability to signal solidarity with her audience while simultaneously asserting her supremacy over all. The strategy has a good amount of duplicity baked in—pretty hurts, maybe, but it sure seems to be working for her. Still, as Swift and Beyoncé both prove, we’re happy to settle for heavily crafted intimacy; replicating their strategies on our own Instagrams and iPhones, we’re increasingly unable to distinguish that intimacy from any other kind.
The incident in which Beyoncé’s supreme image control revealed itself to be essentially beyond public comprehension was the elevator fight—that grainy footage, appearing to show her famous sister lashing out at her famous husband as Beyoncé stood silently in the corner. Whether she was in shock or performing, there was no crack in her demeanor, even when the family exited the elevator: Beyoncé’s smile was set, as it frequently is in public, to an almost chemical calm. Anyone clamoring for a different response from Beyoncé after the incident—something real, but in an ugly way for once—would get nothing; eventually, her family issued a terse and informationless three-sentence statement. Then, a few months later, Beyoncé mentioned the incident on the Nicki Minaj remix of “Flawless.” Of course sometimes shit go down when there’s a billion dollars on an elevator. Rumors about the incident were still floating—infidelity, divorce—but rumors are always floating about Beyoncé, and her non-explanations always override them. Today, no one talks about the elevator anymore. Among all the ways Beyoncé’s control works for her, this is the realest: when you don’t answer direct questions, you can’t lie. You never have to.