She does macro, too — she was joined onstage by approximately 100 dancers, singers and musicians, a stunning tableau that included fraternity pledges and drumlines and rows of female violinists in addition to the usual crackerjack backup dancers (which here included bone breakers and also dancers performing elaborate routines with cymbals).
Some superstars prize effortlessness, but Beyoncé shows her work — the cameras captured the force and determination in her dancing, and also her sweat. She performed for almost two hours, with only a few breaks, and her voice rarely flagged. Occasionally her set was punctuated with fireworks that, compared with what was happening onstage, seemed dull.
Beyoncé was originally meant to perform at Coachella last year, but rescheduled for this April after becoming pregnant; her Coachella performances this weekend and next are her only solo U.S. dates this year. “Thank you for allowing me to be the first black woman to headline Coachella,” she said midset, then added an aside that was, in fact, the main point: “Ain’t that ’bout a bitch.”
Big-tent festivals, generally speaking, are blithe spaces — they don’t invite much scrutiny, because they can’t stand up to it. But Beyoncé’s simple recitation of fact was searing, especially on the same night that, in Cleveland, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame finally inducted Nina Simone and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, 15 and 45 years after their deaths, and also Bon Jovi, a band in which everyone is very much alive.
She was arguing not in defense of herself, but of her forebears. And her performance was as much ancestral tribute and cultural continuum — an uplifting of black womanhood — as contemporary concert. She sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” often referred to as the black national anthem, incorporated vocal snippets of Malcolm X and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and nodded at Ms. Simone’s “Strange Fruit.”
And she rendered her personal history as well. During the second half of the show, she unfurled a kind of This Is Your Life in reverse. First came her husband, Jay-Z, on “Déjà Vu” — with him, she was affectionate while easily outshining him. Then, a true surprise: a reunion with her former Destiny’s Child groupmates Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams, during which she happily ceded the main spotlight. After that came a playful dance routine with her sister, Solange, on “Get Me Bodied.” (Sadly, there was no “Ring Off” with her mother, nor a rendition of “Daddy Issues” with her father.)
As Beyoncé has gotten older, she’s been making music that’s increasingly visceral, both emotionally and historically. She is one of the only working pop stars who need not preoccupy herself with prevailing trends, or the work of her peers. She is an institution now, and that has allowed her freedom. “Lemonade” is her most accomplished album, and also a wild and risky one — thematically but also musically.
That may be one reason that last year, Beyoncé lost the Grammy for album of the year to Adele, the sort of upset that triggered a storm of criticism about the Grammys’ relevance, and, effectively, an almost-apology from Adele. In time, though, that moment will feel like a glitch. That space on the mantel will be filled by a National Medal of the Arts, or a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Like no other musician of her generation apart from Kanye West, Beyoncé is performing musicology in real time. It is bigger than any tribute she might receive. History is her stage.