Sometime in the past couple of decades, giant concerts have -- for good or bad -- become like a visit to Disneyland, a bunch of carefully measured experiences that leave little room for anything that might make a live performance seem, well, live.
On Monday night at the Staples Center -- the second North American date of "The Mrs. Carter World Show" -- Beyoncé delivered more fireworks than any theme park could. The show had high energy, dazzling technology and videos, exquisite costumes, sizzling dancing girls, music that twisted and turned and did loop de loops, running from hip-hop to R&B to world rhythms. There was even a high-wire act. Spectacle, it has plenty of. Time to appreciate the artist behind the artistry, not so much.
Not that you will likely to be disappointed by Mrs. Carter or her show. Beyoncé relentlessly powers through the performance, her talents and drive beautifully on display. The night began with pounding drums and pyrotechnics, a video with some kind of Marie Antoinette coronation theme, as Beyonce emerges from below the stage and launches into "Run the World (Girls)," a message song with Indian/Bollywood elements. She followed that with "End of Time," a funky uptempo number with African beats.
The diva then slowed things down with the ballad "Flaws and All," which seems to want to show that she's human ("I'm a bitch," she sings) and not a superwoman after all. But despite the emotion Beyonce pours into the number, we aren't expected to really believe that, are we? Then came the first of the video interludes that broke up the performance. Oddly, this one had a "You Are a Queen" conceit that seems aimed at her fans -- we know she's a queen -- with her intoning lines like "isolation brings revelation." That led to the song "If I Were a Boy," which used strains of "Bittersweet Symphony" to give it a grunge feeling.
The interludes -- some amusing, some puzzling, like the one toward the end that seemed to be a tribute to herself -- functioned to give the diva time to make costume changes. She adhered to basics: outfits of black, white, red and a blue one with a purple hue, all eye-catching. One interlude had the line "seduction is more than beauty" and then ended with "tonight I'll be a 'Naughty Girl,' " leading into that sexy dance number.
Occasionally, Beyoncé interacted with her audience, but it was mostly limited to little teases, like one that turned into the song "Why Don't You Love Me?," another upbeat dance number. The question wasn't serious, the majority of the fans at the Staples Center were either texting their friends to make them jealous or taking snaps of the singer with their cell phones.
A highlight of the evening was when Beyoncé performed the torch song "1+1" -- where she climbed atop a grand piano and writhed while singing "pull me in close and don't let me go/ make love to me." When the spotlight moved to a sax player doing a sensuous solo, the singer disappeared into the dark and the next thing you know she was holding onto a rope and sailing over the audience, finally coming to rest on a stage at the center of the arena, all while singing the last part of the song.
Impressive, no doubt. Necessary? Not really. A passionately charged ballad delivered from the heart with real vocal style will send more electricity through an audience. But that goes to the Disneyland effect that predominates large concerts. Once, performers related more to the audiences. Sure, it was a way to for them to catch their breath, but they also talked about who they were and how or why a song was created or how it meant something to them.
Now we sell the artist as image. And since nothing slows down, the songs feel like a Disneyland ride, over before you know it and then you're back in line waiting for the next one. There is no room for mistakes, but on the other hand, there is no room for the unexpected highs, either.
Don't get me wrong. Beyoncé is an impressive performer who works hard. She's a good singer but not in the Whitney Houston echelon. She did a bit of "I Will Always Love You" on Monday as an homage to the late star, but slowed the song, avoiding any comparisons, before it morphed into her hit "Halo." Otherwise, the entertainer's act rarely lingers on anything.
Watching her do all those dance numbers is even exhausting, but fans and some critics shouldn't be too blown away. I saw Bette Midler when she was turning 60 jumping around the stage just as much, and that lady knows how to deliver a song. Beyoncé sometimes comes across as the delivery system for a multimedia concept, even as she is singing "I'm a grown woman/ I can do whatever I want."
That aside, a lot of the show is just simple fun. Of course, "Crazy In Love" -- one of the most cleverly constructed songs of the past decade -- and "Single Ladies," which the singer does back to back, brought the audience to its feet. And with fans (the kind with blades) strategically placed around the stage, Beyonce's blond hair is always blowing. It's a seductive sight. Who wouldn't want to spend an evening with Mrs. Carter?