Following the release of Beyoncé’s secret album, Aaron Hicklin is offered unprecedented access to the people who know her best. With these insights he joins the star on tour and asks her about feminism, sexuality and giving her fans what she wants…
Aaron Hicklin theGuardian.com 4/19/14
If you pooled the collective memories of the staff at Parkwood, the small, can-do entertainment company that Beyoncé built, you might have enough material for the world’s longest biography. That it would also be a hagiography goes without saying; for those who work closest to her, Beyoncé is, quite literally, flawless. Again and again you will hear that she is the hardest working person in showbiz, the most demanding of herself, the least complacent. And all of this, you will realise, is most likely true. But in all the accolades and glowing character references you will also find little shafts of light that fall on their subject in illuminating and lovely ways.
There is Angie Beyince, vice-president of operations, who grew up spending her summers with her cousins, Beyoncé and Solange. “They loved Janet Jackson,” she tells me. “We’d talk all night and watch Showtime at the Apollo and my snake, Fendi, would just be crawling around. He’d sit on our heads while we watched TV.”
There is Ed Burke from Lyme Regis, visual director, who had never heard of Beyoncé when he met her 10 years ago, responding to a request from a friend to shoot her for a day. He spent the next seven years trailing her around the world with a camera. In Egypt, he and Beyoncé scaled a pyramid together as the rest of their group gave up or fell back. “It smelled like urine because there are no bathrooms up there,” he recalls. “She looked like Mother Teresa, wearing this white dress and a head wrap, and when we got to the top she sang Donny Hathaway’s ‘A Song for You.'”
Beyonce Flawless … The release of Beyoncé’s album last December relied on perfect delivery. Photograph: Rob Hoffman
There is Ty Hunter, her stylist, who was working at Bui-Yah-Kah, a boutique in Houston, when he first met Beyoncé’s mother, Miss Tina, on the hunt for outfits for Destiny’s Child. The two clicked. That was in 1998. “Miss Tina reminded me of my mother,” he says. “I call Bey and Solange and all the girls in Destiny’s Child my sisters. The family is just, you know, humble – not what people think it is. The picture [of Beyoncé] is ‘diva, diva, diva’, but I’ve been here this long because she’s not.”
“She’s kept true to the people who have kept true to her,” agrees Kwasi Fordjour, creative coordinator. “I think that’s amazing – you rarely see artists who keep hold of their A-team throughout their career.”
There is Lee Anne Callahan-Longo, the general manager at Parkwood, whose Boston childhood was illuminated by the music of Carole King, James Taylor and Carly Simon. It was Callahan-Longo who came up with the arm motions that Beyoncé uses in her video for “XO.” “It’s so hilarious – I have a credit in the DVD for choreography,” she laughs, throatily. “If anyone knows me, I’m not a dancer. Never have been and never will be.”
And there is Yvette Noel-Schure, the publicist, a kind of den mother to them all. She grew up on the Caribbean island of Grenada, and has a soft, floral accent to prove it. “The only music in the house was Catholic hymns,” she recalls. “Once in a while I heard some calypso on the radio.” Noel-Schure was with Destiny’s Child in Los Angeles on 11 September 2001, when news of the attacks on New York and DC reached them. “My mom’s not here, so I guess you’re our mommy today,” she remembers Beyoncé telling her. “And I said, ‘My kid’s not here, so I think you guys have to be my kids today.'” She breaks into a faraway smile. “With or without this job, I will probably always feel connected to those young women.”
If you want to get to know someone, it helps to get to know the people around them. In Beyoncé’s case, there was no alternative. The opportunity to write about her materialised with an unusual condition: there would be no face-to-face interview. The musician was in the midst of an intense international tour, dramatically overhauled to accommodate 10 songs from her new, eponymous album. And although I would see her perform the revised set in Glasgow, I would have to settle for an email exchange for this story. But – and this was the silver lining – I would have unprecedented access to Parkwood Entertainment, the tight-knit, furiously devoted team at the heart of Brand Beyoncé. This was more than a concession – this was being invited into Bey’s inner sanctum.
That sanctum is hidden in a nondescript Midtown office block in New York, high enough to have good views of the city, and a short walk from Macy’s. Decorated like a boutique hotel – plush sectional sofas, hardwood floors, an enormous contemporary chandelier – the most visible sign of Beyoncé are the 17 Grammies that line one end of the conference room and a cool portrait of a young Michael Jackson that hangs on the wall.
It was in that room, on the night of 12 December last year, that the staff at Parkwood (named for the street Beyoncé grew up on) gathered to mark the countdown to the surprise release of Beyoncé, her fifth album. For a solid hit maker like Beyoncé the new material was a departure, suffused with a raw, earthy sexuality that was more personal than fans were used to – and less polished. And by managing to keep the album under wraps until minutes before midnight on the East Coast on 13 December, Beyoncé was able to do something that has become all too rare for a global star in recent years: control the way in which her fans experienced her music.
Beyonce Beyonce is one of the famous faces who has joined the #banbossy campaign. Photograph: Joel Ryan/Invision for Parkwood Entertainment
It’s hard to remember a major album of the last few years that wasn’t leaked in advance, or which didn’t reach the critics and overly opinionated bloggers before it reached the fans. Or, as Noel-Schure likes to say: “Perception unchallenged becomes reality.” That’s actually a line from Motown: The Musical, but when she heard it earlier this year, it resonated. In an age of shrinking attention spans and digital overload, one negative review can predetermine expectations. “The internet is equivalent to a nice big jar of glue,” she told me in her office one day. “It doesn’t go away.”
But there is a corollary to this: the internet is one big beehive – or BeyHive, as Queen Bey’s vocal, possessive fans are dubbed. Like Lady Gaga’s Little Monsters, they are a powerful force if you know how to use them. In the 12 hours after its surprise release, the new album generated 1.2m tweets, reaching a high of 5,300 tweets per minute at its peak. Within three days Beyoncé had sold 828,773 digital copies, making it the fastest-selling album ever in the iTunes store (the fact that it was an iTunes exclusive helped; in response, Amazon and Target refused to stock the physical version, a pissing contest they will likely not risk a second time. Amazon has since relented; Target hasn’t).
In the following weeks and months it would be augmented by a tsunami of viral fan stunts: three grandmas reading the lyrics to “Drunk in Love” (and confusing Jay Z for Kanye West in the process); the acappella outfit Pentatonix abbreviating the entire album into a brilliant six-minute medley; and the inevitable appropriation of lyrics into everyday vernacular. (It’s a testament to Parkwood’s canniness that they had Flawless and Surfboard sweatshirts ready to sell soon after the album’s release.) And all of this was achieved without resorting to the traditional marketing machine: the endless rounds of interviews, parties, in-store promotions. Instead, by appealing directly to the people who mattered most – the fans – Beyoncé and her team conquered the age-old challenge of politicians, business titans and Hollywood moguls: to control the message.
But there was something else, too. Beyoncé was designed to be the most personal statement of her career, an album not crafted to fulfil the usual dictates of the industry. Beyoncé, in an emailed response to my questions, described the process as “much freer than anything I’d done in the past. We really just tried to trust our instincts, embrace the moment, and keep it fun.” As an illustration she singled out the video for “Drunk in Love”. “We were in Miami for Jay’s concert, and it was just the two of us, on the beach, amazing weather, and one outfit! It’s beautiful in its simplicity. If you want something to feel real and urgent, you can’t overthink it.”
AH: “Your new album is also your most sexually liberated project. The confidence and maturity and the fantasy speak to women almost as if in code. How do you create this conversation?”
Beyoncé: “I’d like to believe that my music opened up that conversation. There is unbelievable power in ownership and women should own their sexuality. There is a double standard when it comes to sexuality that still persists. Men are free and women are not. That is crazy. The old lessons of submissiveness and fragility made us victims. Women are so much more than that. You can be a businesswoman, a mother, an artist and a feminist, whatever you want to be, and still be a sexual being. It’s not mutually exclusive.”
It is a Friday night in February in Glasgow, and the wind is whipping brutally around the corners of the Hilton, where team C of Beyoncé’s tour group is staying (team B is in the more charming Malmaison Hotel; the whereabouts of team A, which presumably includes Beyoncé, is a closely guarded secret). I make my way along the rain-lashed road to the Hydro arena, where Beyoncé has been rehearsing.
Although it is technically the 110th date of her eye-popping extravaganza the “Mrs Carter Show”, it is only the second night of her dramatically revamped line-up. A few nights earlier she pulled an all-nighter to rehearse new material before dashing to London for a last-minute appearance at the Brit Awards, only to dash back – still in her ball gown – to finish choreographing the show for the first of her two nights in Glasgow. This was no minor tweak – 10 new songs were added to the line-up, others abbreviated or turned into medleys to make room. Most artists would spend months working out the kinks. Beyoncé took three days.
“She’s completely relentless in her pursuit of perfectionism,” says her creative director, Todd Tourso, backstage. “It sounds cheesy, but that’s why I’m willing to work so hard for her. When you have this type of leadership and muse and mentor, I think the sky’s the limit.”
Like most of the staff at Parkwood, Courtney Anderson, Beyoncé’s dance curator and A&R consultant, was in the office at midnight when the album dropped. “I’ve never had so many grown men and women send me ‘OMG’ tweets,” he laughs. “The initial reaction was: ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ And I was like, ‘But it’s here! Isn’t it great? What’s your favourite track?’ And then the conversation quickly switched to the music.” Which had been the point all along.
AH: “On certain songs, such as ‘XO’, your voice is a lot more raw than fans are used to. Was that a conscious decision to be less polished?”
Beyoncé: “Yes, when I recorded ‘XO’ I was sick with a bad sinus infection. I recorded it in a few minutes just as a demo and decided to keep the vocals. I lived with most of the songs for a year and never rerecorded the demo vocals. I really loved the imperfections so I kept the original demos. I spent the time I’d normally spend on backgrounds and vocal production on getting the music perfect. There were days I spent solely on getting the perfect mix of sounds for the snare alone. Discipline, patience, control, truth, risk, effortlessness were all things I thought about while I was putting this album together.”
If you want to understand the origins of Beyoncé, start with Angie Beyince. The similarity in their names is no coincidence: Beyoncé’s mother – Beyince’s aunt – is Tina Beyince (the name comes from their Creole ancestry), and the cousins were so close growing up that they spent every summer together. “The last day of school, Aunt Tina would pick me up and I’d spend the entire summer at her house, and then be dropped back home the night before school started again,” Beyince recalls, quickly finding her stride as we sit in her glass-walled office one frigid afternoon in February. A big Chanel purse sits next to her desk; she wears bright orange nail polish with lipstick to match. When I ask her what shade of orange it is, she shakes her head playfully. “A lady never tells!” she laughs. “They call me the fourth member of Destiny’s Child. I’m like the original diva. I don’t tell my lipstick colours, my perfume. I’ve been wearing the same perfume for maybe 14 years, and I’ve never uttered the words to anyone.”
Back in the mid- to late 90s, before she could afford a Chanel purse, Beyince was a fixer of sorts: tour accountant, travel booker, media liaison, laundry washer – if it needed doing, she’d do it. She recalls hours spent finagling rooms at cheap hotels by trading T-shirts and autographed photos, and hectic nights as a dresser, changing the girls’ clothes during the show. “I’d finish the show and go to the cash office with all the promoters and I would count out the money, which is funny because I’m a very petite woman.” She shrugs. “But I refer to myself as a lioness. I’m a bad chick. I don’t play. I went in there with all male promoters, and I’d count that money out.
“The first day I did that they were a dollar short. And I said: ‘I’m missing a dollar.’ They said: ‘Oh no, baby girl,’ everything to shrink me, to diminish me – ‘Oh no, sweetie pie, oh no honey, no, no.’ I said: ‘OK, I’ll count again.'” She mimes the action of counting bills, explaining that the whole process would typically take hours – and of course she eventually got her dollar.
Beyince is a perfect evocation of the kind of female resourcefulness and grit that Beyoncé was referring to when she described herself recently in Vogue as a “modern-day feminist”. The claim has been much debated on blogs, and you have to admire Beyoncé for daring to go there. A minor skirmish has erupted around a lyric in “Drunk in Love”: “Eat the cake, Anna Mae,” apparently lifted from a scene of abuse in the 1993 Tina Turner biopic, What’s Love Got to Do with It? For some, this strains Beyoncé’s credibility, but Beyoncé’s masterstroke was to find a way to ensure that none of this mattered, by getting her music to the fans before the critics, professional and self-appointed, had time to weigh in. That, too, is power.
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 recalled 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 and confidence: “I’m not bossy – I’m the boss.” It’s a hackneyed soundbite 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.
AH: “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 personalise 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.”
At Beyoncé HQ, as the team embarked on the project of releasing the fifth album, the spectre 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,” Jim Sabey, head of worldwide media, tells me, 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?'”
This, then, is the flipside of the limitless new world in which musicians find themselves. No longer under the thumb of out-of-touch executives, they find themselves at the mercy of ADD-afflicted 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.
Much of Beyoncé was recorded in the summer and autumn of 2012 in a purpose-built studio in the Hamptons. “It was kind of like Survivor,” recalls Melissa Vargas, the brand manager. “We slept in there. Everyone had a room. There was only a certain amount 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 didn’t matter if you were the assistant engineer, the producer, or a writer.”
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. “Honestly, I was, like: ‘You want to do what?’ recalls Vargas. Even Beyoncé confessed that she worried she was losing control towards 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.”
“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 UK publicist, told me over a pint 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.”
For Beyoncé, finding a way to let her fans experience her music the way she experienced Thriller – a cornerstone of her childhood – was the simple, uncomplicated wellspring at the heart of her gambit. Whether the music industry will rethink its exhausted strategy is another matter, but Beyoncé has proven that with support, tenacity – and a lot of secrecy – it can be done.
And for her next challenge? “I honestly don’t know what’s next,” she says. “I’m just enjoying this moment right now!”