The Pope is visiting Philadelphia (his first official sojourn to the U.S.) in just a few weeks, but Saturday night (Sept. 5), the city was flooded with people on a different sort of pilgrimage. Beyonce was in town, headlining day one of the holiday weekend’s Made in America festival, which meant the Beyhive was also there seeking one of the singer’s empowering sermons. Needless to say, she delivered.
After waiting for what seemed like an eternity among the festival-weary throng (and following a set from maybe her most improbable openers ever, rock band Modest Mouse), a chorus of “Happy Birthday” broke out in the crowd for the just-34 Bey (her birthday was Friday). As if on cue, anonymous synths that would become her most recent release, the melancholy “Crazy in Love” remix kicked in and the crowd got its first glimpse of the woman leading the night’s revival, clad (per usual) in an impeccable sequined leotard and thigh-high red boots.
The performance was bulletproof, as Bey translated much of her latest self-titled release (and a healthy number of Destiny’s Child cuts) onto a stage set that could have easily been borrowed from the New York City Ballet’s storage locker (with the addition of some sturdy poles, of course). Her current show has an arthouse edge, as dancers move fluidly from “Bootylicious”-provoked twerking to black box theater-ready solos in front of a flexible (but understated) grey cube. Beyonce plays with her songs, too, teasing gritty, robotic variations of warm and friendly classics — yet keeping her finger on the pulse with “F— Some Commas” and “Trap Queen”-inflected interludes (never more than the beat, though — this is Yonce’s show, after all).
Her evolving aesthetic comes in service of a grander mission, however. Throughout the set, Beyonce paired her own empowering anthems with famous quotes from fellow vocal feminists: Ronda Rousey’s recent treatise on “do-nothing bitches” with “Diva” (you can’t be a “female version of a hustler” and do nothing at the same time), Eartha Kitt‘s reaction to the suggestion that she compromise for a man after “Survivor,” Maya Angelou‘s “Phenomenal Woman” with a pre-“Grown Woman” ballet interlude, and of course, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s definition of feminism into the song that made it iconic, “Flawless.” There are few more moving sights than a crowd of thousands cheering wildly for the idea of a “person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes.”
By inserting her voice among these historically brash and outspoken women, Beyonce is getting out in front of the next thinkpiece, claiming her spot among the trailblazers before anyone else can question her role. Ever the self-aware documentarian, she’s showing fans exactly how she wants to be remembered: a beautiful, self-possessed woman who wants her fans to believe that they are too — a daring proposition if there ever was one.
Beyonce’s shows are rarely off-the-cuff, but during “Flawless” the singer gave the audience a brief ad-lib. After a tiny, seemingly-unchoreographed flex of her arm, she quietly shared her most important directive: “Stunt on me.”