There are two lyrics in Beyoncé’s oeuvre that sum up the paradox that makes her so astonishingly compelling.
The first is from 2013’s “Flawless:” “I woke up like this, I woke up like this / We flawless, ladies tell ’em.”
The second is from 2016’s “Formation:” “I see it, I want it, I stunt, yellow bone it / I dream it, I work hard, I grind till I own it.”
Beyoncé is effortless, flawless perfection. And Beyoncé is endless effort, grinding labor, working hard until she achieves her goals.
Practically speaking, both can’t be true: You can’t be both effortlessly perfect and someone who puts in the work for perfection. But what makes Beyoncé great is that she makes both feel true.
Beyoncé personifies effort and effortlessness simultaneously
In her breathtaking, momentous performance at Coachella this past weekend, Beyoncé never once let her audience forget how much work she was putting into what they were seeing, how it was her labor and exertion that built that two hours of practically nonstop song and dance. As Jon Caramanica at the New York Times put it, “Beyoncé shows her work — the cameras captured the force and determination in her dancing, and also her sweat.” TMZ reported that she was working 11-hour days to prepare for the big night, and every second of that rehearsal time showed onstage.
But even while the audience marveled at the work and sweat Beyoncé put into what she was doing onstage, simultaneously it was possible to feel that it all just emerged from her with no real work on her part, that it was as unthought and natural as breathing. “The thing is, Beyonce did wake up like this,” the Guardian marveled.
Beyoncé makes it possible for her audience to understand her both as the hardest-working woman in the business and as someone who does not need to work because of her natural perfection. She is effort and effortlessness all at once. Call it the Bey Paradox.
If a star can reconcile a paradox, she can become an icon
One of the things that separates a star who will fade from an icon who will last is this: Icons can reconcile a major cultural paradox through the power of their images. A star is a person onto whom the rest of us project all of our fantasies and fears, so when the star is able to resolve one of those fears, to make us feel that it is meaningless and insignificant just for as long as we’re looking at them, we love them for it. We turn them into icons.
Marilyn Monroe is the prime example here. Marilyn was both pure sex and pure innocence at once, in a time that was profoundly anxious about sex and women’s bodies. You didn’t need to be worried about whether sex was corrupt or dirty when you looked at Marilyn because she made sex feel innocent just by existing as Marilyn.
Today, you might think of Angelina Jolie, who is both a sex symbol and a mother figure, or Oprah, who is both our wise, empathetic, and selfless best friend and a brilliant businesswoman mogul: They have resolved a contradiction that we don’t like, and because of that, we love them.
The Bey Paradox does the kind of work that made Marilyn Monroe an icon. It takes one of the major questions our culture frets over — Should women be naturally beautiful/good at their work/perfect in general? Or should they take pride in working hard and earning their perfection? — and it answers, yes. Both. Natural perfection and high-maintenance perfectionism, both at the same time.
Beyoncé dreams it and works hard, and then she wakes up flawless. That’s what makes her Queen Bey.
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