25 Jun 2011

Can Beyonce woo the Glastonbury rock crowd?

Critics say Beyonce’s appearance at Glastonbury is further evidence of its “popification”. But Lucy O’Brien argues that she represents the evolving spirit of the Worthy Farm festival.

Beyonce, who headlines at Glastonbury on Sunday evening (Getty)

There is controversy again at Glastonbury as critics wonder whether Beyonce’s appearance means the “popification” of the Worthy Farm festival.

What with Stevie Wonder, Shakira and Kylie last year, and the negative response that Beyonce’s hubby Jay Z got before his Glastonbury show three years ago, some people are wondering whether the festival has strayed too far from its hippy folk rock roots.

You have to remember, though, that Sunday is traditionally crowd-pleaser day, with past acts including Tom Jones, Dame Shirley Bassey, David Bowie and Al Green. These choices are generally driven by nostalgia and a camp sense of irony – with perfect singalong sets for a completely chilled-out and mashed-up crowd.

Beyonce is the baddest sister on the R&B pop landscape. But is there a ‘ker-ching’ element to this?

Beyonce is different. She is the first full-on current global R&B pop star to headline the Pyramid Stage, and in that way is a surprising choice. Will her state-of-the art ballads and rigorous, pneumatic R&B really woo the predominantly rock crowd?

Festival organiser Emily Eavis recently defended her decision to invite Beyonce saying, she was keen to keep the festival as “diverse” as possible. “We really want the people who are the masters of their fields, and that’s what she is.”

Beyonce is certainly the “baddest” sister on the R&B pop landscape, but is there a “ker-ching” element to this? Her set will ensure Glastonbury a massive worldwide (and more mainstream) audience.

Photo gallery from the 2011 Glastonbury festival

I recall a few years ago talking to folk singer/songwriter Roy Harper in the Avalon Field. “This is still the real heart of Glastonbury, unlike Babylon out there,” he said, gesturing to the Pyramid stage. For him, Beyonce would probably constitute Babylon.

However, let’s look at this a little more closely. Beyonce is not Cheryl Cole. Nor is she Celine Dion. Or Britney, or Christina. She has an earthiness and intelligence that goes far beyond the pop gloss. She is not just a stylist, she’s not all affectation. From the stuttering energy of Bills Bills Bills to Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It), she has shown vocally inventive singing genius.

Beyonce knows her talent is a gift that she needs to treat with respect.

She pioneered that funky, staccato phrasing over robust beats; she hauled the 80s power ballad out of its bland lethargy and created something of might and passion. She’s not content to do showboating vocal gymnastics; she likes to jolt expectations sometimes, bringing in intonations from hip hop, from Arabic music, and reggae.

I remember interviewing Beyonce in 2000, when she was in the Destiny’s Child line-up with Kelly and Michelle (the one rumoured to be reuniting for a medley on Sunday). She spoke with rapid-fire intensity and emphasis about her life and her singing.

She has an incisive intelligence, but also humility. Maybe this is part of her religious upbringing, but she knows her talent is a gift that she needs to treat with respect. She’s the channel for the soul music that rips through her.

“I’m pumped just thinking about that huge audience and soaking up their energy,” she said recently. In that respect Beyonce truly is in the spirit of Glastonbury, and part of its continuing evolution.

Lucy O’Brien writes on music, feminism and popular culture