Best of the Decade: How Beyoncé defined the last 10 years of music
To celebrate the end of the 2010s, Entertainment Weekly’s Must List is looking back at the best pop culture that changed pop culture in movies, TV, music, and more. Catch up on our list so far, which includes the MCU’s big Snap and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s history-making hit. Today, we get in formation for Beyoncé, who set the mold for musicians everywhere this decade.
It happens at the end. She stands there, flanked by more than 100 performers in matching HBCU regalia, flashing a smile and mopping the sweat that’s pooled on her brow the last two hours. She then flings her now-used towel into the dry desert night of the Coachella Valley and toward the hands of one lucky fan, who grabs it and immediately goes weak in the knees. He clutches the perspired cotton like an ancient artifact. He looks incredulous. He has caught the spirit of Beyoncé Knowles Carter.
But then haven’t we all these last 10 years? Even those corny, Illuminati-conspiracy-spouting haters would be hard-pressed to not see Queen Bey as the decade’s defining pop star, one whose songs, album rollouts, stage presence, social justice initiatives, and disruptive public relations strategy have influenced the way we’ve viewed music since 2010.In hindsight, Beyoncé began the decade in relatively (for her) quiet regard, dropping a vintage R&B-indebted album in 4 and setting the initial gold standard for pop star festival gigs with a Glastonbury headlining slot (“You are witnessing my dream!” she screamed to the 200,000-strong crowd.) These events were noteworthy, of course, but far from the groundswell she caused in 2013 with her expansive, self-titled visual album, which arrived without warning one night. The surprise full-length release included a music video for all 14 of the record’s songs, and felt like the beginning of a new era.
Other artists soon copied Beyoncé’s last-minute drops, but her work took hold in more sweeping ways: through pop stars’ reluctance to give interviews; through the use of the word “feminist” as both a political and branding statement; through the mining of her identity, race, and marriage in searing, brutal ways.By 2016, she released her single “Formation,” a celebration of her identity and roots, along with a video that paid tribute to the Black Lives Matter movement. Two months later, she unveiled Lemonade, her most personal album to date, which revealed the apparent infidelity of husband Jay-Z along with the fallout and eventual reconciliation of their relationship. Topping a bold and brilliantly executed piece of art that explored the depths of your private life is a tall order, but Bey managed to do it two years later with Beychella. Her 2018 set at the California desert festival, which was streamed across the globe, became an instant classic, with Beyoncé once again introducing aspects of the black diaspora to an overwhelmingly white audience.
So what was Beyoncé in the 2010s? She was a pop star, yes, but more than that, she was a symbol, a leader, and a beacon of hope for the marginalized. In Netflix’s Homecoming, a documentary about that famed Coachella performance, she states, “As a black woman, I used to feel the world wanted me to stay in my little box, and black women often feel underestimated. I wanted us to be proud not only of the show, but the process; proud of the struggle, thankful for the beauty that comes with a painful history and rejoice in the pain and the imperfections and the wrongs that are so damn right.”To be a successful pop star today is to be comfortable with your own ubiquity, but to be an icon is to turn that ubiquity into something that breaks barriers. It’s to consistently pull off the impossible. It’s to do what Beyoncé did at Glastonbury, on Lemonade, on Beyoncé, at Coachella. It’s to consistently raise the bar until it’s no longer surprising when you do.