Beyonce’s “I Am…” tour, which played Staples Center on Monday night, is a dazzling production — she is an undeniably charismatic, commanding singer and a dancer of staggering energy. She’s surrounded by a powerful but flexible all-female band and a phalanx of dancers, outfitted in some 70 costumes designed by French fashion legend Thierry Mugler, and augmented by high-def screens and enough fans blowing back her hair to power one of T. Boone Pickens’ wind farms. It’s a night out worthy of a performer who topped Forbes’ list of richest under-30 celebs.
But all this energy orbits a concept that feels muddled at best. Early on, Beyonce claims that the evening is dedicated to female self-empowerment, but she ends the night confessing, “I am … yours.” Like her most recent album, the double-platinum “I Am … Sasha Fierce” (Columbia), the concert showcases Knowles’ Janus-like self-conception — the sensitive, ballad-heavy Beyonce, and the groove-driven bad girl, Sasha Fierce. Yet this dichotomy is given short shift. About the only difference one can ascertain between Beyonce and Sasha is that when the latter talks about an underwire bra, she’s referring to its electrical connection.
And without an overarching theme, the staging — impressive as it is — comes off as hollow. The costumes and images start to feel like ads for feminine products. The blocks of electric color and the flowing white resortwear (that’s magically turned into a puffy, swirling wedding dress) during “Ave Maria” could be lifted out of commercials seen on daytime talkshows or in the pages of Allure. The futuristic Plexiglas and animal print costume seen during the “Sweet Dreams” video could have come out of Vogue, and the glamorous black-and-white images viewed during a costume change wouldn’t look out of place in Vanity Fair. Even her walking on air from the mainstage to the smaller B-stage set in the middle of the area feels borrowed. It’s hard not to shake the thought that there’s something being sold here, and the product is simply Beyonce.
That doesn’t mean there’s not much to enjoy. The band allows some playfulness to slip into the music — she folds a passionate take of Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” into “If I Were a Boy” and Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel” into “Ave Maria.” And songs such as the grime-styled “Diva,” the propulsive “Single Ladies” (preceded by a medley of YouTube video imitations) and the bouncy “Radio” (accompanied by footage of the 5-year-old Beyonce hamming it up for the camera) show her stretching musically.
The latter images echo in the evening’s most uncomfortable moment. During “Halo,” the evening’s penultimate number, she pays tribute to Michael Jackson. It’s certainly heartfelt, but when a singer who got her start in a youthful family act masterminded by her father says she wants to be just like Mike, it’s creepy.