Where were you when Beyoncé played Coachella 2018? Maybe you had been camping out all day against the front rail, beginning to question your decision, only to then be touched by her shadow as she grinds on the catwalk during “Partition.” Maybe you were watching the live stream in your living room, shouting at the screen and clutching your friend’s shoulder as the silhouette of Destiny’s Child ascends the stage. Or maybe you found yourself barefoot in the dirt, separated from your crew, trudging uphill in a bottleneck against the current of a 100,000-person hive mind locked on Beyoncé. This is where I find myself as what is arguably the most anticipated Coachella set of all time kicks off on Saturday night.
Barefoot, alone, and with no cell service is not how I had planned to watch Beyoncé. I, like any good disciple, had spent the day conditioning for this moment—napping, hydrating, coordinating fur coats with my girls, and deep stretching while listening to Lemonade on repeat.
In the preceding hour, we are fully squadded, sipping beers and casually debating the merits of Haim as we stake out our spot in the main stage beer garden. Then, naturally, everything falls apart. Spillover from the sentient Instagram feed that is the VIP section quickly overwhelms us. We have to get out of here. I turn a corner, and the straps of my sandal liberate themselves from the sole. I’ve no option but to take my shoes off, and by the time I stand up again, the squad is fractured, somewhere adrift in the current. In the matter of minutes, I go from being Sasha Fierce to That Messy Girl at Coachella.
Then Beyoncé takes the stage. It is a moment two years in the making. She descends from atop a pyramid of lemon yellow and brass, crown atop hair perpetually windswept by the breeze that naturally conjures itself in her presence. Behind her flows a sequined cape embroidered with Nefertiti, The Great Royal Wife, Egyptian queen known for a religious revolution in which they worship one god, and one god only: the sun. A woman on fire at the center of things. There are dozens of people onstage. Dancers, singers, musicians, a drumline, and for the next two hours, they will play what will is arguably the greatest—both technically and substantively—Coachella set of all time.
The horn flourish of “Crazy in Love” announces the queen’s arrival as I watch standing in the back of a crowd that covers every patch of space in my field of vision. It's not how I planned or imagined this moment, but I'm there, and it's breathtaking. That’s when I realize it doesn’t matter where you are, or even who you’re with. Even if you aren’t at the main stage—even if you aren’t at Coachella—you are at Beyoncé's show.
This show really started years ago, born from life’s unplanned disruptions: First, when Beyonce threw the industry gauntlet of Lemonade's surprise release during Coachella 2016, inserting herself into the cultural conversation of a weekend ruled by three white male headliners. Then, it continued last year, when Beyoncé postponed her scheduled headline set due to being extremely with child—two of ’em. Any other woman, and woman of color especially, facing such a career-defining opportunity would get fired. She’d miss out. She’d be replaced. But Beyoncé made us wait for her, and with the luxury of an extra year to plan, she knew exactly what kind of opportunity she had.
“I got pregnant, thank God,” she says at the end of her set. “So I had time to dream this up.”
What she was dreaming up was the topic of much discussion and rumor in the days preceding the set. I’m told she pulled up with 33 semis in tow, hired an extra hundred dancers, restricted the coveted echelons of Guest Viewing to exclusively Her People, and had spent the week prior levitating above the Merv Griffin Estate while directing the show’s finishing touches through the telekinetic force of her third eye. Most of this proves to be true.
Beyoncé arrives in bombast, changing from her cape to jorts and a sequined yellow hoodie, fur boots, and all the good hair, wasting no time diving into highlights from Lemonade and Beyoncé. I'm sitting on the ground, getting my shoe taped together by a guy who I later find out gave Bey and Jay a private tour of the festival grounds. It’s the closest I’ve been to Beyoncé all night. “Formation” beckons in the distance. I’m back on my feet and running.
Beyoncé is, blessedly, taking her time. Unlike her last few tours, she gracefully skips over condensed 30-second hit medleys in favor of indulging full tracks, peppering in nods to Kendrick, Sister Nancy, J Balvin, Juvenile, and Nina Simone. She’s serving up lightly chopped and screwed versions of feminine reptile brain bangers like “Formation,” “Diva,” and “Baby Boy”—all galvanized by a fleet of dancers in lemon colored leotards, their pelvises doing all the talking. Bey penetrates us with her gaze, jumps on a crane and hovers over the crowd, then goes full dominatrix in a black vinyl leotard. The women next to me grain on that wood. I think back to earlier, when some guy friends mentioned they didn’t understand the hype about Beyonce. “Maybe it’s like what rap does for us,” one of them says, and I think there’s some truth to that. Beyonce does for the feminine other what rap does for the masculine: instills self-confidence, solidarity, and swagger for everyone historically denied those things.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie echoes over the speakers:
Women are told to make themselves smaller.
We say to girls you can have ambition but not too much.
You should aim to be successful but not too successful, otherwise you will threaten the man.
We teach girls that they cannot be sexual being in the way that boys are.
Over the next two hours, Beyoncé takes us to the South (“Formation”), to America (“Lift Every Voice and Sing”), to the opera (“I Care”), to middle school (“Soldier”), to the depths of heartbreak (“Me, Myself, and I”), to the top of the charts (“Single Ladies”). It’s a cultural moment, a show for the ages that seems as meaningful to her as it is to us. She thanks us for letting her be the first black woman to headline Coachella. She thanks all the women who have opened doors so she could be here. She keeps it strictly a family affair, the only guests being her husband, her sister and the women who co-authored her rise, Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams. It’s a reminder that music has never been about trends or genre, but where you’re from and what you’ve experienced.
In the ecstatic comedown of the hours after the show, I encounter a few others with critiques of Queen Bey. I’m told she’s too bombastic, too over-the-top; I think about the crowdmembers peeling off as the drum line continued playing with fireworks going off over the stage, a polite golf clap compared to what had just happened below. It was too much for some people; too extra. And that, like every detail of the show, was the point: She, as a black woman, had to be too perfect, had to do it all—be an independent woman and loyal wife to a cheating husband, a mother of three and a sexual temptress, a pop star and a Pitchfork darling, a diva in a hoodie nailing every dance move in six inch heels—just to get here. Now you have no option but to hear her.
My anti-bombast pal tells me he prefers subtlety. But subtlety is a luxury when you're historically invisible. And Beyoncé bestows that on us, too—the way she moves her fingers along with the high hat in “Partition,” the slump of the dancers during Nina Simone’s "Lilac Wine" interlude.
Beyoncé is often called too perfect, overly marketed, a polished product perpetually asterisked by the implicit condescension of the term pop star. “It felt too much like I was being sold something,” someone in my camp said this morning.
There’s truth in critiques of Beyoncé's capitalist feminism. But the harder truth is that the cultural reboot she stands for can only happen if it’s marketed with this glitz, swagger, and scale. Beyoncé is a Tesla coil for anyone who has been otherized (except poor Eminem, who at this point is probably just wandering apoplectic around a Safeway in Palm Desert).
This isn’t Coachella going pop, this is the amplification of a voice for those who may not otherwise hear it. The show, with its dynamic camerwork, detailed production, and soundstage-like set, was clearly designed as much for those unable to indulge in Coachella's marquee escapism as it was for the crowd before her—the kids watching online because they’re too broke to go to Coachella, the small town fans whose biggest IRL exposure to alternative ideals is the local Urban Outfitters, to those who can only see a person who looks remotely like them achieving something by tuning into the biggest music festival in the world. It looked and felt like a damn awards show—one for the rest of us. It was music’s biggest night.
Andrea Domanick is Noisey's west coast editor. She's on Twitter.