Of course, Beyoncé is quite different from Sonic Youth or Merle Haggard in that she wanders across those screens a lot. She's also different in that when she does that wandering, I get the strong sense that I'm one of the few folks watching who thinks of her as "that-artist-who-once-made-incredible-music" rather than as "glam superstar diva." Everyone knows she's got a voice of monstrous hog-calling power, and The New Yorker's Sasha Frere-Jones argued for her merit as a "strange and brilliant musician" a couple of years back. But even he seemed to end up as impressed with her professionalism as with her artistry. More typical is Denette Wilford, who declares, "Beyoncé is one fierce, fabulous, over-the-top bitch who perfects every single move/hair toss/side eye/smile." "[T]hat's what makes her the Queen B," Wilford concludes. It's not the music, but the style, the showmanship, and the attitude.
It's still a lot easier to be declared a musical genius if you're playing a guitar than if you're dancing in heels. And if you're a man.
The focus on style and showmanship is probably in part due to the genre Beyoncé works in—despite the popist efforts of folks like Sasha-Frere Jones, it's still a lot easier to be declared a musical genius if you're playing a guitar than if you're dancing in heels. And part of it is probably gender. Justin Timberlake regularly gets acclaimed as an auteur in a way that Beyoncé almost never does. And of course there's Michael Jackson. If Beyoncé was a guy, it might be easier for people to see her as both musician and god than it is for them to see her as musician and goddess.
But the biggest reason that Beyoncé isn't thought of as a musical artiste is probably because she doesn't want to be thought of that way—or at least doesn't really care whether she is or not. Folks like Prince or Michael Jackson were clearly invested in their musical reputation, but Beyoncé? Like I already said, much of her recent output has been forgettable. And here's a musician, after all, who—based on her Destiny's Child writing and production credits and her general artistic direction of the band even on songs with other producers—has an amazing talent and ear for vocal arrangements and harmony. The Beyoncé co-written/co-produced "Apple Pie a la Mode" from Survivor with its hiccupping nonsense syllables and voices twisting and sliding around each other sounds like it could almost have been put together by a funkier Brian Wilson. But solo artists sing solo—and so Beyoncé's largely abandoned her flair for group dynamics as a facet of her musical personality. When Kelly and Michelle showed up at the Super Bowl performance, their microphones barely even worked.
I don't begrudge Beyoncé her career decisions. I've still got her old albums, after all—and I'm as happy as the next heterosexual guy to watch her shake her thing in some ridiculous micro-outfit at the Super Bowl. Looking at her recent career though, I do have the disorienting sense—perhaps unmerited—that I like The Writing's on the Wall more than she does.
Of course, it's still possible that Beyoncé does think of The Writing's On The Wall as a classic album. But for the most part her focus seems elsewhere—both in the sense that she's looking forward, not back, and in the sense that "classic albums" don't seem like the part of her career she's paying attention to. For selfish reasons, I wish she'd decided to spend more time being a genius. But she probably figured, with some justice, that while there are plenty of geniuses, there's only one Beyoncé.