For a quarter-century, Beyoncé’s curves and mane and derrière, her gem-encrusted bodysuits and Swarkovski-covered boob corsets, her sass and rasp and hot-pink stilettos, and her Olympian stage presence have captivated the sacred ranks of gay iconography. Gay men love her. Trans women love her. Queers across the technicolor spectrum love her. Drag queens hold her performances among their highest forms of mimetic ritual.
Yet, until last week, Beyoncé had (almost) never sung anything actually gay in her life.
Not that it mattered. Queers worshipped her anyways: Not only because her concerts fuse together the ambrosial glitz of Aphrodite and Kali, but also because her songs deliver some of the finest compositions and productions in mass culture. They unite highbrow and lowbrow, pleasing the literati and ignorati all at once. Music critics forget to say this! They forget to remind us that this is exactly why her albums prompt gleeful claps and hoorahs from cultural sages, who otherwise keep their cool in the face of Billboard’s hotshots.
Beyoncé has one musical ear pressed up to her ancestry, the other to voices of providence. These instincts don’t just purge her albums of vacuous space fillers. They also give us a catalog flush with uncanny goodness. Even when two dozen collaborators sift through a song—and who says pastiche, in a postmodern world, can’t be a bastion of originality?—Beyoncé shepherds the final product into a listening experience that evolves and complicates over time, like an aerating bottle of Bordeaux.
The point is, Beyoncé isn’t Mozart. She’s Beyoncé, pop music’s reigning auteur. Her freaky convergence of divadom and virtuosity has been particularly indispensable to her gay audience. (If you need a reason, Oscar Wilde, Hilton Als, and Truman Capote, for starters, can explain.)
With Renaissance, Beyoncé finally addresses this fanbase directly and explicitly. She walks their walk and talks their talk. The “real man” she sings about on “Heated”—which, unless he comes out of the closet, is the gayest thing Drake will ever touch—is no longer the “reformed D boy” of “Soldier,” the “hustla” of “Video Phone,” or the “daddy” of “Partition.” This summer, 24 years after her first album, Beyoncé’s real man is the queen, the fairy, the godmother. Glitterati around the world are in full swag.
Divas of yore also turned to dance, house, and electropop to jolt fresh life into their careers. It tended to happen on the far side of “youth,” wherever that begins. With the autotune fiesta “Believe,” Cher, at 52, became the oldest female artist to hit No. 1. Madonna was 40 when she released her wildly successful Ray of Light album. Whitney Houston was almost 40 when she put out Greatest Hits, which featured a series of dance remixes. And Janet Jackson was only 31 when she released The Velvet Rope, but its (very gay) house hit “Together Again” departed from her past work.
Of course, there are also those lustrous luminaries who brandished boogie from the get-go. If there’s one diva surveying Beyoncé from some heaven filled with fog machines and fawning go-go boys, wondering if it’s finally time to hand over disco’s sparkling torch, it’s the legendarily inventive Donna Summer. Summer’s eight-minute track “I Feel Love,” which changed the course of dance pop forever, channels the same enchanted, bionic sex party that animates Beyoncé’s latest project.
Compositionally speaking, Beyoncé’s most important song in the past decade isn’t “Love On Top” or “Drunk In Love” or “Formation.” Rather, it’s “Blow,” from her self-titled smash. The single proved that Beyoncé was exquisitely capable of carrying Summer’s class of disco pop into a new millennium. Nearly nine years later, Renaissance takes us on the psychotropic dance floor trip that explodes into the bloodstream when “Blow” is crushed and snorted—inducing neither blackout nor hyper-anxiety but grimy, gaudy euphoria.
Every single one of Beyoncé’s solo albums before Renaissance sank into valleys of maternal power pop and heartbroken ballads. Not this one. With the same electrifying continuity of her 2018 Coachella performances, Renaissance’s songs bleed into one another, each one danceable, vogueable, and draggable. She’s gone from coddling broken hearts to house-mothering exuberant queers: “I wanna house you and make you take my name,” she sings on “Summer Renaissance,” giving saucy new meaning to Queen Bey’s Queenness.
The album’s rousingly definite tribute to specifically trans, Black schools of music and movement might do more to globally mainstream the queer underground than anything since Madonna’s “Vogue.” It clears the dance floor for “queens” and “doms” and “pretty boys.” It glorifies feminine men and fellatio lovers. With the bedazzling, international force of Beyoncé’s million-dollar spotlight, “Heated” pays homage to Ballroom culture and reverses decades of pop culture machismo that peddled deep voices and firm wrists: “Fan me off, my wrist goes ‘click.’”
A queer pop album is one thing; a queer Beyoncé album is a bonanza. Chauvinism be damned—the truth is that when she directs her fabulously fastidious gaze upon a new sound, a new direction, the version we hear is going to sound better than any of her contemporaries. Her savant-like mastery of old traditions and new frontiers infuses Renaissance’s ultramodern club bangers with vicious rap and acrobatic riffs, with sounds that reach from James Brown and Grace Jones all the way to Big Freedia, culminating in the album’s extraordinary high point, the fairy stepsister of “Blow” and the House of Beyoncé’s new anthem: “Pure/Honey.”
All this with the drip, drip, drip of musical instinct that gives gays more than an “I see you,” more than a “Thanks for listening.” Amid the ungodly pressure of sitting in culture’s penthouse, Beyoncé delivers yet again. But this time, she delivers something different. Instead of singing about (straight) heartbreak or (straight) betrayal or (straight) lust, she finally turns to the far, far left and, with a wink and a dirty summer secret, grants her queens their renaissance.