Five words hung over everything, metaphorically and literally: “This is not real life.”
That sentence greeted those filing into AT&T Stadium Tuesday for Beyonce and Jay Z’s much-anticipated “On the Run” tour, the superstar couple’s inaugural joint tour.
It sat on the enormous video screen hovering over the field until the lights dimmed and the show began, leaving plenty of time to ponder its precise meaning.
Divorce rumors have dogged the couple over the last few weeks, fueled, in part, by the elevator fight seen ’round the world as well as Beyonce’s mid-tour reworking of the 2006 track Resentment (already a devastating song, rife with allusions to infidelity and divorce) with a pointed line about another woman.
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That “updated” rendition of Resentment was in the set list Tuesday, performed by the Houston native in a wedding dress, which only serves to throw gasoline on whatever rampant tabloid speculation is floating around.
The moment was striking, but also a bitter detour into something resembling the mundane realities of marriage: a domestic squabble writ large before many thousands of fans.
Or was it?
Resentment, performed by a woman whose eyes brimmed with tears at its conclusion, somewhat dissipated what was otherwise a glittering, high wattage spectacle, staged in one of the grandest spaces available in North Texas.
The tension between reality and fiction — the notion that what the thousands piled into the stadium had come to see was “not real life,” and yet, was somehow genuine — fueled much of the 150-minute “On the Run” tour, a conscious blurring of the lines between intimacy and privacy.
As husband and wife, professional peers and superstars in their own right, seeing the pair perform together on stage, as they did intermittently throughout the night, was a special effect unlike much else in modern pop music.
There’s a tangible electricity between the two, and in spots — particularly at the end of Drunk in Love, when Jay hugged his wife, a broad smile on both their faces — the couple was absolutely captivating.
In between songs, however, was another story.
The “On the Run” tour is structured around a loose theme — Beyonce and Jay Z are fugitives, having robbed banks and carved out a life on the margins — which was threaded through the show via violent, stylized interstitial videos.
These clips were loaded (pun semi-intended) with material designed to raise eyebrows — one segment was built around a series of increasingly angry voicemails left by Beyonce for an unidentified male — and served to upend what it seemed like you were watching on stage.
What’s real, and what’s just a role?
The intersection of art and real life can be a minefield, albeit it’s a place both Beyonce and Jay Z seem perfectly comfortable navigating.
The two complement each other well; her elegant, sensual appeal contrasts with his tough, gritty attitude. They don’t seem, during this tour anyway, markedly different from the love-struck outlaws hoping to get away scot-free.
Trying to keep track of the ever-shifting reality was a head-spinning exercise, and instead of treating the night as a referendum upon the sturdiness of the Beyonce-Jay Z union, it was far more enjoyable to give yourself over to the unrelenting parade of hits from both artists.
A smooth give-and-take was established early, with Beyonce and Jay Z trading places in the spotlight with a minimum of fuss.
She pulled heavily from last year’s superb self-titled surprise LP, just as he culled a few selections from his middling Magna Carta ... Holy Grail. While Beyonce was often joined by a small cadre of dancers — the live band was stowed away somewhere other than center stage — Jay Z often held court alone, rapping over backing tracks.
Between them, they have plenty of smash singles to choose from, and towards the end of the night, the set list almost began to feel like too much of a good thing: No Church in the Wild; Drunk in Love; 99 Problems; Love on Top; Izzo (H.O.V.A) and more, hit piled atop hit until they reached all the way to the stadium’s roof.
Their performances, together and apart, were sublimely entertaining, loaded with flash. Flanked by towering video screens and state-of-the-art graphics, the pair also deployed plenty of smoke and fire, even venturing into the adoring audience for a few tunes. The show was laced with goosebump moments: the awesome sight of the entire floor bobbing along at Jay Z’s command, or the glow of thousands of cellphones held aloft during Young Forever.
So, perhaps the push-pull between art and artifice is besides the point.
Are they together? Is there trouble on the domestic front?
Does it matter?
Beyonce and Jay Z do seem to aggressively court such speculation, even as they enjoy toying with (and subverting) expectations.
These are, after all, consummate performers, as Tuesday’s tour de force at AT&T Stadium amply demonstrated.
Remember: “This is not real life.”
Fortunately, for Beyonce and Jay Z, the fantasy is as fascinating as the reality — whatever that may be.