Cyborg Manifesto: On Beyoncé’s “Renaissance”
By Enzo EscoberJanuary 4, 2024
Onstage at the Renaissance World Tour, the economy-boosting blitz the film chronicles, she is often dressed as a lustrous, armored cyborg. Her movements are uncanny simulations, spasmodic and juddering, and her face toggles through expressions with startling velocity. Entangled with a pair of robot arms during her song “COZY,” she glitches so frenetically that she seems to trigger a lag in the frames per second. Later, she emulates sleep before jolting awake, as though she has swallowed an alarm clock. “The DJ booth is conducting a troubleshoot test of the entire system,” a sample announces before the screen fizzles and the audio cuts.
It’s a disruption designed to con us into thinking there has been a blackout in the cinema. In fact, we are witnessing an actual mishap encountered on the tour’s Arizona stop, where the sound went dead for 10 minutes. Rather than eliding the blunder, the film incorporates it into its visual dialect. We see Beyoncé manage the issue backstage, rushing through an unscripted costume change before the power returns. When she reemerges in visor shades and a Barbarella bodice, it makes for one of the most electric moments of the film.
Glitches invite reinvention; their rogue currents open new realities.
Beyoncé’s long fascination with the cyborg seems rooted in her commitment to machinelike precision. Young and hungry at the 2007 BET Awards, she rose onstage to perform her athletic track “Get Me Bodied” in an ensemble that recalled Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis, her metallic shell opening to reveal the woman underneath. Her 2008 album I Am… Sasha Fierce is built around the concept of a split personality: demure ingénue and animatronic siren. In the video for its biggest hit, “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” she wears a titanium glove, suggesting her dance moves are preprogrammed. Even her 2013 album BEYONCÉ, dropped online without announcement, was a feat of digital fluency. In it, she co-opted the logic of social media to deliver a sexual confessional that overshared as much as it obscured. In 2017, critic Ann Powers wrote of her as the premier artist of the internet age, one who could “fully inhabi[t] a mobile online world that complemented and enhanced her physical-world assertions of identity and power.”
The hardest-working woman in pop has always seemed regulated by some pristine internal code. Never has she glitched like this; never has she introduced turbulence into her tightly calibrated routine. For this new iteration of Beyoncé, the Renaissance World Tour is a debut, a declaration, a coming-out moment.
Coming out is key here. It’s no coincidence that, in the past decade, the cyborg has become a touchpoint among LGBTQ+ pioneers in dance music and hyperpop. The late Scottish musician SOPHIE and the Venezuelan artist Arca, both of whom are trans, fully embrace glitchy, futuristic textures in their videos, using them to explode conventional ideas of gender. “Without my genes or my blood,” the former sang on “Immaterial,” “I could be anything I want.” When incarnated in an elastic cyberworld, the body can be disassembled, blown up, or edited at will. Otherness as an ontological category is nullified; everyone is mutable, limitless starlight.
In the pop and R & B world, Janelle Monáe has been developing her own mythos of the android since 2007, foregrounding its unassimilable nature—its intersectionality, after all, gives it its stigma. When Monáe came out in 2018, it snapped her entire career arc into focus. For queer people, the template of the self is not always securely received. Like an anonymous profile in a sleazy chatroom, our personhood often needs to be achieved through transgressive exploration. To be queer, after all, is to be an ever-occurring glitch in the algorithm of convention. One wrong move—an unguarded remark, a misplaced glance—alerts others to faulty programming.
Both human and machine, the cyborg finds “pleasure in the confusion of boundaries,” living in “a world without gender,” as Donna Haraway writes in her seminal essay “A Cyborg Manifesto.” Published in 1985, as technology became so integrated into everyday life that skin-deep fusion seemed imminent, the essay was a radical, almost rude thought experiment, daring to imagine sex and identity in terms that skewered everything more traditional feminists deemed “natural” about the body and all its ideological baggage.
In recent years, however, more queer people have come to identify with the cyborg’s status as a digital native. Though fraught with power problems, the internet is still one of the few sites where we can vanish into ourselves, inhabit a variety of sexual personas, find community when our physical milieus are inhospitable. Feminist thinker Legacy Russell coheres all this under the idiom of the glitch, which she uses as shorthand for a refusal of boundaries and binaries, “a machinic mutiny toward a necessary systems correction.” A queered cyborg smuggles a bug into the master code; it misbehaves, goes haywire.
Beyoncé’s current musical era has given her the perfect occasion to weave the cyborg into her political project. Renaissance, the 2022 album that spawned the tour, was an operatic, club-ready homage to queer dance music, particularly house and disco. To some, its futurist imagery might seem discordant with its nostalgic sound. That is, until one remembers that disco was born of the synthesizer, that Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” fused woman and machine into a strange new entity. When Summer crooned that song’s title over its tectonic sequencer—deliberately crafted to evoke a sci-fi film—she sounded like a cyborg insisting on her capacity for emotion.
That was dance music’s genesis: the laboratory, not the Garden of Eden. Since then, the genre has been enfolded into the queer experience, forecasting a utopia divorced from orthodoxy. On Renaissance, Beyoncé updates it for the internet age. The central synth of “VIRGO’S GROOVE” echoes the one on Evelyn “Champagne” King’s “Love Come Down,” but this time it carries the faint digital fry of a compressed file—you can almost hear the pixels on it. On “ALIEN SUPERSTAR,” a confusion of cymbals, strings, and zap guns collide over a menacing bass synth, the matrix-like sensation of plunging down a vortex of browser tabs. This is a character study of the gritty machine. Its breakdown is a hazard, but we’re in need of some chaos.
As its name suggests, the Renaissance World Tour dramatizes rebirth, shrouding it in a mystique that conveys both its ancient sacrality and its staggering, inventive power. We begin with an opening act of sorts: Beyoncé is elevated on a sparse stage to sing “Dangerously in Love 2,” from her first album, released 20 years ago. The looks that she wears in each city, which the film splices together in colorful montage, are intentional: high-fashion yet largely traditional. She’s a chanteuse in an evening gown, the girl next door from Houston, a creature of flesh and blood. Later though, after an interlude signals that we are in the Renaissance chapter of the show, we get a full aesthetic shift. On the concert screen, a nude Beyoncé is transformed by a beam of light into something more closely resembling the Silver Surfer. A throbbing dance beat ensues, and a hyper-femme pair of robot legs spread to reveal a gaping hole between them. We next see Beyoncé in the center of that space, encased in a Mugler cyborg suit, standing on a platform that looks simultaneously like a charging station and a pedestal for a goddess.
A large part of the tour’s spectacle can be attributed to Frederik Heyman, a Belgian multimedia artist whose work spans the worlds of music and fashion. Heyman, who has also collaborated with Arca and Lady Gaga, has a view of technology that leans away from the alarmist rhetoric of dystopian literature. In his 3D tableaus—breathtaking fever dreams that bridge the surreal with the baroque—people merge with machines in ways that are neither destructive nor damning, just new and uncanny. “The human body and the technology we have in today’s society are growing inevitably towards each other,” Heyman told Glamcult. “I see a surrender to an external control, a higher force—or, rather, humans taking control via mechanics to reach an emotional state of empowerment. It almost becomes religious.”
The question of control has been another career-long contention for Beyoncé. Before she professionally parted from him in 2011, it was common to hear that her every move was mediated by her father and former manager, Mathew Knowles. Later, she was hounded by rumors that she was a pawn of the Illuminati. The 12-year age gap between her and her husband, Jay-Z, whom she started dating when she was 19, has also given rise to a grooming theory. In the 2006 movie Dreamgirls, she played a girl-group star whose big solo hit, a track stolen for her by a despotic husband-manager, was a lavish, lusty, disco romp. Far from freeing, the synthesizer was an instrument of domination, one whose programmed precision guaranteed servility. It might be possible to read the Renaissance World Tour with these continuities in mind. Beyoncé seems to be using the show’s liberating view of technology to engage with her own reputation, rebuking the narratives that deny her agency. The assertion is that she knows no operator—how could anyone master a machine that malfunctions so brazenly?
Using Heyman’s worldview as a guiding principle has been fruitful for Beyoncé, who venerates technology for its magical ability to stretch the body past its contours, for the new realms of expression it places within reach. Her fingertips tap her MPC fervently, like they’re unleashing an incantation. “Blessed are the hands that touch the machine,” she says in voice-over during the concert. Unlike Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, who forsakes a world of plastic in favor of the vulnerable body, Beyoncé embraces the contradictions and liberties afforded by life on the margins of the cutting edge. Offstage, the posture she adopts is more naturalist. “I’m a human, not a machine,” she insists. But the film undercuts this as a knowing joke—after all, isn’t that exactly what a machine would say?
In one engrossing long take, recorded as the tour was being mounted, the camera lingers on Beyoncé as she wordlessly ponders the enormity of her own vision. Her eyes dart around, she conceals herself beneath silver claws, she flickers through panic and stress and agitation, and, suddenly, she shuts down, the muscles in her face flatlining completely. It’s as though a reset switch has been flipped in her brain, and it makes for riveting viewing. Later, we get confirmation of the long-swirling rumors that she underwent knee surgery before the tour started. Yet while she is shown in physical therapy, she almost shrugs off the pain: “The best thing to do is just get back on the horse.”
We should all be so grateful to share the zeitgeist with an entertainer who has received a few more system updates than we have. This eminence impels us to follow her glitches into the uncharted territories they map out—what is she seeing that we don’t? She kicks off the concert’s Renaissance set with a ferocious agenda. On her song “I’M THAT GIRL,” she proclaims that she’s out of her mind, that she’s a “heathen,” and, most sensationally, that she’s “un-American,” a phrase so redolent of the McCarthy era that it raises the question of which notion of “America” Beyoncé has defected from.
The voice of Ballroom commentator Kevin Jz Prodigy, which directly follows, gives us a clue: “Do I even have to say sorry for being who I am?” In the film, Prodigy unfurls the discontent that comes with being born Black and gay, being disowned and discriminated against. Ballroom gave him a sanctuary, a surrogate family. Dancer Honey Balenciaga, though born decades later, relates a similar sentiment, saying that she was “looking for home” before discovering the vogue scene. Midway through the movie, Beyoncé talks about her Uncle Johnny, a gay Black man who helped raise her and to whom the album Renaissance is dedicated. Johnny, who introduced her to house music and sewed her first dresses, died of complications from AIDS when she was a teenager. The film was released on December 1, World AIDS Day, in honor of him.
In one of its most moving scenes, Beyoncé puts on the last gown her uncle made before he died, looking into her mirror with pride. Like Monáe, who warps and exposes American myths (“Uncle Sam kissed a man / Jim Crow Jesus rose again”), Beyoncé is interested in redressing tradition, rendering it urgent and novel. In the Renaissance film, she fixes her gaze on the nuclear family itself, glitching it into the left field. Ballroom houses, formed during the early 1970s as a response to the flocks of queer kids who were being disowned by their parents, were usually presided over by resident mothers. Onstage, Beyoncé takes up the role with aplomb. “Ladies and gentlemen,” Prodigy announces, “I present to you the iconic mother of the House of Renaissance.” Fortified in yet another Mugler suit, this one a cross between bot and bee, she engages her backup dancers in a dizzyingly rapid series of poses. Watching it, I was struck by how congruously her performance of glitching lent itself to the sudden, precise movements of voguing. The opening strains of “PURE/HONEY,” the record’s most obvious sonic treatise on duality, sound like an engine sputtering to life, but also the soundtrack to a ballroom battle. This is a tribe whose warfare is choreographed.
“Uncle Johnny exposed me to decadence and to creating your own reality,” Beyoncé says in the film. Throughout the tour, the reality she created for her millions of fans attempted to reify queer dance music’s original promise: filial kinship impervious to blood ties, the freedom of a house in which she is mother. This association is what propels the ethos of Renaissance, distinguishes it in the pop sphere. Other artists can parse themes of gender and hybridity while clad in chrome and plasma, and their experiments might hold more intellectual value than Beyoncé’s broad commercial works could ever contain. But no one else has situated the cyborg so convincingly in the household. Unsatisfied with its strength, she has returned to it a soul.
For years now, diva worshippers have taken to referring to their favorites as “mother,” a gesture of reverence borrowed from the parlance of the ballroom. By and large, only Beyoncé lives up to the title. While other stars sell their fans catharsis by casting themselves as fellow victims (Gaga) or comrades in arms (Monáe), Beyoncé doubles down on her regal brilliance—though not queer herself, she knows exactly what she can be for her queer fans.
Porous and far-reaching, Ballroom families anticipated the internet’s understanding of community. Online, linkages are forged on shared affinities; otherness forms a kind of connective tissue. “No longer structured by the polarity of public and private,” Haraway writes, “the cyborg defines a technological polis based partly on a revolution of social relations in the oikos, the household.” In the concert’s finale, Beyoncé soars through the air astride a silver horse, belting her song “SUMMER RENAISSANCE.” Built around a sample of “I Feel Love,” it’s an exercise in time travel, a return to a place of birth. “I wanna house you and make you take my name,” she sings, her voice resonating through the decades.
The film shows us how grandly that wish was realized. As if abiding by the logic of the disco ball, we see audiences mirroring Beyoncé’s light, transforming each arena into a single pulsing organism. Like a DJ at the helm of a dance floor, or a hacker who has wrested control of the motherboard, she exercises a benevolent, contagious authority. In a now-viral moment, during her song “ENERGY,” she cuts all sound after the lyric “everybody on mute,” directing the entire arena to hold silence for several seconds. Across cities, attendees adopt a unity that still feels heteroglossic: the opulent glitter outfits, the theatrical fans, the steps to the electric slide are all means toward communal recognition. The camera travels even into the cheap seats, where people are emoting just as fervently. “The Renaissance is a transfer of energy,” Beyoncé says. “It’s a cycle of pure love. It’s a big celebration of community.” Backstage, we see that this philosophy has been replicated inward. The film often breaks focus from Beyoncé, spotlighting Prodigy, her buoyant new dancers, a pregnant trumpet player in her band, and even the onstage camera crew, whom she dressed in reflective uniforms to draw people’s attention to their craft.
In her 2016 visual album Lemonade, Beyoncé mastered the storytelling device of abstracting herself into an everywoman, aligning her marital troubles with the broader narrative of Black women in the United States. “Formation,” its galvanizing finale, saw her describing her power as a shared resource. Renaissance employs a similar strategy. In the way an online avatar converts a body into dispersed data, so Beyoncé channels herself into the network of her house. It’s an act of generosity that returns profundity to dance music’s tropes of joy and release.
Though the moment didn’t make it into the film, Beyoncé addressed the crowd in Arizona after that astounding technical interruption: “You know, there’s certain nights where the crowd is so loud that so much charge makes the power go out.” She was speaking of found communities, their surge of collective energy, the systems they can hijack.
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