Are you confused as to why Beyoncé, the reigning queen of R&B, would perform at the Country Music Awards? Well, no one asked you.
Mere hours before the 50th annual Country Music Awards, news broke that Queen Bey herself would be blessing the stage with her presence. Move over, Dolly Parton. Shut your pretty little mouth, Luke Bryan. And who invited you anyway, Chris Janson?
Of course, when you think about it, Beyoncé’s plan makes a whole lot of sense. On the most superficial, showboating level, Beyoncé is coming off a string of iconic award-show performances, from her chills-inducing opener at the BET Awards to that time when she took the VMAs hostage and made Britney Spears look like amateur hour. What better way to crown herself pop queen of the universe then by shutting the house down at the freaking Country Music Awards? Beyoncé isn’t limited by laws of fame or gravity, so why would she let herself be limited by genre?
Beyoncé is, to steal a phrase, a fame monster, and once she decides to take on a challenge, you’d be hard-pressed to stop her. We saw Bey take on country music in Lemonade with “Daddy Lessons,” a song about a gun-toting, whiskey-drinking father and the little girl who loves him. On an album of club bangers and ballads, “Daddy Lessons” was the fiddle-infused Beyoncé track we never knew we needed. The CMAs seems like a perfect opportunity to showcase Bey’s first foray into the glamorous world of cowboy hats and… cowboys. And what better accompaniment than the Dixie Chicks, the polarizing country trio who have already covered “Daddy Lessons” in concert.
Now, any article about Beyoncé at the CMAs would be remiss not to mention when a younger, more vulnerable Bey popped her country cherry way back in 2007. At the American Music Awards, Beyoncé and Sugarland tackled a country remix of “Irreplaceable.” On the one hand, “Irreplaceable” was not written to be backed up by an upright bass and what looks to be a ukulele. On the other hand, it’s Beyoncé. Like really, what do you want me to say?
But it’s not just about the music. If you were to place award shows along a political spectrum, the Country Music Awards would be rocking a Make America Great Again hat and a Confederate flag bikini. This isn’t to say that all country crooners are Republicans—but in past years it would be tough to find a black musician, let alone someone with ties to the Black Lives Matter movement, on the performance roster. Some of the few celebrities who are still supporting Trump are country stars. The Voice’s Blake Shelton raised a whole bunch of eyebrows when he briefly appeared to support Trump, before doubling back and “clarifying” his statements. Kid Rock publicly endorsed Ben Carson for president, but also told Rolling Stone, “I’m digging Trump.”
As always, Beyoncé holds us all in the palm of her hand. She might enjoy playing dress-up during a rare moment of levity, but at the end of the day, we are all her Barbies. Naturally, Beyoncé’s decision to perform at the CMAs is another piece in one of her puzzles. Keep in mind: The Dixie Chicks are the poster children for pissing off the country-music community. In 2003, lead singer Natalie Maines told an audience that the band was against the U.S.’s impending invasion of Iraq under George W. Bush, proclaiming, “We’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas.” The backlash was swift, pausing their careers as country sweethearts and mainstream crossovers. While the Dixie Chicks have been slowly and steadily rebuilding their fan base, times have changed. These days, it’s not common to find a Republican, even a Republican politician, who’s willing to denounce their presidential candidate. Still, many in the country community have yet to forgive the trio for what was perceived by many as a deplorable lack of patriotism.
Beyoncé blessed the CMAs with controversy, artistry, and crucial viewers. And of course she made us wait for it. In the hours leading up to her performance, which most fans expected to kick off the show, the show’s Twitter hashtag was a pissed-off Beyhive of Beyoncé diehards who couldn’t believe they were actually suffering through the CMAs. If Beyoncé’s ulterior motive was making sure the entire world got very familiar with co-host Carrie Underwood, then mission accomplished.
But then, finally, she appeared. Because this is Beyoncé, her collaboration with the Dixie Chicks wasn’t lacking in showmanship. Bey sported a glittery white-beaded jumpsuit, with cleavage down to there and huge sleeves puffed to the gods. Perhaps fearing that her show onesie was too subtle, she topped that all off with a thick collar of pearls. Visually, the stage was arresting—Beyoncé and her musicians and back-up singers dressed in white, with the Dixie Chicks outfitted all in black. The ensuing rendition of “Daddy Lessons” was country to its core. The acoustic cover featured a pared-down, relaxed Beyoncé—a far cry from her famously precise and demanding performances. She put on her country charm, encouraging band members to “play that thing,” and exhorting members of the crowd to put their hands together. Multiple times throughout the performance, she even appeared to be blowing kisses at someone in the audience. As Bey and the Dixie Chicks sang for their native Texas, their Southern sensibilities shined through every aspect of the performance, from a saxophonist in cowboy boots to Beyoncé’s vocal drawl. By the end of the song, Bey had hardly even gyrated her hips, as she and the country trio warbled their way toward a big a capella finish. Then, instead of fixing the crowd with a glare or vanishing in a cloud of white smoke, Beyoncé sweetly hugged every Dixie Chick and walked herself offstage.
As soon as the CMA news broke, people began speculating that this might be the perfect—not to mention most controversial—platform for Bey to take a political stand. While Beyoncé has never been on Katy Perry’s level, it’s easy to guess who she’ll be casting her vote for come Election Day (who are we kidding, Bey absentee ballots all the way). As the election and/or Armageddon quickly approaches, hip-hop’s first couple has steadily increased their outreach, with Jay Z headlining a concert for the former secretary of State in Cleveland. Fans who expected Beyoncé to take a strong political stance at the CMAs will be sorely disappointed. Then again, Beyoncé’s authentic, strictly country performance was, in and of itself, political.
The decision to have country’s prodigal daughters perform with a true genre outsider is the most subversive statement the CMAs has pulled off in years—hence the number of stone-faced fans in the audience while Beyoncé performed. That’s why Beyoncé’s decision to perform a country song with bona fide country singers, devoid of all of those signature Beyoncé bells and whistles, was such an important one. Unlike, say, “Formation” or even “Irreplaceable” with a fiddle, “Daddy Lessons” should be unobjectionable country content. So any viewer who wants to argue that Beyoncé doesn’t belong at the CMAs won’t have a strong musical case to do so, and might be forced to admit the real root of their discomfort. Tonight, Beyoncé and the Dixie Chicks were proudly country, on their own terms. And the CMAs was better for it.