the ultimate beyoncé reference guide
From a famous 50s sex icon to a lost masterpiece of French cinema, the inspirations behind Bey's most iconic visuals.
Sep 4 2018, 3:15pm
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Beyoncé shines in all the requisite categories of pop stardom — She sings! She acts! She dances! — but her visuals are inarguably where she delivers her most dense and powerful artistic manifestos. A single music video can stand-in for a visit to The Met. Take “Countdown,” the 2011 music video directed by Adria Petty. In under four minutes, Beyoncé deftly pays homage to the 1957 musical Funny Face, Belgian dancer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Diana Ross, Fame, and Josephine Baker’s “Banana Dance.”
Queen Bey’s references hopscotch time, culture, and genre for a reason. They help elucidate how she — and anyone else in the black diaspora — is an amalgamation of myriad (and sometimes dueling) qualities. They are exhaustive, and yet delightfully elusive to the untrained eye. How? Because they are never forced. The Houston native molds her chosen references to fit her aesthetic, and never the other way around.
Thankfully, we’re here to point out and unpack the singer’s most obscure and hidden references, so you can show off to your friends.
Beyoncé is an astute dancer, so of course she gleans inspiration from one of the greatest choreographers to ever one-two step on this planet: Fosse. The theater legend worked on seminal musicals like Chicago and Damn Yankees and is known for crafting ebullient, jazz hands-heavy dance numbers.
There are always hints of Fosse-esque dancing in Beyoncé’s visuals (you can thank her Fosse-obsessed choreographer Frank Gatson for this), but the singer’s first (of many) direct tributes to Fosse was her 2006 “Get Me Bodied” video. The singer looked to the Fosse-directed film adaptation of Sweet Charity, specifically “The Rich Man’s Frug,” to stage intricate group choreo inside a super mode nightclub. (We have a strong feeling Ariana Grande watched “Get Me Bodied” as a child, spotted Beyoncé’s high ponytail and, in that moment, made an unwavering hairstyle choice.) There was a lot of Fosse in the B’Day era. Bey would go on to add a Chicago-inspired skit to the album’s supporting world tour, The Beyoncé Experience.
Bob Fosse’s work provided Bey with inspiration again three years later. This time for the biggest video of her career “Single Ladies.” The singer borrowed moves from Fosse’s “Mexican Breakfast” number (look at those butt slaps!) and “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This” in Sweet Charity. When “Single Ladies” first came out, numerous bloggers attempted to reduce Beyoncé’s tribute to “plagiarism,” ignoring the fact pop visuals have always been in conversation with other works of art. The tribute was as skilled and clever as the samples Kanye West loops throughout his productions and the literature Lana Del Rey pays nod to in her songwriting. Beyoncé was not plagiarizing. She was honing in on her ability to take something distinctly of another period and genre and insert it into a contemporary black setting.
Diana Ross in Central Park
This should be the first result on Google Images for “O.G. pop diva:” Diana Ross singing to a crowd of over 450,000 fans in Central Park while a rapturous thunderstorm occurs. There Diana was: her signature voluminous hair turned flat by the rain, mascara smudged all over her face, and her sequined orange bodysuit soaking wet. She gave her all as a performer in that cinematic moment, hoping that, by continuing to sing as attendees left, no one would become disorderly. It is an example of how performers can put themselves at risk for their fans, pushing themselves to the absolute limit. So of course Beyoncé — queen of staging performances so high voltage you get tired just watching them — looks up to the canonical concert.
Beyoncé recreated Diana Ross’s sequined jumpsuit look (sans runny mascara, of course) for The Mrs. Carter Show World Tour, which toured 2013-2014. The outfit appeared at the climax of the show — when Bey flies off the main stage and over the audience ands lands on a smaller, more intimate B-stage to bust out fan favorites like “Love On Top” and “Irreplaceable.” The B-stage section of The Mrs. Carter Show was free of frills. It was just Beyoncé jamming, talking to the audience, and having a good ol’ time. The perfectionist singer allowed herself to take a break from hyper-choreographed numbers and bask in joy, much like Ross did at her Central Park concert.
There were a lot of costume changes throughout The Mrs. Carter Show World Tour. Each leg saw the addition of new outfits. The one outfit that made it to the end? The Diana Ross-inspired bodysuit.
In early 2008, Beyoncé toured the Met exhibit “Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy” and came across the designs of Thierry Mugler. It was a formative moment for the singer, because she would later employ Mugler to creative direct many of the visuals for her third album, I Am… Sasha Fierce, and her second major world tour.
Beyoncé dug through Mugler’s archive for her wardrobes in “Diva” (Mugler was credited as “assistant director”). The video, shot in an abandoned Brooklyn warehouse, was unlike any video Beyoncé had released before it. The outfits were weird and shape-shifting and unconcerned with the mainstream, pre-Gaga MTV aesthetics at the time. Sasha Fierce was all about fashun, hunty!
Beyoncé used Mugler’s designs to explore new artistic territory again in “Sweet Dreams.” The absurdist visual is a full-on Sasha Fierce experience: Bey wearing a solid gold bodice and donning a “finger curl helmet” while gyrating around in a white, empty void.
Mugler, in many ways, helped elevate Beyoncé from her sparkly, Tina Turner-inspired outfits to a more refined, avant garde look. Sadly, the two have not worked together since I Am… Sasha Fierce. But the legacy of Mugler lives on in Beyoncé — he is a clear first step towards the haute couture outfits Beyoncé wears in Lemonade. And if you want to blame anyone for her decade-long love affair with leotards, it’s probably Mugler. Hey, some things are just meant to be, you know?
Beyoncé is a serious fangirl. She does cosplay better than the rest of us, using her massive makeup and hair team to emulate her idols with uncanny precision. She loves to turn herself into musical icons for Halloween: Janet Jackson, Salt from Salt-N-Pepa, and Lil' Kim. However, unlike the rest of us, Beyoncé does not need to confine herself to Halloween to pay homage to iconic strong females. During the tail end of 2009 and early 2010, the singer took to wearing a brown wig with thick bangs and wingtip eyeliner. Her inspiration? Legendary 60s pin-up girl Bettie Page.
Beyoncé’s tributes to Bettie Page were most likely her working up the confidence to star in risqué and bold videos like “Partition” and “Drunk in Love” without the safety blanket a costume can provide. Bey first premiered her Bettie Page look in the Hype Williams-directed visual for “Video Phone ft. Lady Gaga.” The tribute to the sex icon made sense, as the video (which also references Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs) was all about S&M culture and kinky acts. Bey kept her Bettie wig on for pop extravaganza “Telephone” (which was all about women taking control) and then in the scorned-60s-housewife video for “Why Don’t You Love Me.”
It is interesting that right when Beyoncé was debating killing off Sasha Fierce, she lost herself in yet another persona. Beyoncé has always been interested in an intersectional, fourth wave brand of feminism — believing that sexiness and power can co-exist. And who better encapsulates that than Bettie Page — a pin up model who was slut-shamed for taking pride in her sexuality and crafting art from it? Sounds similar, huh?
George Michael’s “Freedom”
Beyoncé is a bonafide George Michael fan. She sung a duet version of “If I Were A Boy” with the Wham! Star in 2009 and his influence is obviously felt on the 80s ballad-leaning portion of I Am… Sasha Fierce. When it came to filming “Yonce,” for her 2014 self-titled album, Bey wanted to create a contemporary version of the “Freedom! 90” video, which featured supermodels like Christy Turlington and Naomi Campbell.
If “Freedom 90!” is the school-friendly visual, “Yonce” is its distantly related, BDSM-loving cousin. Bey cast models Chanel Iman, Joan Smalls, and Jourdan Dunn in her remake and turned to 90s erotica (See: Madonna’s “Human Nature”) to add a subversive edge.
Beyoncé and Jay-Z are devout francophiles. They filmed the video for “Apeshit” inside The Louvre (after making well-documented trips to the cultural institution, the photos counting as works of art themselves). Beyoncé put the burlesque club Crazy Horse on full display in her “Partition” video, and, oh, Blue was conceived in Paris. TMI? Never.
Beyonce filmed the video for “1+1” shortly before Blue’s birth and used the glamorous lighting design of 1964 French film L’Enfer as a guide. The result was a kaleidoscopic, cinematic visual that placed an emphasis on subdued beauty. Turning to a simplistic and quiet work like L’Enfer — in 2011, a period where pop hit peak wack theatricality with videos like Nicki Minaj’s “Stupid Ho” and Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” — was a refusal to give into the trend of making everything bigger and better for YouTube. To quote Queen Bey herself, sometimes all you need is a mic and a light.
The romantic duo in this 1973 film can very well be considered the Senegalese Bonnie and Clyde. Bey and Jay recreated scenes in Touki Bouki for their On The Run II merchandise and visuals, adding a dash of African culture to their Bonnie and Clyde motifs.
At this point in her career, Beyoncé has placed an emphasis on amplifying voices in the black diaspora. Her Tyler Mitchell-shot cover of September Vogue — the first Vogue cover ever shot by a black photographer — is proof of this. She’s also taken to making her references more POC-centric (bye, Audrey Hepburn!), turning herself into Egyptian queen Nefertiti and turning to the legacy of black homecomings to stage an imaginary historical black college we all wish we could enroll in.
Honorable Mentions: African goddess Oshun in “Hold Up,” Usher as Fred Astaire in “Naughty Girl,” Messy Mya in “Formation,” David Blaine in “Beautiful Liar,” Wonder Woman in “Telephone,” the British punk scene in “***Flawless,” and New Edition’s “If It Isn’t Love” in “Love on Top.”