GQ has named Beyoncé Knowles the sexiest woman of the millenium, an assessment with which I have no quibble. But what’s most interesting about the resulting profile of her, written by Amy Wallace, and the interview for which took place on the condition that Wallace consent that it be recorded by Knowles in an inversion of the normal agreements between source and subject, is that it’s all about Beyonce’s experience of being watched, often by herself. There are stories of Beyonce watching DVDs of every performance she’s ever made. There’s mention of the autobiographical documentary she’s making for HBO. And then there’s the intense, almost unnerving, archiving Knowles appears to be doing of even her most private life:
Anytime she wants to remind herself of all that work—or almost anything else that’s ever happened in her life—all she has to do is walk down the hall. There, across from the narrow conference room in which you are interviewing her, is another long, narrow room that contains the official Beyoncé archive, a temperature-controlled digital-storage facility that contains virtually every existing photograph of her, starting with the very first frames taken of Destiny’s Child, the ’90s girl group she once fronted; every interview she’s ever done; every video of every show she’s ever performed; every diary entry she’s ever recorded while looking into the unblinking eye of her laptop.
“Stop pretending that I have it all together,” she tells herself in a particularly revealing video clip, looking straight into the camera. “If I’m scared, be scared, allow it, release it, move on. I think I need to go listen to ‘Make Love to Me’ and make love to my husband.”
Beyoncé’s inner sanctum also contains thousands of hours of private footage, compiled by a “visual director” Beyoncé employs who has shot practically her every waking moment, up to sixteen hours a day, since 2005. In this footage, Beyoncé wears her hair up, down, with bangs, and without. In full makeup and makeup-free, she can be found shaking her famous ass onstage, lounging in her dressing room, singing Coldplay’s “Yellow” to Jay-Z over an intimate dinner, and rolling over sleepy-eyed in bed. This digital database, modeled loosely on NBC’s library, is a work in progress—the labeling, date-stamping, and cross-referencing has been under way for two years, and it’ll be several months before that process is complete. But already, blinking lights signal that the product that is Beyoncé is safe and sound and ready to be summoned— and monetized—at the push of a button.
Given how invasive paparazzi already are, I can’t imagine inviting more documentation into, say, dinner with a spouse or boyfriend. But I wish the profile had gone longer on this point. Because there’s something fascinating about a woman responding to the relentless commodification of her life by taking very direct control of the process. If you have an archive of every commercial photograph ever taken of you, you’re not going to be surprised when something surfaces. If you have better footage of yourself than anyone could ever put on the market, you have enormous control of what your final image is. And if you’re going to be nitpicked to death, becoming your own most careful critic and curating your image is a way to satisfy yourself, rather than satisfying someone else, even if the standards you’re striving to meet remain enormously high. I’m not sure I could live up to the standards Beyoncé sets for herself, and I wonder if they represent a capitulation to some really horrible cultural norms. But I admire her discipline.