Kim Nelson: Pop Pilgrimage

Inside the giant stadium, the air buzzed with the voices of 65,000 excited fans. Packs of women roamed the concourse wearing t-shirts emblazoned with messages like ‘Flawless,’ ‘Slay,’ and ‘Becky.’ I tried to upload a photo to Facebook but my phone wouldn’t connect to the internet, as if a million cell phones tried to Snapchat at the same time and were suddenly silenced. I had $135 worth of merchandise in my bag, swag.

I was at Beyoncé’s Formation tour. Some people make pilgrimages to holy places. I travel to see pop stars.

IMG_7277Last February, I flew with a friend to Las Vegas to take in shows by Mariah Carey and Britney Spears in a 36-hour-period. My friend and I exclaimed with glee upon recognizing the opening notes to each songstress’ biggest hits. I wore a faux leather dress and shouted the lyrics to “Toxic” while dancing at my seat, which is the pop equivalent of laying palms at your savior’s feet. At the end of the whirlwind weekend, I flew home from with souvenir tank tops in my luggage and a hungover haze of glorious memories. I needed more. In June, I decided to hit the road once again to worship at the altar of fabulousness: I drove 5 hours from Chicago to Detroit to visit the highest pop Mecca of them all: the Beyhive. I had missed Beyoncé’s performances in my hometown due to a previously planned out-of-state trip, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me from seeing her live. I looked forward to another reason to leave town, even if just for a brief night away in another city’s stadium. I may not be from Detroit, but once I walked into Ford Field, I was with my people: girls wearing sweatshirts with kneepads to recreate Beyoncé’s look from the “7/11” video. Crowds who burst into cheers when a snippet of “Bootylicious” came on. The skinny guy in the seat next to me who screamed “Dust to side chicks!” I had traveled not just to see the pop star in person, but to see her among the other worshipers.

I haven’t always been a big pop music person. When I was in junior high, the New Kids on the Block were at their peak of popularity,  but I eschewed them for The Cure, Depeche Mode, and later Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots. It was the beginning of grunge and I wore my ennui like an oversized flannel. Sometime between then and college, pop music made a comeback and bopped its way into my heart. I wasn’t as dark and angsty as I was when I was younger. I wanted fun music to blare out the car windows in the summer. I wanted something fun to play on my dorm room stereo while I picked my Saturday night outfit. I wanted to zig-a-zig-ah.

I gravitated towards the female pop stars in particular. Never much of a girly-girl myself, their crimped and curled hair, mini skirts and thigh-high boots, and the constant presence of a wind machine were pure escapism. They were bigger than life, all heightened drama and flattering lighting. And of course, the dancing! As someone who rented every available MGM musical VHS tape from my childhood library, I was a sucker for choreography. Sure, the lyrics were often simplistic and silly, but they were full of joy.

Though the songs often lacked substance, there was always more going on behind the music, so sayeth VH1. Pop divas were survivors. Artists like Madonna and Cher had the power to reinvent themselves over and over again across decades to stay relevant, no matter how many Nomi Malones tried to push them down the stairs. Mariah and Britney had famous public breakdowns, only to persevere, rebound in their careers and personal lives, and land multi-million dollar Las Vegas residencies. During my lowest moments or toughest personal trials, I can remind myself that once, Mariah Carey crashed the set of TRL and handed out ice cream bars while a dumfounded Carson Daly begged to cut to commercial. When life feels too hard, I can think of Britney liberating herself from her hair extensions with an electric razor. They break down, just like us, pull their shit back together, and rise like phoenixes in Louboutins.

The greatest, most exciting pop stars transcend their genre by displaying innovation and artistry. Beyoncé started her career while still a child with talent competitions and R&B girl groups, but has pushed the musical envelope with each album. Her newest, Lemonade, is a battle cry for women, a celebration of female strength and resiliency while blending R&B with rock, reggae, hip-hop, soul, and even country. To see her take the album on tour was a night I’ll never forget. Traveling for the show gave the experience the feeling of a mission. When I go on a pop pilgrimage, I get to spread the Word of my personal credo: to dance like the Beyhive is watching, to love like Kevin Federline never happened, to sing like you’re backing up Adele, and to live like Blue Heaven is a place on Earth.

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