In autumn 2022, Liberty Science Center reinvigorated the laser show genre with a half hour set dedicated to the music of Taylor Swift.  That was great — so great that it was a sure thing that the science museum would try again with another artist.  It was also inevitable that that artist would be Beyoncé.  No other major pop star can match Swift’s relevance, critical acclaim, and musical significance.  Just like Taylor Swift, Beyoncé is touring this summer, and tickets are extremely expensive and difficult to obtain.  Giving Beyoncé the planetarium treatment must have seemed like a solid bet.

It’s a wager that has paid off — mostly.  Bright lights and electrified wiggles feel appropriate to the artist’s enormous ambitions, unique qualities, and stated priorities.  Beyoncé has always worked through spectacle, and the brilliant designs scribbled in laser on the roof of a massive dome are undeniably spectacular.  It is also a great pleasure to hear Beyoncé’s thunderous beats and impeccably produced pop songs while in a comfortable chair in the largest planetarium in America. But Laser Beyoncé is not as successful as Laser Taylor Swift was, and if the Science Center is going to continue doing pop laser shows (and I sincerely hope they do), it’s worth taking a moment to understand why. 

Laser art at Liberty Science Center is busy with those concentric circles, radiant patterns, flashes of light, and mesmerizing waves that will be familiar to those who attended the classic laser shows at the Hayden Planetarium: Laser Floyd and Laser Zeppelin in particular.  But the LSC designers lean much further into representational imagery than those old shows did.  That approach suits Taylor Swift’s storytelling music, driven as it is by granular specificity and memorable particulars.  Beyoncé can tell a story as well as any other pop star, but her best-known songs turn on anthemic statements and purely musical phenomena.  Laser Beyoncé relied too heavily on a narrow and repetitive suite of images: hearts and dancing girls, mostly, neither of which added much to songs that already lead with their hearts and their appropriateness to the disco.  Classic laser show tunnels, flashes, and flourishes would have done more to conjure and deepen the feeling of club floor abandon that Beyoncé’s music generates.  

Taylor Swift is also more parent-friendly than Beyoncé is. Swift sings about love and sex in a manner that’s awfully provocative if you can listen between the lines (most kids can), but grown-ups, oblivious as we are, aren’t likely to pick up on the nuances. Beyoncé, by contrast, dispenses with pleasantries and gets right down to it, in a manner that’s hard to miss, in language that’s Texan-profane. At Liberty Science Center, this meant slicing out some world-famous lyrics at pivotal moments, which did not enhance the immersive quality of the afternoon. More problematically, the show ignored the sharp turn toward LBGTQ+ advocacy that has characterized Beyoncé’s project over the last decade, choosing instead to emphasize the more conventional hits from the period before the release of her salacious and combative self-titled album (no songs from “Beyoncé” appeared in the six-song setlist). Since the Science Center literally had a rainbow of light at its disposal, this felt like a major missed opportunity, and untrue to the mission of the artist that Beyoncé has become.

Beyoncé has always worked through spectacle, and the brilliant designs scribbled in laser on the roof of a massive dome are undeniably spectacular.

The star’s decision to foreground queer club music and the drag ball subculture helped make “Renaissance,” Beyoncé’s 2022 set, consensus critical choice for the Album of the Year.  On the set, Beyoncé and her collaborators celebrate the mutable qualities of the twelve-inch dance single. Riffs and rhythms are introduced that seem ancillary at first, but achieve harmonic significance as the song goes on. A synth line will seem like pure texture, and then a knob will be turned, and it’ll brighten, and broaden, and provide traction for the entire mix.  Elements that seem like clatter at the thirty second mark will feel indispensable at the minute mark, and utterly exhilarating at a minute and a half.  This is all spun gold for visual designers to work with — music that practically begs for the caress of the laser light.  Lasers have an unparalleled ability to underscore musical happenstance.  They can pinpoint, probe, punctuate, and illustrate with the tiniest squiggle of an electrified line.  

Confoundingly, only one song from “Renaissance” made the show — the deep cut “All Up in Your Mind.” It’s a terrific track (everything on “Renaissance is terrific), but it’s also unrepresentative of an instant classic album. Moreover, Liberty Science Center didn’t know what to do with “All Up in Your Mind.” Instead of using the lasers to call attention to the music as it morphed, pulsed, and pushed against expectations, they paired the song with a giant floating brain. The designers fared better with the older material, including the vintage soul throwback “Love on Top,” and flashy, frenetic “Single Ladies,” which, frankly, would have been hard to mess up. These are adamantine pop singles. But their centrality suggests that the show’s designers are more comfortable with a currently inactive version of Beyoncé than they are with the revolutionary figure that Beyoncé has become.

Laser Beyoncé will be one of the focal events at the June 1 LSC After Dark event, with showings at 8 and 9:30 p.m. The Science Center knows she’s a draw. But I left Laser Beyoncé unsure that its creators understand who Beyoncé Knowles is. Before embarking on a monumentalization project as immense as a laser show, that’s an important thing to get clear. It’s something to think about before the Science Center turns, inevitably, to Laser Drake.

Tris McCall has written about art, architecture, performance, politics, and public culture for many publications, including the Newark Star-Ledger, the Bergen Record, Jersey Beat, the Jersey City Reporter,...