Over the past weekend, while you were going about your business, Beyoncé managed to drop a song pretty much out of nowhere on an unsuspecting public, then take over the Superbowl halftime show like she was the headliner. Also she reinvented her role in contemporary culture, overpowering the limitations frequently imposed on female pop stars to engage directly with an escalating civil rights movement. Lastly, she almost fell down while performing but recovered without even missing a beat because when she isn't busy with all the rest of this, she evidently takes the time to do some squats. But I'm getting ahead of myself here. Let's go back to the song that launched a thousand--or perhaps even more--think pieces.
'Formation' is, as many commentators have pointed out, a song that indisputably engages with blackness, both in its video's imagery and its sound by drawing on tropes associated with black culture, particularly that of New Orleans. Not surprisingly given the subject matter, the video incorporates images from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, culminating in Beyoncé on top of a police car sinking into a lake. 'Formation' conjures up similar imagery to Kendrick Lamar's most poignant contribution to the new civil rights movement, the song 'Alright' and its video. Indeed, it would surprise me if Beyoncé had not had aspects of Lamar's video in mind when preparing hers. But that doesn't diminish from Beyoncé's achievement in any way. The issues that are raised by both--the neglect of black communities, the terror state imposed on them by the police--are the crucial issues at the core of this civil rights movement and their importance should be central to this new Black Art.
Due to the subject matter, the polarizing nature of this song may not be a surprise. Yet there is more here than a debate about civil rights; instead, there is a larger shift in our understanding of what Beyoncé means. As Danielle C. Belton points out at The Root, Beyoncé has been, for many, 'some ethereal, race-less, colorless transformative nymph who could doo-wop pop whatever you projected upon her,' but that this image was always, to some extent, a façade. Belton continues:
What if I told you Beyoncé was always political? Even when she was doo-wop popping in Destiny’s Child. What if I told you that to be black in a public space, with all eyes on you and choosing carefully how to handle that spotlight is a form of politics, a negotiation between the self and the world that all black people must make?I want to build on Belton's idea by expanding on just how significant it is that this 'transformative nymph' chose to make this video. For it is not only Beyoncé asserting her identity (i.e., her formation) that is key, but particularly that she did so without shying away from the core tenets of today's civil rights.
Prior to 'Formation,' I would argue, Beyoncé was a pop star first, and all other identities second--with this moniker comes certain constraints, particularly for female artists. Acting in a sexually provocative way is virtually mandated; perhaps it is for this reason that many of these women tackle the issue of gay rights, as they are subject to critiques for performing their gender in such a public way, a tradition that extends back to at least Madonna and continues to Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus today. Yet on other issues, female pop stars wield virtually no power. One prominent example is Britney Spears, whose mental health problems were little more than fodder for the paparazzi surrounding her. Female pop stars are expected to sing and act their parts, but otherwise to remain silent.
Even more so in the realm of hip hop, where the lack of women's voices is a critique often leveled against it. This lacuna becomes even more apparent when considering many of the songs that espouse the values of this new civil rights movement. Take, for instance, the opening to Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, when Rosie Perez violently dances to Public Enemy's 'Fight the Power.' She may be the one fighting, but there is no indication that this is her fight; instead, she is silence as we hear the lyrics of Chuck D. (in the song's video, women are notably underrepresented).
Beyoncé's music has always resided comfortably in the realm of pop, although she is not wholly disengaged with hip hop, particularly since her husband is Jay-Z. Indeed, the vast majority of her songs would fail whatever the pop song equivalent is of the Bechdel Test, in that men are integral to their narratives. She may be crazy in love, she may be drunk in love, he may be a baby boy, he may have left and is now realizing she is irreplaceable, but there was always a he. Even when he is absent, she is singing to her single ladies about the man who should have put a ring on it. Occasionally, Beyoncé also brings in a girl power song, a pop trope that goes back to at least the Spice Girls' Zig-Ah-Zig-Ahs, but without too much power and far more emphasis on girl. Indeed, the terms found in Beyoncé's career are youthful: child of destiny, girls running the world.
In an age where Disney stars frequently need to throw off the shackles of their childhood careers, we are used to the idea of Lady Pop Stars Growing Up In The Public Eye, a move that can be signaled by a song (Miley's 'Party in the USA' turns into a 'Wrecking Ball') or, in the case of Brit Brit, a song about the ambivalence of growing old ('I'm Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman'), combined with a movie (Crossroads), and one extremely notorious VMA Award kiss from Madonna. Just as their provocations must be sexual, their coming of age is as well--there is nothing particularly controversial about 'Wrecking Ball' as a song, but there certainly is about the video. In terms of age, Beyoncé is fully grown, but it is with 'Formation' that she finally matures in terms of her music. Rather than court sexual provocation, she has focused her energy instead toward the more crucial issues of our day: on black identity and why black identity is in peril. In this, she is unique (so far) among her contemporaries (the vast majority of whom are white).
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Not only this, but she unveiled this new image at the most public venue imaginable: during the halftime show of the most watched television program of the year. That this song and its subject courted controversy is not surprising; after all, as Bey herself states, 'You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation.' But unlike the female pop stars before her, this is the look of power, not the look of provocation. Welcome to Queen Bey and her Formation.