Beyoncé’s new music video, “Formation,” is about more than the Queen of Pop asserting her throne once again. This is much, much bigger than that.
It’s not just the fact that Bey dropped yet another surprise video on Saturday before lighting up the Super Bowl halftime show on Sunday. I want to talk about how bold it is, how powerful it is, how fearless it is. I want to talk about all the ways she has made me—and hopefully, us, the devotees of pop culture—think about race, cultural statements, and the hard stuff.
As of right now, just a few days removed from Super Bowl 50, some people only know “Formation” by Bey’s leather-clad, booty-shaking halftime performance. Some would claim that the song is too blatantly anti-police (the video certainly has its leanings, but I would argue that the lyrics speak no such thing). Some people think this song is nothing more than Bey’s next sick dance tune.
Then there’s the overwhelming majority: that this song, this video, and this move by Beyoncé point to an intentional, political, and powerful statement of black pride.
I agree with those writers claiming that “Formation” is not for us, the white American population. I don’t claim to have any valid say over the culture, images, statements she illustrates. I mean, I forget about Katrina and its continuing aftereffects far too often. I don’t fear police brutality against my family. I don’t keep hot sauce in my bag (swag). But Beyoncé doesn’t care if I relate. She doesn’t much care what anyone thinks. She’s black, and she owns it, and this video makes it known, and she’s on her way to a dope meal at Red Lobster. She is calling black women to get in formation, get information, as it were. If you think she cares about your whiteness, or that it’s some responsibility of hers to make white fans feel included and comfortable, skip to 2:58 in the video; that flip-off is for you.
This video is about Beyoncé Knowles, and her family, and her roots, and her cemented status as a powerful black woman in a culture that tends to give black women hardly any power at all. And because she makes it particular, it becomes, on a level, about something way bigger than her.
The argument has been made that Beyoncé herself, entangled in her celebrity, is too removed from the real, gritty struggles of the black community to dare speak as if she relates. There’s truth to it, perhaps, but Bey has taken by storm those platforms to which she has access. She and Jay-Z have gone to Black Lives Matter events, met with victims of police brutality, spent thousands of dollars bailing out protestors in Ferguson and Baltimore, and donated millions to Katrina victims and the Black Lives Matter movement. Beyoncé hasn’t given a full-length interview in months, so all this goes under the radar. She knows what she believes in, and she supports it how she’s able, without much fanfare.
What catches me most about “Formation,” what caught me from the moment I heard it dropped, is the overwhelming fearlessness of it. There’s nothing held back about it; there’s nothing glossed over or appropriated or censored. The song as a song drips swag and self-assurance, and the music video with it is a social statement unlike much we’ve seen in awhile—made all the more powerful and relevant by the woman saying it. Call that what you want, but it’s the way of the world today. Maybe Beyoncé isn’t saying anything that hasn’t been claimed or thought before in terms of black identity, but that doesn’t mean she’s diminishing the importance of what’s being talked about.
I’ve been thinking a lot about “White Privilege II,” Macklemore’s recent nine-minute-long rambling on his place as a white rapper and his position of white privilege. I’ve felt conflicted all about it all along. Do I appreciate his willingness to enter into serious talks about race? Without a doubt; the song has a lot of important things to say. Will I listen to “White Privilege II” again? Probably not (whereas “Formation” has been on repeat since Sunday). “White Privilege II” is pure politics, posed as “art” but essentially failing in its long-term impression. Macklemore is scared, uncertain, and piecing together that message of fear and uncertainty together. It’s a one-sided conversation at best.
Beyoncé is not here to converse. She did not come to play. She came to slay. And then she steps away, and casually announces a world tour, and lets the world lose its collective mind talking about music, race, and their place within it all.
I want to talk about Beyoncé because I want to be inspired by her fearlessness, and use that inspiration to have hard conversations about race and culture and privilege. I do not want to forget that black women struggle, and are powerful, and have rich painful beautiful histories, and slay. And I want to remember that pop culture can be so much more than party playlists and dance tunes—used correctly, it may be one of the most influential methods our society has to say what must be heard.