Beyoncé moves in the same way a war general does. It’s never one singular act with the 34-year-old pop diva. If she’s releasing an album, you’re getting videos for every track. If she’s performing at the Super Bowl, the entire game is going to feel different once she leaves. This weekend, her three-pronged attack went as follows:
- She was announced as the guest star for Coldplay’s Super Bowl halftime performance. That actually meant she was the headliner followed by other guest Bruno Mars. Coldplay, who started the performance, would be reduced to third. That’s the way the world works (and how it came off on television).
- On Saturday, she released “Formation," an anthem celebrating not only her blackness but her Southern blackness, and coupled it with a striking new video that showed off New Orleans while alluding to police brutality, the displacement of black people during Hurricane Katrina and her own country-girl quirks. Who else laughs about packing hot sauce in her purse while wearing Givenchy?
- On Sunday, immediately following her Super Bowl performance, she announced the Formation World Tour, an all-stadium extravaganza that hits Houston on May 7. Which immediately makes it the second most important music date of the year after the Grammys next Monday. Actually, third. Whenever Beyoncé releases her next album will become the second most important music date of the year.
The brief timeline of events all happened within days. For now, we’ll focus on what “Formation” is, what it means and who exactly it is and is not targeting.
No singular artist is put on a more insane pedestal of being and meaning something than Beyoncé. She's a Facebook lightning rod of both grace and ubiquity for some, annoyance and “capitalizing opportunist” for others. The color and vibrancy of who Beyoncé is will forever be under a magnifying glass because of what she does or does not do. She doesn’t give interviews, preferring to let her art do the talking. On the same record, “Formation,” where she downplays the Illuminati for being behind her success, or her mix of being the daughter of a man from Alabama and a woman from Louisiana, she brags that she’s willing to take her husband on a date to Red Lobster (!) if he happens to “fuck [me] good." It’s a sassy yet welcoming duality because although one can be “woke," one can also let one's hair down, roll down the partition and enjoy the lighter aspects of life.
“Formation” is striking in its lyricism. As co-written by Swae Lee of Rae Sremmurd (let that sink in), the words immediately punch you in the face as bold proclamations. “I like my negro nose with Jackson 5 nostrils” celebrates blackness and only figures of blackness that you can’t run away from or conceal in any way. “I just might be a black Bill Gates in the making,” is a declarative flaunt of wealth and status — and power. And she includes you in it before saying, “Shit, I can be Bill Gates too.” All of it is earned, all of it unassailable. “Formation” is a specific song, so it doesn’t have to be flowery or hugely metaphorical. It’s so specific and black and New Orleans and gay thanks to the colloquialisms made popular by black gays across the country. You hear New Orleans street comic Messy Mya in the intro. You hear Big Freedia, Bounce-music queen, in the chorus, emphasizing about not coming to play with anybody and slaying.
The visual of “Formation” is enough to make a thousand think pieces appear like wild Pokémon, this one included. Business Insider has already run an article detailing how women have already begun to boycott the singer over the song, claiming it's a “harsh message to police.” There’s a bit of fallacy in this as the song doesn’t say anything about police and the video doesn’t damn police in any way. Graffiti splayed along a wall that says “STOP SHOOTING US,” a child dancing in front of police in riot gear with their hands up and Beyoncé floating on a cop car submerged in water highlight #BlackLivesMatter as well as the plight of New Orleanians during Hurricane Katrina. It's activism but in a different tone. It's a video that definitely excludes some people and a song that definitely isn't for some people. Which makes it matter far more in the lexicon of Beyoncé songs. Aside from New Orleanians being displaced, determined to be refugees as if they were formerly members of a third-world country, one of the main stories that emerged from Katrina almost 11 years ago involved the police on the Danziger Bridge. Two men were killed, were determined not to have committed any crime, and a police cover-up insinuated that they did. The police officers were found guilty before a new trial was ordered because of prosecutorial misconduct.
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Regional history, cultural history — "Formation" is a view of the New Orleans that some residents who either still live there or are from there know all too well. The video packs in so much New Orleans that isn't touristy. There are no shots of hand grenades getting thrown back in the French Quarter, or a Second Line band. Instead, there's the tints from that wedding photo of the Knowles clan at Solange's wedding in New Orleans. That New Orleans angles directly toward toughness: the club, the wig shop, line dancing, curvature of the body that could only be mimicked by surgery even then still fail to compete. That's the New Orleans plenty of Gulf Coasters know and love.
What points are made in the “Formation” video are clear. Beyoncé is not sashaying away from the old her, the girl who grew up in Third Ward culturally aware of her power. She’s only amplifying it in her music. As Beyoncé taught her, she’s free to do whatever she pleases and speak on whatever she may feel. There’s a heaviness surrounding Beyoncé now, one that is just as apparent as her striking good looks or homages to both Michael Jackson and the Black Panthers at the Super Bowl. “Formation” is a political song. It’s also a twerk anthem that celebrates womanhood and blackness all in one. All of this is a means of transition, much as how much of New Orleans’s culture is about transitioning. If she’s a buffer between the bad and the good, there’s a reason for it.
She’s one of the few artists making personal political music, music that isn’t just built for her but is inclusive and exclusive all at once. Which is why we’re having a conversation about the power of Beyoncé in the first place.