The glory of Beyoncé’s newest single is in its moments of sheer blackness. When she talks about her love for hot sauce, “Jackson 5 nostrils,” and post-coital trips to Red Lobster, there is the feeling that Beyoncé has written a song specifically for black ears, finally.
But because she is Beyoncé, she can also demand, on the largest stage in America, that the whole nation bear witness to her pride and her heritage. That’s what she did on Sunday.
“Formation” is a late entry into the dialogue about black lives, and it largely sidesteps the politics. Still it feels essential. After grief comes anger, and after anger comes action — and here comes a literal rallying cry from the queen of empowerment anthems. The release of its music video this weekend sent shockwaves of glee through social media.
So it seems impolite, verging on ungrateful, to point out the song’s strange contradictions.
Un-Bey-Lievable: Ridiculous things Beyonce has done
Un-Bey-Lievable: Ridiculous things Beyonce has done
1/15 Beyoncé admits lipsynching at Barack Obama's inauguration
The 'Crazy In Love' singer performed US national anthem 'The Star Spangled Banner' at the president's Inauguration Day in January 2013, but lipsynched to a pre-recorded track. She blamed the decision on her being a 'perfectionist' and wanting Obama's day to be memorable. 'Due to no proper sound check I did not feel comfortable taking a risk,' she told a press conference.
2/15 Beyoncé attacked by PETA for Super Bowl outfit
In February 2013, Beyoncé was publically attacked by animal rights organisation PETA for wearing a Rubin Singer-designed leotard made of 'python, iguana and cow' for her Super Bowl Half Time performance with Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams of Destiny's Child.
3/15 Beyoncé makes people cringe in sickly sweet documentary
It's the sickly-sweet Bey-and-Z love-in that was her Life is But a Dream documentary. Released in February 2013, just after Valentine's Day, the autobiographical TV film was directed and produced by the singer herself. Her marriage to Jay Z, her miscarriage, the birth of Blue Ivy (not literally)...it's all here.
4/15 Beyoncé breaks US trade embargo and visits Cuba
The pop star sparked a small furore in April 2013 when she holidayed in Communist island Cuba with Jay Z to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary. A long-standing US trade embargo against Cuba prevents most Americans from traveling their without a government license. It is unknown whether they had obtained a license or not.
5/15 Feminist icon Beyoncé refuses to say she is a feminist
Leading women's magazine Vogue asked the pop star whether she considers herself a feminist in April 2013. Her non-committal response? 'That word can be very extreme but I guess I am a modern-day feminist. I do believe in equality but why do you have to choose what type of woman you are? I'm happily married. I love my husband.' Because you can't be a feminist and love your partner too Bey?
6/15 'Independent Woman' Beyoncé names her world tour after her husband
She is hailed as a feminist icon around the world for tracks such as 'Independent Women', 'Survivor' and 'Run The World (Girls)'. But Beyoncé chose to name her 2013/14 world tour after her husband, Shawn 'Jay Z' Carter instead. She values her marriage - great - but what message does this send to young women who look up to her as a symbol of self-empowerment?
7/15 Beyoncé bans photographers from world tour
After the press published 'unflattering' snaps of the singer during her Super Bowl peformance in February, her publicist was brought in to put an end to such disrespectful behaviour. To prevent a repeat, no photo credentials were granted for her Mrs Carter Show World Tour and instead, Beyoncé's own photographer Frank Micelotta was hired to capture her best angles.
8/15 Beyoncé banned from Pyramids by 'Egypt's Indiana Jones'
Controversial archaeologist Dr Zahi Hawass was upset when Beyoncé arrived late to his tour of the Pyramids, booked when visiting Egypt. Hawass banished the 'rude' star from the ancient site, claiming she never apologised for being impolite. 'I said Beyoncé was stupid and I left,' he said.
9/15 Beyoncé goes vegan with rapper husband Jay Z
In December 2013, the high profile couple decided to take part in the 22 Days Challenge, which aims to change people’s dietary and exercise habits by encouraging them to omit all animal-based products from their diets.
10/15 Beyoncé dines in a vegan restaurant decked out in fox fur
Newly vegan Beyoncé no doubt ruffled a few feathers when she wore a fox fur coat to a meat-free organic restaurant. The singer was spotted in the £2,915 Christopher Kane parka with a real fur collar as she accompanied husband Jay Z to a vegan meal at Native Foods in Los Angeles before Christmas 2013.
11/15 Beyoncé guerilla releases album
Comprising14 original tracks (including a collaboration with her daughter Blue Ivy, husband Jay Z and Frank Ocean) and 17 videos, Beyoncé randomly released her self-titled fifth studio album on iTunes as a mid-December Christmas surprise in 2013.
12/15 Beyoncé shops for her new album in Walmart
Not only did Beyoncé play the politician’s game at the US store (yes, she did stop to kiss a baby’s forehead on the way round), but she played Santa as well, showering shoppers with 750 gift cards worth $50 each. Presumably so they could spend them on her new album. Or a bottle of her perfume. Or something.
13/15 Beyoncé is 2013's most searched for celebrity on the internet
Beyoncé Knowles beat the headline-grabbing competition to be named the world’s highest ranking human being of 2013 according to Bing, leaving the rest of celebdom trailing in her warbling wake. Controversial pop star Miley Cyrus only manged number 9 on E! Online's list.
14/15 Beyoncé samples space shuttle disaster in pop song
The singer's decision to use a six-second audio clip from the 1986 Challenger catastrophe in which seven astronauts lost their lives was deemed 'inappropriate in the extreme' by NASA representatives at the end of 2013. Words breaking news of a 'major malfunction' open her song 'XO' from fifth album Beyoncé.
15/15 Beyoncé poses in the middle of Leonardo da Vinci's 'The Last Supper' replica
Closing 2013 in distinctly dubious style, the singer posted a series of pictures on her Instagram account showing her plonked in front of the Italian artist's masterpiece. She is pictured posing in a bright green skirt and pink bustier in the middle of the painting, right in front of Jesus.
At her Superbowl performance on Sunday, Beyoncé brought a phalanx of afroed lieutenants in berets and black leather, an unmistakable reference to the Black Panthers. This year marks the 50th anniversary of that shotgun-wielding socialist movement, and in obvious tribute, the performers raised their fists in a black power salute. As they did this, pyrotechnics erupted, and Beyoncé sang:
“You just might be a black Bill Gates in the making”
Seriously, how does one become the black Bill Gates?
The white Bill Gates came from a middle-class family in Seattle. He went to private school, where he had a computer to play with.
The video for “Formation” is set in post-Katrina New Orleans, where the flooding erased entire neighborhoods of the black middle class. Where the public education system was so bad that, after the storm, it was more or less gutted and replaced with a system of charter schools.
As my colleague Chico Harlan has vividly documented, it’s mighty hard to rise up when you’re a poor black kid in the South. The system resists upward mobility. Consider this map from researchers at Harvard and Berkeley, which shows where children have the opportunity to transcend their low-income upbringings. There’s a drought of opportunity in the South, which is also the home of Beyoncé, and the focus of “Formation.”
Beyoncé, who grew up in a two-parent middle-class family in Texas, is one of the bright exceptions. She succeeded despite the forces that could drag her down. But what about the many others who weren't so lucky, whose efforts never met their just reward?
On “Formation,” Beyoncé sings as if hard work leads directly to success. For black America, there is at best a vague correlation.
“I dream it, I work hard, I grind 'til I own it,” she says. “Get what's mine (take what's mine), I'm a star (I'm a star).”
But look at what happened in Prince George’s County, just outside Washington, D.C., where African-Americans did work hard, did earn what was theirs, bought homes and formed an enclave of black success.
Then the housing crisis passed through, a squall that destroyed so much black wealth. It was revealed, in the aftermath, that many of those black homes were financed by predatory subprime loans. The white neighbors didn’t suffer half as much.
It’s of course ludicrous to demand policy answers from a hymn of spiritual uplift. “Formation” is a fantasia about black power, black beauty, and black success. It is political, but Beyoncé is not a politician.
But when she says things like “always stay gracious, best revenge is your paper,” you have to wonder about Beyoncé’s own politics. The Black Panthers were not gracious. They saw barriers to economic advancement, and sought, sometimes violently, to break them down. This approach contrasts sharply with the philosophy implied in “Formation.”
Beyoncé is a titan of capitalism, her own special economic zone. When "Formation" dropped, her online store was already stocked with merchandise sporting the song's catchphrases. A sweatshirt that says "I twirl on them haters"? $60. A baseball cap that says "hot sauce"? $36.
Which leads to this cynical reading of “Formation”: Beyoncé waited until black politics was so undeniably commercial that she could make a market out of it. This was a genius thing to do. It's part of why the song is so glorious. Her talent for business is one reason she "slays."
But it's worth remembering that not everybody has equal access to the economy's blessings. Ta-Nehisi Coates reminds us that the free market has rarely been a friend to minorities.
Beyoncé is a pop star at heart. Her job is to diagnose the current moment, not architect it. She deserves the praise she’s received for “Formation.”
But perhaps spare a thought, too, for the activists who made it possible for an artist like her to release a song like "Formation," a celebration of blackness, to near-universal acclaim.