Beyoncé’s ‘Formation’ is much more than just a five-minute pop video
RICHARD S HE on the politics, power and defiance of Beyoncé’s surprise new single ‘Formation’.
It’s Black History Month, and David Bowie is dead. But there’s work to be done, and only a household-name popstar will do. So here’s Beyoncé, packing a career’s worth of imagery into a surprise music video. ‘Formation’ floods a post-Katrina New Orleans with scenes from the black American experience. Whether they’re ordinary (churches, the NOLA suburbs, eating shrimp outside Red Lobster) or glamourous (black women twerking in Victorian couture) there are no stereotypes here. ‘Formation’ sees humanity in all of them. The best music videos don’t just enhance their songs; they pit beats, lyrics and images against each other, and make them fight for control.
You could literally write a thinkpiece on the relationship between Beyoncé, blackness, and every shot in this video. Beyoncé drowns – or is she baptised? – atop a submerged police car. A dozen black women dance jerky, difficult movements in formation, as if performing an aggressive, pacifist haka. A black boy dances in front of a faceless riot squad, and convinces them to put their hands up in solidarity. It’s a fantasy, a reminder that if you’re young and black in America, it’s literally not safe to be around cops alone.
But then again, is it so unrealistic? One of 2015’s most unforgettable images saw a Michael Jackson impersonator dancing to ‘Beat It’ in the middle of the Baltimore riots. It brought Michael’s ode to pacifism into a situation of real violence; ‘Formation’ brings the threat of violence back into the dance itself.
‘Formation’ is defiant because it’s celebratory
In the tradition of ‘Flawless’, ‘7/11’ or ‘Feeling Myself’, ‘Formation’ barely has traditional verses or choruses – its lyrics are a string of memes waiting to happen. Of course, Beyoncé’s online store is already selling an entire line of ‘Formation’-themed merch. But wait, isn’t this song supposed to be political? Isn’t spending $25 US on a tote that says “I got hot sauce in my bag” kind of absurd? Well, as the queer NOLA rapper Big Freedia says, “I like cornbreads and collard greens, bitch!” Like everything else about ‘Formation’, it’s rooted in black Southern culture. Food, music, fashion, hair all make up our cultural identities. They’re not inherently political – but in a world where misogyny, racism and homophobia are rampant, being proud of your differences is an act of defiance.
There’s a notion that overtly political art can’t be “serious” if it’s joyful. But that’s a lie – icons from Stevie Wonder to Public Enemy to Kendrick Lamar would beg to differ. Beyoncé, though, takes after Fela Kuti, the Nigerian musician who pioneered Afrobeat in the 1970s. His syncopated, drum-heavy sound is all over her songs ‘End of Time’ and ‘Grown Woman’ – in fact, she supposedly recorded and scrapped an entire album in that style. ‘Formation’ sounds completely different, but it’s full of Fela’s spirit. His most famous song, 1976’s ‘Zombie‘, explicitly criticises the violent Nigerian regime of the time, but it sounds every bit the raucous party. That’s ‘Formation’, too: defiant because it’s celebratory. There’s no contradiction.
‘Formation’ drops 24 hours before Beyoncé’s guest appearance at Coldplay’s Super Bowl halftime show. Which makes you wonder – is the world’s least political band seriously going to give Beyoncé three minutes to do a Black Lives Matter segment, in between America’s foremost display of masculine virility? Probably not. But it’s wild that it’s even conceivable, that a five-minute pop video can address feminism and black pride and police brutality not for cheap clicks, but genuine provocation. And in the middle of it all stands Beyoncé, raising two perfectly manicured middle fingers. Her flawlessness used to make her less human. She’s still the centre of attention, but this time, the conversation doesn’t just revolve around her.
Richard S. He is an award-winning pop culture writer. Tweet your grievances to @Richaod.