Twenty-first century humans often discuss the phenomenon of “breaking the internet,” be it Kim K’s butt on the cover of Paper magazine, the ice bucket challenge, or the gold/white/blue/black dress. Beyoncé’s new song, “Formation,” released on YouTube and Tidal on Feb. 6, a day before her Super Bowl halftime performance (what would have been the day after Trayvon Martin’s 21st birthday, and a day before what would have been Sandra Bland’s 29th birthday), did just that. By containing a fiercely personal narrative in the umbrella of a larger movement, Beyoncé has prompted widespread debate, not just about platforms of expression, but also about the political implications of being an entertainer.
Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani criticized Beyoncé on “Fox & Friends,” saying, “This is football, not Hollywood, and I thought it was really outrageous that she used it as a platform to attack police officers, who are the people who protect her and protect us and keep us alive.”
Giuliani condemned Beyoncé for the personal beliefs she expressed through her platform as an entertainer, arguing that, in her case, the personal is not allowed to be the political. Giuliani’s thinking is straight out of Ayn Rand’s seminal text, “The Fountainhead,” the sort of mental process that stifles societal progress.
The lyrics of “Formation” situate Beyoncé as a proud black woman with the heritage of a “texas bama.” Not only is Beyoncé a proud black woman — “I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils” — she is a progenitor of it, extending these feelings of identity to the next generation. (“I like my baby heir with baby hair and afros.”) This celebration of her personal black identity is perhaps addressed to people who argue she hasn’t done enough to align herself with the Black Lives Matter movement. While this video, viewed in conjunction with her pro-black Super Bowl halftime performance, has been seen as an attempt for greater connectivity between her and the movement, from this viewer’s perspective, the video appears to also be a personal celebration of herself.
Beyoncé’s “Formation” music video references the evolution of black culture, from antebellum-era black women sitting in a Louisiana home circa 1850, to modern black women wearing denim and dancing in a parking lot reminiscent of the TLC, Salt-N-Pepa ’90s. In line with her music video style, the “Formation” video is a visual spectacle featuring breathtaking shots of a nearly submerged New Orleans and a colorful Mardi Gras parade.
Beyoncé has never been one to shy away from disrupter rhetoric, as seen in previous music videos including “Pretty Hurts” (which juxtaposes happiness against unrealistic American expectations of beauty) and “Run the World (Girls)” (which celebrates female power in opposition to a violent patriarchy). Her music video cache includes casual, as seen in “XO,” to dramatic, as seen in “Drunk in Love,” to multi-dimensional, as seen in “If I Were a Boy,” and finally, to oh-so-pretty, as seen in “Best Thing I Never Had.”
One overarching theme that runs through these videos is that of empowerment. A viewpoint often contrary to the established order, this rhetoric is all the more impactful because it comes through the lips of pop culture icon B. Beyoncé’s song, music video, and Super Bowl halftime performance have all been tied to a pro-black, pro-Black Lives Matter position. And with their allusions to the Black Panthers and “Hands up, Don’t Shoot,” these cultural objects certainly do that. But they also reflect Beyoncé’s personal story with blackness, a narrative previously unexpressed this openly.
In the end, the beauty of Beyonce’s expressive forms are that they refer back to her personal narrative in a way that separates her from her role as a performer, and ties her back to her identity as a concerned black woman living in a time of police brutality and discrimination. While aligning herself under the goals of a movement and simultaneously celebrating her own personal identity, Beyoncé transcends a single alignment and produces an experience that is as much for herself as for anyone else. The debate surrounding her song, video and performance becomes less relevant in the face of recognition of her personal and political strength.
Contact Hannah Broderick at inbloom ‘at’ stanford.edu.