People are lining up to commend Beyoncé on her new video, “Formation,” but I think New Orleanians should be allowed to jump the queue.
If the video has a star other than Beyoncé, it is the city. Images of Hurricane Katrina-era flooding abound. Even though New Orleans isn’t mentioned by name in the song, in the video the role of a New Orleans mansion is played by a Pasadena, California, residence.
Beyoncé’s most recent magnum opus must be broken down into its component parts for each to be appreciated in the full ridiculousness of its glory. The words begat the video begat the Super Bowl performance begat this mad fantasy that the pop star is making a serious political statement.
Beyoncé proudly alludes to her Iberia Parish roots in “Formation” and also brags that, when her lover does his job “good, I take his ass to Red Lobster.” Nothing says “New Orleans” quite like Red Lobster. What could be truer to our roots than a restaurant that sells shrimp that, according to an Associated Press report last year, are peeled by actual Burmese slaves?
Why does she do this, you might ask. “Cause I slay,” the singer raps repeatedly.
Much like Madonna did with “Vogue,” Beyoncé has appropriated black gay culture. The embrace is more audible than visible. Neither the late Messy Maya nor the living Big Freedia appear in the video, though their New Orleans voices appear on the track.
“Formation” is being widely praised as a salute to black culture in part because of such Afro-positive lines as,
I like my baby heir with baby hair and afros
I like my Negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils.
Some doubt the sincerity of the sentiments. As Beyoncé might say, “haters gon’ hate.” To which I can only add, let he or she who is without a nose job or hair weave cast the first stone.
One clip of the “Formation” video shows a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. Who but a genius of contradiction would have put an image of the nonviolent King in the video for a song whose refrain is “I slay?”
In one of the video’s most celebrated moments, an unarmed boy dances in front of police in riot gear. “Stop shooting us,” begs the graffiti on a wall. That could be read as an appeal to the cops, but Beyoncé’s real point about killing seems much more self-referential. Put simply, some people are allowed to slay while others are not.
Or maybe the message is that cops shouldn’t view innocent dancing as a threat to the order any more than we should confuse Beyoncé movements with actual protest.
This fantasy that Beyoncé was using her halftime performance to express support for the Black Panthers or the Black Lives Matter movement stems mostly from the costumes her dancers wore. But nowhere in Beyoncé ’s lyrics does she mention either organization, and her group’s sexy attire was far more reminiscent of Michael Jackson circa “Bad” or Janet Jackson circa “Rhythm Nation,” than of 1970s black nationalists.
Neither Michael nor Janet is mentioned by name. That honor is reserved for a great rebel of the software movement.
“You might be a black Bill Gates in the making,” she sings. (Apparently, Angela Davis had too many syllables.)
Even “Democracy Now!,” a lighthouse of real television news in an endless ocean of American fluff, abandoned its usual intelligence to follow the example of its inferiors. “ ‘Formation’ is about hundreds of years of black women resisting state violence,” Dave Zirin said on the broadcast. “It’s radically audacious in terms of its visuals, in terms of its lyrics.” He didn’t actually quote any audacious lyrics, though. How could he?
“Democracy Now!” host Amy Goodman noted that backstage, Beyoncé ’s dancers posed with their fists in the air, recalling the Black Power salute by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics. She didn’t explain why Beyoncé herself didn’t participate or why the salute was relegated to backstage.
To her credit, Beyoncé hasn’t claimed to care about anything more substantive than Givenchy dresses and Roc necklaces. Had this whole politics thing gone horribly wrong, she could have plausibly denied any political agenda. The singer has had substance thrust upon her by people who want her to be more than a pretty face.
I don’t find “Formation” to be worth all this intellectual scrutiny. If anyone can explain it to me good, I’ll take them to Red Lobster.
Lolis Eric Elie, a former newspaper columnist, divides his time between Los Angeles and New Orleans.