Within hours of the Feb. 6 release of Beyoncé’s “Formation” video, The New York Times had convened an emergency roundtable discussion by three of its cultural critics. They expounded at length about the New Orleans-centric video’s meaning, message, aesthetics and implications. Wesley Morris, the Times’ critic-at-large, noted that he had postponed dinner plans to be “hunched over a computer contemplating the Beyoncé politic.”
The breathless dissection of Beyoncé’s latest creative utterance extended well beyond the hallways of The New York Times, especially in the wake of her eye-popping Super Bowl halftime performance the following day.
Beyoncé is among the two or three biggest female pop stars on the planet. Madonna, holder of that title for much of the past quarter-century, can still sell concert tickets. But her new albums and singles are non-events. She is clearly past her cultural prime.
Beyoncé, by contrast, is still peaking. In 2014, she joined husband/hip-hop mogul Jay-Z for a stadium tour dubbed “On the Run”; it included a stop at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. This summer, she’s leaving her hubby at home while she headlines the nation’s largest venues on her own.
Her Formation Tour is not scheduled to stop in New Orleans. But her artistic sensibilities clearly do.
She has acknowledged the creative debt she owes the Big Easy and its beats. She opened her show at the 2013 Essence Festival in the Superdome by stating, “This city has inspired my music so much.”
Since her sister, Solange, settled here, she has spent even more time in the city: bicycling in Faubourg Marigny, attending parties in the French Quarter, second-lining after Solange’s wedding at the Marigny Opera House.
With “Formation” and its accompanying video, she goes all in. The song opens with a snippet of the late New Orleans rapper and YouTube provocateur Messy Mya. Later, Big Freedia, the city’s reigning Queen of Bounce, chimes in.
When a hugely popular artist like Beyoncé bites a bit of regional culture, is she stealing or simply adding another color to her palette? Among many other examples of cultural appropriation, Paul Simon dressed up his “That Was Your Mother” with Rockin’ Dopsie’s zydeco accordion.
When the “Formation” video first made the rounds online, a minor kerfuffle erupted over its use of images from a 10-minute 2013 documentary about New Orleans bounce rap called “That B.E.A.T.,” including a brief B-roll shot of four drum majors from Edna Karr High School on the West Bank. A Beyoncé rep responded that permission had been obtained from the owner of the footage — presumably Nokia and/or the Sundance Channel, who commissioned the film.
That minicontroversy has now given way to a broader discussion of the “Formation” imagery — especially its Hurricane Katrina references. Most prominent is an extended sequence with Beyoncé atop a New Orleans police cruiser on a flooded street. She and that cruiser are eventually submerged in a scene that has struck some observers as insensitive and exploitative.
A music video may be an artistic statement, but, ultimately, it is a commercial meant to sell a song, album and image. Is evoking a tragedy like Katrina so directly in a music video appropriate, especially when that artist is not from New Orleans and had no experience of the storm?
Writing for Slate.com this week, Shantrelle Lewis, a curator, documentary filmmaker and New Orleans native now living in Philadelphia, decried Beyoncé’s “attempts to politicize black tragedy and black death by using them as props for popular consumption.”
Madonna made a career out of provocation. Beyoncé has mostly avoided it, preferring to dazzle with dancing, beats and melodies. “Formation” is easily the most culturally provocative statement she has ever made.
Against a spare, insidiously memorable beat, she asserts her racial identity with such lines as, “I like my Negro nose with Jackson 5 nostrils.” Late in the video, a young black boy dances in front of a line of riot-geared police officers. They eventually throw up their hands in what appears to be a posture of surrender. It’s David and Goliath crossed with Black Lives Matter.
Maybe the video was an attempt to assert her black Southern-ness and the notion that black lives can be marginalized in tragedies like Katrina. Or maybe not. To date, neither Beyoncé nor “Formation” director Melina Matsoukas has explained it.
Regardless, imagery is always open to debate. Its “meaning,” if any, will vary from viewer to viewer. The images in the “Formation” video, and the song’s lyrics, certainly lend themselves to pontification.
So, too, Beyoncé’s performance at the Super Bowl alongside Bruno Mars and the largely forgotten Coldplay. Dressed in homage to Super Bowl alumnus Michael Jackson, she performed a clean version of “Formation” backed by a troupe of female dancers with afros and black berets. The berets, to some, were a nod to the Black Panthers; so, too, an upraised fist. Clearly, Beyoncé was flirting with symbols of black activism from decades ago.
Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, among others looking for something to complain about, took offense.
“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 said on Fox News. “What we should be doing in the African-America community, and all communities, is build up respect for police officers.”
He would have preferred “decent, wholesome entertainment” for the halftime show. (Attendees spelling out “Believe in Love” with colored placards in the stands apparently didn’t count.)
I’m not sure what halftime show Giuliani watched. There was nothing overtly “anti-police” in Beyoncé’s performance. Maybe her dancers’ black berets did reference the Black Panthers. But the dancers also wore midriff-baring black leather tops, hot pants and fishnet panty hose with garters — which the Panthers did not.
A protest is planned for Feb. 16 outside NFL headquarters in Manhattan. A description on the EventBrite website asked, “Are you offended as an American that Beyoncé pulled her race-baiting stunt at the Superbowl? Do you agree that it was a slap in the face to law enforcement?”
I don’t. But substantive art is always open to interpretation and discussion. In that regard, Beyoncé has succeeded.
Follow Keith Spera on Twitter, @KeithSpera.