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.
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 establishment 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.