Beyonce’s new song Formation, complete with a fabulously divisive music video, dropped this Saturday. And it didn’t just land — it ricocheted in a thousand glorious directions.
If you’ve seen in, you know: Beyonce oozes confidence and glamour, as always; her hair, outfit, and dance moves are queen-like, as always. Formation is at once typical Beyonce, and level-up Beyonce — even a straight out of the womb baby could see that thematically, this song stands out. It is at its core about African American and female empowerment, with a lot more packed in.
Let me preface by saying I’ve never been a Beyonce fan in any significant way; I’ve never owned an album, but like any girl will dance to Single Ladies any given Friday. I’m not crazy about pop or hip-hop but I was wowed by Formation; I think anyone in their right minds should be at the very least rattled.
I also get that the song wasn’t “for” me; this is in no uncertain terms a song for and about blackness. It’s not my story and never will be (rest assured that I’m not being paid to write this, and you are certainly not being forced to read). But it is incredibly rich and intriguing in a way that we can all benefit from understanding, politically and socially.
Here are some of my main observations and speculations.
What’s awesome: Delicious wordplay
Starting with the title, “Formation” is one of those words with various meanings; these definitions make themselves known throughout the song. Firstly (or maybe secondly, depending on your interpretation) the song delves into Beyonce’s individual formation as a black, female American from the South. Quite literally, in fact: Beyonce gives to us the formula that gave us Beyonce. Her father from Alabama, mother from Louisiana, “mix that negro with that creole get a Texas bama.”
This is one of song’s more obvious themes: Beyonce’s roots. It’s on a very basic level a newer version of Jennifer Lopez’ Jenny from the Block. Beyonce, too, knows where she came from: the Southern US, slavery, a century of oppression. A culture that she is proud to carry with her into stardom — some of it in her bag with a side of hot sauce.
The second meaning of formation is the literal assembly of people — in this case, an ensemble of black women and Beyonce herself. This definition elevates and expands the message beyond Beyonce herself to the larger group. “Let us get in formation,” she chants, then “I slay, we slay” again and again. Formation, here, evokes a tribe mentality of strength in numbers.
The third meaning, which came to me last, is in hindsight very obvious as the squiggly red line on my word processor suggests “in formation” be corrected to “information.”
I can think of no sassier command than “Okay ladies, let us get information.” Information and enlightenment are the foundation of power; educated women in particular have transformed the world. This meaning goes beyond the knowing of the self and the group, toward an understanding of context and structure, principles and tactics. Intelligence in numbers is a type of super-strength.
What’s fascinating: Subverting stereotypes
Another interesting element of Formation is the way Beyonce flips stereotypes on their heads in regards to gender and race. She celebrates her baby heir with baby hair and afros (nod to Blue Ivy), her negro nose with Jackson 5 nostrils (nod to Jay Z), and other elements of black beauty, elevating the characteristics that have been used to “other” African Americans for ages. She showcases black women in Southern mansions, fanning themselves in petticoats. She transforms the slur “bama” into a proud title, equates hot sauce with glamour, and it’s more than believable.
What’s even more interesting to me is song’s sexual politics. Beyonce mentions rocking Jay Z’s “roc necklaces” as a sign of her own possessiveness, rather than the other way around. She raps about rewarding her man with Red Lobster, shopping sprees and helicopter rides for performing well in bed.
Male rappers often reference themselves and their women in a similar ways; still, it takes a Beyonce-like force to master the self-congratulatory tone male rappers espouse naturally. What I find even more curious about the role of of sexual reward is that it doesn’t actually work the other way around. Women aren’t rewarded for men’s sexual satisfaction; it’s more of an expectation or the reward in and of itself. So the notion of treating a man for what really should be the bare minimum in any sexual transaction — pleasure — sheds light on a dynamic by which female satisfaction is largely secondary.
Essentially, these lyrics suggest a reversal of the traditional male/female sex transaction. Men buy women gifts to get them to sleep with them. Beyonce buys her man gifts when he sleeps with her, but only if he does a good job.
What’s confusing: An ode to capitalism?
So much of Formation is about accruing wealth and power by playing the game that, to me, capitalism comes immediately to mind. In rap and hip-hop, flaunting wealth is a common trope, but Beyonce goes beyond it by articulating how she earned it: working hard for her paper.
Put simply, Beyonce embodies the American Dream: “I dream it, I work hard, I grind it til I own it,” she sings. She rose from ashes into stardom, and encourages others to follow this lead. “Always be gracious, best revenge is your paper,” she ends the song with. In other words, money talks the loudest — get paid, and then you can air your grievances.
This logic may seem contradictory to the theme of social justice also alluded to in the video. Many believe that America’s economy is stacked against the poor and people of color; that many people work ceaselessly and will never get anywhere near Beyonce’s status. In this light, the idea that being “gracious” will lead to success is confusing, not unlike telling black women to speak “politely.”
Is capitalism, which touts excellence, and social justice, which touts equality, mutually exclusive? I’m inclined to think that you can believe in bootstrap achievements and still think there are injustices that need addressing.
And if you are able to climb to the top like Beyonce, fair or not your voice is louder — wealthy performers like her have the clout to make it count. Financial independence, at the very least, makes you beholden to no one.
People are quick to call Beyonce radical and progressive, but her message is a capitalistic one one about making dreams come true by slaying at life; about using money as influence. I’m not convinced she’s promoting much more than her brand, regardless of the implications of her background content. In this light, I’m surprised more people aren’t feeling the Bey: she’s American as pie.
What’s controversial: Black Lives Matter
The theme of the police in Formation has been viewed as a not-so-subtle reference to the Black Lives Matter movement, which condemns police brutality (and other injustices) against people of color. The clearest reference to this in the video shows a line of riot officers surrendering to a young black boy, dancing, before panning to “Stop Shooting Us” written in graffiti.
For part of the video, Beyonce sings from atop a partially-submerged police vehicle, presumably in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. At the end of the video, both she and the police car are submerged together.
Some were quick to condemn this inclusion as “anti-police,” but that’s not how I see it. At the very least, it’s anti-police brutality or in New Orlean’s case, anti-police negligence, which is different than anti-police — it’s pro-accountability. But my own interpretation is that there’s a more positive message of idealistic unity beneath it all.
To change subjects for a moment, the scenes in which Beyonce and her gaggle dance in an empty swimming pool reminded me of the recent Spike Lee movie, Chiraq. In it, South Chicago’s women held a sex strike to stop gang violence, at one point locking themselves up in a gym as part of their protest. The similarity may be coincidence, but the hypothetical connection is this: women are assembling as a protest against violence, against divisive biases and crime.
What I see when the cops surrender to the dancing child is not submission to a potential criminal. Rather, it’s the acknowledgement that this child (and countless others) could be, as Beyonce puts astutely, “a black Bill Gates in the making.” The child could become a philanthropist, an entrepreneur, or an artist like Beyonce. But first and foremost, the child is a child with a future. And when we stop projecting criminality onto young children, their American dreams may too be realized — not just Beyonce’s and the Obamas’.
Maybe Beyonce sunk with the car because when structural powers aren’t at peace with the people, everyone loses. Or maybe the water was a symbol of new life, a baptism from which we all would emerge freer.
Whatever the case, I think any outrage at Beyonce’s politics as they are expressed in Formation is misguided. The song praises hard work, individuality, cooperation, freedom and excellence — feminism and racial justice are the icing on the cake, if you’re into icing like I happen to be.
At the end of the day, this is Beyonce’s experience (and those who relate) to share with the help of stellar songwriters and producers; we need only sit back, enjoy, and as I have clearly done, speculate wildly. Whether you love or loathe it, are delighted or discomfited, I hope we can all agree that Beyonce lived up to lyric “you know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation.”
Ladies (and gentlemen), let us get information and let the conversation commence.