The contradictions come fast and furious in the epochal triple lightning strike that is Beyoncé’s single, video, and globally televised debut performance for “Formation.” The song is slow and furious—I want to put it alongside Kelis’s “Caught Out There,” the most brilliantly abrasive track I’ve heard.
Beyoncé hazards three or four different vocal attacks, from direct speech to gloriously full voice. Each has its own register and rhetoric. Repetition condenses around the phrase that would be “C’mon ladies let’s get information” if not for the song’s title. But there is no chorus and no hook, no catharsis and no resolution. No one gets out unscathed. The soundscape (one of the producers is the great Mike Will Made-It) is agitated and rebarbative, the rhythm hypnotically martial: “Formation,” after all. This is to be expected from Beyoncé’s abrupt pivot to our splintered moment, particularly those aspects inflected by Black Lives Matter, which is to say, all of them. For all the hashtag discourse of #BlackExcellence, “Formation” seems, thrillingly, more like #BlackRage.
Beyoncé’s brand has not to this point featured explicitly political position-taking (give or take a stage sign flashing FEMINIST, its meaning convivially generic). The sudden turn has sparked vitriolic criticisms of an artist who in her joyous mastery has seemed not just beloved but bulletproof. Some complaints have issued from reactionary quarters, as in the response of police to the video’s allegorical post-Katrina images of a deluged cop car, or the scrawled text STOP SHOOTING US intercut with a scene evoking Trayvon Martin. Cops regularly perform hurt feelings in response to black artists, and pathetically threaten to abjure providing security at their concerts. The joke’s on them: Their decisions about moonlighting will be based on their ratio of rent to take-home pay, and whether baby needs new shoes. And if they don’t take the gig, someone else will. One could point out that they can no more afford ethics than the rest of us poor saps, if anyone thought cops had ethics in the first place.
Other criticisms of Beyoncé resound more loudly. They mostly decry cultural appropriation, an echo of the Miley Twerk Crisis of 2013. In this case, the accusations include appropriating queer and trans culture, images, and vernacular. No less vehement is the cry that the experiences of Katrina are not Beyoncé’s to tell or to market. The reductive category of “identity politics” has never really captured this particular debate; it is more accurately “cultural nationalism,” which insists on a given culture’s possession of experiences and representations that originate within and unify it. Cultural power is offered as emancipatory; in turn, empowerment demands as well the right to profit from what you own. Appropriation is not just trespass, but the latest in a long line of literal theft.