Beyoncé’s recent music video, “Formation,” offered a stunning kaleidoscope of New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina imagery: Beyoncé lying atop a New Orleans police car as it sinks into an abandoned street flooded with water, she and her dance troupe shimmying in an empty pool, a child clad in a Mardi Gras Indian costume. It incorporates scenes from Abteen Bagheri’s short film on bounce culture, That B.E.A.T., its twerking dancers helping create “Formation”‘s glorious vision of poly-gender blackness amid constant racial, economic and environmental stress. Her appearance during Coldplay’s halftime concert on Super Bowl Sunday brought enough concepts for a day’s worth of Internet textual analysis. She wore a Dsquared2 black leather jacket with a metal sash splayed in X formation across her chest, a homage to Michael Jackson’s costume at his groundbreaking Super Bowl XXVII concert. Her backup dancers sported puffy Afros and raised their fists as tribute to the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther Party, which was founded in Oakland, about a 45-minute drive from Levi Stadium in Santa Clara. In post-concert photos, the dancers held up a “Justice for Mario Woods” sign, drawing national attention to the young man shot dead by San Francisco police on December 2.
Social media effused over Beyoncé’s effortless and seemingly predestined upstaging of Coldplay and wondered aloud whether the OG Black Panthers have approved (it’s not likely, since the Communist theory-espousing group took a dim view of radical chic exploitations like Shaft in their heyday). But it felt like no one was asking what she was doing there in the first place. After all, the NFL is an entertainment conglomerate where 68 percent of the players are black, and yet enjoy fewer job protections than any other major sporting industry. Blacks are underrepresented in the coaching ranks; nearly all of the league’s team owners are white. Yes, one can argue that Beyoncé performed a subversive act by shouting out a radical activist group and frequent critic of capitalist structures and law enforcement during the ultimate showcase of corporate hegemony over American society (and inducing the wrath of right-wing bloviators as a result). Or you could wonder if Beyoncé is simply appropriating controversial black activism for facile symbols that make us feel better about partaking in this uniquely pop apocalypse.
Either way, Beyoncé has become the rare public figure that appears beyond mainstream criticism. It’s easy to dismiss Fox News pundits who hyperventilate against her perceived support of so-called “cop killers.” But her countless fans minimize her occasional missteps. A video clip for “Hymn for the Weekend” which found her cavorting with Coldplay in a sea of appropriated Indian imagery, reduced the second most populous country in the world to an exotic fantasia for Western colonialists. This was quickly forgotten after the premiere of the “Formation” video. A past controversy surrounding her Pepsi sponsorship that reverberated during her magnificent performance at Super Bowl XLIX went either unnoted or unremembered, even though Pepsi sponsored the Super Bowl 50 halftime show too. When an ad for Beyoncé’s upcoming tour appeared right after the mini-concert, she earned kudos for her canny and timely marketing. A post-halftime concert announcement that her #BeyGood organization is co-sponsoring a fund for children affected by the water debacle in Flint, Michigan engendered more goodwill.
As the hugely successful CEO of Parkwood Entertainment, a peerless singer, an extraordinary performer, an inspired video artist and a feminist icon, Beyoncé should be allowed to embody these contradictions. She certainly shouldn’t have to suffer financially for her art. Her participation in the biggest show of the year doesn’t make her any less righteous, so to speak. Yet laying the blame for “Hymn for the Weekend” on “white musicians … who use black and brown people as props,” as NPR did, creates the impression that Beyoncé somehow acquiesced to Coldplay’s vision without any input. Does that sound like the person who exerts so much control over her image that she rarely participates in unscripted press interviews? If one points out that her dancers’ Black Panthers-inspired garb at the Super Bowl corporate theme park straddled the line between inspiring homage and a burlesque of cultural appropriation, is that person simply a “hater” who doesn’t want to join the #BeyHive?
One could argue that Beyoncé shares a similar strategy with her husband Jay Z of mixing capitalist fervor with philanthropy. The two are at different career stages: Jay has largely moved from the studio to the boardroom, while Beyoncé is at the height of her creativity, establishing a new industry paradigm with the unannounced appearance of her 2013 self-titled watermark. She is adept at turning her brand into an engrossing spectacle, while Jay has become a constant target for Internet mockery, not least due to his tumultuous purchase and rollout of the Tidal streaming service. Often referred to as a “trophy husband,” one can imagine Twitter trolls piling scorn on him if he made a similar announcement as Beyoncé: “Is he going to give Flint, Michigan Pepsi to drink instead of water?”
Yet just as Jay jumbles paradoxical symbols into a money-spinning pop stew, from 2013’s art-damaged Magna Carta Holy Grail to famously donning a T-shirt emblazoned with an illustration Communist revolutionary Che Guevera’s for his 2002 VH1 Unplugged, so does Beyoncé. As she proved in “Formation,” she’s better at it than her husband. Commentators have praised the clip’s celebration of blackness, and her astute observations of racial difference in lyrics like, “You mix that Negro with that Creole, make a Texas ‘bama.” Her fans want to ignore how her bold statement also served as an advertisement for the NFL, and that mere days ago, she seemingly trivialized another culture just as easily as she honors her own. By the way, this “cornbread and collard greens” tribute to the impoverished rural South is currently available as an exclusive download on Tidal, the most expensive streaming service out there.
For now, it seems that any criticism of Beyoncé’s art will earn you the tag of an “Illuminati-truthing hater” (On “Formation,” Beyoncé growls, “Y’all haters corny with that Illuminati mess.”) But even if you won’t go as far as the brilliant scholar bell hooks and label Beyoncé a “terrorist,” it’s worth pointing out the incongruities in her brand. Glossing over those contradictions so that we can love our idol better risks turning her into an empty vessel for our ever-changing desires. As a result, we rob her of her full humanity.