So what does it all mean? To fools with an agenda (or a lack of comprehension) Bey was calling for us to “slay” the police, or out of line for using the word “negro.” Ha! But for the rest of us, amid the sea of cultural signifiers in the song, video, and performance, one thing about “Formation” is quite clear: it’s a radical, unapologetic celebration of American Black Excellence.
To unpack this concept, or to understand why celebrating Black Excellence in 2016 is still radical, it’s helpful to take a closer look at these signifiers. For many Americans, the first time they encounter black culture in the mainstream is when it’s been co-opted, usually to sell them something. And while the famous home of the Cheddar Bay Biscuit will certainly appreciate the Beyoncé bump from lines like “When he fuck me good I take his ass to Red Lobster,” it’s hard to see her repping Blue Ivy’s “baby hair & afro,” or her “yellow bone” status, or her man’s “negro nose with Jackson 5 nostrils” as anything other than being black and proud, and saying it loud.
You can watch the video for “Formation” dozens of times and still find new signifiers of blackness. Her dancers — who stomped all over the field at Levi’s Stadium with raised fists, looking like the the Black Panthers’ recruitment arm — proudly rocked afros. But there was plenty of screen time given to the full spectrum of Black Hair, from the massive tresses Bey dangled out of the car window, to perms, braids, and all manner of wigs. There were second lines, Mardi Gras Indians, black churches and drum majors. But she is at her most subversive when she flips the signifiers on their heads; whether it’s a group of black women in all-white antebellum dress, fanning themselves in the parlor, or proudly reclaiming the pejorative “Bama,” a word northern blacks would use to distance themselves from their “country” southern brethren.
Yes, Beyoncé is co-opting the underground (like she has her whole career) when she “slay,” or gives shine to New Orleans icons Messy Mya and Big Freedia. Ignoring the fact that Freedia deserves all the love she gets, there’s an important distinction between a song like “Formation” and say, Diplo’s “Express Yourself.” One — but certainly not the only — reason for this is Beyoncé’s expert subversion of the gaze; if “Formation” doesn’t feel like it’s for you, the white, cis male, that’s because it’s not. Are Bey and her dancers sexy? That much is obvious. But it feels less like a come-on and more like a declaration of strength. A vulgar display of power.
It’s not often we get the chance to see it, let alone at the biggest televised event in America. And yes, of course this happened at the Super Bowl — as much as this song, video, and performance are about defiant protest and #blacklivesmatter, the entire enterprise is still built on the aspirational, capitalist foundation from which Beyoncé has launched her entire career. People will doubtless question this aspect of her brand of empowerment, but if “Formation” is about being black and proud, it’s also about being black and having “made it” — and inspiring people to make it, too. “I dream it, I work hard, I grind ’til I own it,” she says. Regardless of how you feel about Beyoncé or her music, it’s hard to fuck with such an unassailable ethos: “Always stay gracious, best revenge is your paper.” Word.