There aren’t many music videos that cause the kind of commotion ‘Formation’ did. Launched just before Beyoncé’s Superbowl appearance in 2016, this is a video that will either resonate or repel, depending on your perspective. For those who think the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was an expression of systematic racism, and support the Black Lives Matter movement, ‘Formation’ is an amazing awareness-raising piece of activism. For those that don’t, it’s probably a bit of a difficult watch.
Whereas in ‘Countdown’ we just got cool visuals, now we have an aesthetic ideal married to a political message. The slave history of the south, the marching bands of Mardi Gras and the ominous power of the police are all evoked. We even see graffiti that says ‘Stop shooting us’. Again, it’s a lot to absorb in less than five minutes, but its density is part of its power – you’re overwhelmed by the sheer weight of Beyoncé’s musical, visual and lyrical argument.
That said, ‘Formation’ has not been without its critics. The embrace of ostentatious wealth – the furs, the jewels, the ‘Givenchy dress’ – does jar. After all, modern day capitalism is the very thing that has crushed Black communities in America and elsewhere – should it really be celebrated as empowerment, even if it is a Black woman with the power? Maybe, maybe not. But Beyoncé is the one making conversations like this happen, and for that we should thank her.
First she made great music (‘Crazy in Love’). Then she became a visual virtuoso (‘Countdown’). Finally with ‘Formation’ we get these two combined with an added message. So is Beyoncé the ultimate music video artist?
I can’t answer that question conclusively, but what I can say is that going through her music video history has given me a new appreciation for her work. Sonically she’s not really my thing – and let’s face it, I’m not the target audience – but I finally get the whole business of Queen Bey.
And yes, her unrestrained embrace of wealth is a bit problematic, but when John Lennon sang “imagine no possessions” while surrounded by loads expensive shit we didn’t give him a hard time, because there’s always going to be a compromise of some sorts when pop aims for the profound.
I for one can’t think of anyone else who has so successfully made the journey from throwaway pop star to meaningful music maker. She’s not perfect, but she’s pretty close. Nice one, Beyoncé.