On Saturday afternoon, Beyoncé released “Formation,” her first new song since 2014, on Tidal and YouTube in advance of her Sunday appearance at the Super Bowl 50 halftime show at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. The song’s subject is familiar Beyoncé self-affirmation, and the video is among the most politically direct work she’s done in her career, with implicit commentary on police brutality, Hurricane Katrina and black financial power. Jon Caramanica, a pop music critic for The New York Times, Wesley Morris, The Times’s critic at large, and Jenna Wortham, a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine, discussed the song’s sound, the video’s look and the way that Beyoncé increasingly blends the aesthetic and the political. Here are excerpts from their conversation:
JON CARAMANICA Beyoncé is nothing if not meticulous, and that’s clear from the timing of the release of “Formation,” 24 hours before the Super Bowl, where she’s scheduled to share the halftime show with — and completely annihilate — Coldplay.
Beyoncé has a history with the Super Bowl: her 2013 halftime performanceat the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans was perhaps the greatest of the modern era.
In “Formation,” she returns to that city; this time, she’s in scenes that suggest a fantastical post-Katrina hellscape, but radically rewritten. She straddles a New Orleans police cruiser, which eventually gets submerged (with her atop it). And at the end of the clip, a line of riot-gear-clad police officers surrender, hands raised, to a dancing black child in a hoodie, and the camera then pans over a graffito: Stop Shooting Us.
This is high-level, visuallystriking, Black Lives Matter-era allegory. The halftime show is usually a locus of entertainment, but Beyoncé has just rewritten it — overridden it, to be honest — as a moment of political ascent.
JENNA WORTHAM This video feels like the ultimate declaration from Beyoncé that the tinted windows are down, the earrings are off and someone’s wig might get snatched, judging by the scene in the hair store about 1:22 minutes in.
She wants us to know — more than ever — that she’s still grounded, she’s paying attention and still a little hood. I think she wants us to know that even though she’s headlining a mainstream event like the Super Bowl, she has opinions and isn’t afraid to share them, nor is she afraid to do it on a national and global scale.
It’s easy to think that releasing a video is a soft way to make such a strong statement, but Bey has always been about using striking visuals, clever lyrics and high-impact narratives to express her point of view.
As always, a Beyoncé surprise drop operates across multiple vectors, and “Formation” isn’t just about police brutality — it’s about the entirety of the black experience in America in 2016, which includes standards of beauty, (dis)empowerment, culture and the shared parts of our history.
WESLEY MORRIS So it sounds like what you guys are saying is that this video is really, really black. When she says, “I like my negro nose with Jackson 5 nostrils,” it’s basically “my anaconda don’t want none unless you got buns, hon” but for the face — the black, male face.
This woman’s blackness was never in doubt, but I wonder when you become this wealthy and this famous, and when that’s not how you were raised — friends, say, with the former Paltrow-Martins — whether you start to wonder or fear disconnection from what is, in Beyoncé’s case, your less affluent, Southern heritage. Her idea of swag in this song is keeping a bottle of hot sauce in her purse. That’s seriously, gloriously specific.
WORTHAM Wesley, it’s the blackest of black. It’s not Pharrell’s new black (no shade!) — it’s your grandmother’s black. Her idea of swag is keeping hot sauce in her bag while she’s decked out in Givenchy. That’s baller, and that’s why the world slash Internet is going nuts. It’s a dab in a video form, playing on a loop; it’s phenomenally delicious.
CARAMANICA “Earned all this money but they never take the country out me”: What’s fascinating about this song and video is how Beyoncé renders her politics both literally and colloquially. Her radicalism is both overt and implicit — she knows that creatively drawn statements of black identity and pride are as powerful as any direct social-political statement.
I think you’re right, Wesley, in that she’s making clear her claims to her old identity even in this new space. But it’s also important to remember that she was doing similar things all over “Beyoncé,” the album she surprise released at the end of 2013.
“Formation” feels like a refinement and amplification of that album — it’s sinewy and thrusting, but also angular and tough. Between the song and the video, there’s the club, the church, the wig shop, line dancing, donks on parade, black cowboys and, yes, some footage of New Orleans borrowed from a mini-documentary called “That B.E.A.T.” (which the filmmakers seem alternately frustrated by and pleased with).
Beyoncé is both old South and new South — her musical and aesthetic approaches posit them as existing on a continuum.
WORTHAM All great points Jon. This is the exact same strategy she pulled with her last album, and, aesthetically, it feels similar.
Her palette, mean mugs and references feel extremely familiar, and it wouldn’t be a Beyoncé video if she didn’t debut an entirely new and stunning array of looks and dance formations (heh), which of course have already been GIF’d and meme’d to the extreme.
But this video feels almost more substantial than the entirety of that album. That album celebrated similar themes— capitalism, ignoring haters, black beauty, racial pride and family— but it was also about navigating her identity as a mother, and examining her graduation of her relationship from a pair of newlyweds who were drunk in love to raising a precocious child.
Some academics and Twitter activists criticized her use of the word “feminist” as a backdrop during her 2014 VMA performance and highlighted the contrast between a song like “Flawless,” a triumphant anthem that flaunted her independence, and “Partition,” where she sings about trying to be hot for her husband.
Personally, I think she can have it both ways: I think she can delight in her sexuality and express uncertainty about what it means as she moves through the seasons of her life, which is how I read that stunning shot of her holding up her middle fingers, her perfectly painted gothic mouth, wrists and neck dripping in pearls and jewels, her face barely visible behind a low-brimmed hat.
But, those were the conversations circling the online water coolers. To me, this feels like a step further, a rebuttal or perhaps an addendum to her thesis statement about who she is and what she stands for, but on her own terms of course, not a tweetstorm.
Beyoncé’s control is an exquisite study in self-restraint, especially in the current social-media-saturated climate. One could also read this as an existential call to action to her listeners and viewers: “Black women, join me and make your own formation, a power structure that doesn’t rely on traditional institutions.”
It’s also not insignificant that she’s electing to parade her substantial wealth and ability to outearn most men in the music industry (including her husband, Jay Z) during the Super Bowl — the flagship event of male virility and violence in this country. That’s incredibly meaningful. It’s a moment where the entire country will be watching, and forced to sit up and pay attention. We can’t overlook the audacity of that — and I think that’s why she is able to command our attention the way she does. There’s nothing else like it, period.
CARAMANICA You’re right, Jenna, that there were personal depths and complexities on “Beyoncé” that don’t come up here. But in a way, their absence feels pointed — after a period where her private life became regular tabloid fodder, she’s beyond that sort of public reckoning.
You get a quick allusion to her husband, Jay Z, at the beginning of the song, where she sings, “I’m so possessive so I rock his Roc necklaces.” There’s the mention of her parents (“My daddy Alabama, my mother Louisiana”). And of course there’s Blue Ivy, her daughter, striking a beautiful pose.
But don’t get it twisted: Beyoncé, crucially, is the clear source of power here — “I slay, I slay, I slay, all day.” This is more feelin’ myself than “Feelin’ Myself,” more flawless than “Flawless.”
And she upends gender roles easily. Enough of male rappers talking about the things they’ll permit women to buy: “Formation” giddily reduces men to accessories. “I might get your song played on the radio station,” Beyoncé sings, with a sort of offhanded, gum-snapping tone — maybe she’ll have the time, maybe not — and later, she avers, “If he hit it right, I might take him on a flight on my chopper.”
Finally, toward the end of the song, she executes the flip in realtime: “You just might be a black Bill Gates in the making/I just might be a black Bill Gates in the making.” I don’t know if she’s referring to innovations in technology or size of wealth or scale of philanthropy (note the $1.5 million Tidal donated to Black Lives Matter and other groups focused on social justice yesterday) or all of the above, but I know that she already has a line of merch for sale online with some of the song’s catchphrases. We can all wear HOT SAUCE caps when we meet up for dinner at Red Lobster next week.
WORTHAM Ha! So true. Can I also just point out that calling yourself a “bama” is an ultimate power move, especially if you’re from the South? That was the most lethal insult growing up, so I love seeing her twist it here.
MORRIS While you guys were typing, I decided to treat myself to Beyoncé’s “Blow,” from “Beyoncé.” It’s a masterpiece of lusciousness. It’s also just a perfect music video, as at least half of the ones were for that album. “Blow” has a unified artistic concept (Bey goes rollerskating amid the warmest pinks and purple and browns). It’s a blast and suggestively hypnotic. But watching it with “Formation” in mind, it felt shallow by comparison.
This new video, which Melina Matsoukas directed, is also highly conceptual and a great deal of that concept involves anger and a regional history that’s both apparent (the floodwater swallowing her and a police cruiser) and oblique (the caste strata of black New Orleans). The image of Beyoncé in that dress atop the cruiser has some Toni Morrison poetry to it. You don’t know whether the shots constitute a baptism or a drowning.
“Formation” is the heaviest thing she’s done as a video artist, particularly in the closing shots. I just felt it could have been even stronger and more defiant. The material is all there. But as you astutely mentioned to me earlier, Jon: Beyoncé shrewdly positions herself as a good pop buffer between the country’s bad and ugly.
Oh: And this song is remarkably gay. She takes bounce music — which is pretty gay to start with — and repeats the word “slay” in different ways. You guys caught that, too. “Slay” is an amazing word here, and the choreography seizes on it. It’s violent, obviously. But, in a gay context, it’s also triumphant: He slayed. I’m moved by her use of that word, knowing that she knows how to use bounce music to have it work both ways: funereally and as fun.
Like Nina Simone and peak Madonna before her (Beyoncé lands somewhere between the two as a polemicist), this is a woman who understands her own power, how to harness and magnetize us to it. I mean, I’m supposed to be out at dinner right now. Instead, I’m hunched over a computer contemplating the Beyoncé politic. No one running for president at the moment has managed to do t