The day before Beyoncé was set to perform during the Super Bowl 50 halftime show, she released her first new music since 2014, and it was pure Bey. The song was an absolute banger, and the accompanying video an eminently GIF-able celebration of femininity, sexual empowerment and what it means to be a true Boss in the parlance of our times.
It was yet another power move from music’s most formidable influencer, so optimally tailored to our meme-obsessed culture that her Red Lobster name check on the track drove the food chain’s sales up 33 percent. The company, of course, thanked her via Twitter – because it’s 2016 and that’s what people do.
But “Formation” and its accompanying video are not just Internet-optimized marketing material. They are not “Hotline Bling.” They are a clarion call from the most powerful pop star we’ve ever seen, an announcement that despite her relative silence for the past few years she has been listening. To everything.
She has watched the events of Ferguson, Missouri unfold. She has heard the names Sandra Bland and Eric Garner and Freddie Gray. She has been carefully choreographing her entrance into the political fray, making sure that it will be defined by the perfect blend of mass appeal and a brand of self-determination so aggressive that it borders on alienating. Or at least it would be if you could look away.
Let’s take a moment to process Beyoncé as a media entity. Unlike many of her contemporaries, the singer is not a social media maven. She has 14 million followers on Twitter, which is a drop in the bucket compared to the country-sized populations behind Katy Perry (82 million) and Justin Bieber (75 million).
Then again, considering she’s only tweeted eight times, 14 million is fairly impressive. Beyoncé does not Snapchat. Her Instagram is considerably more active and her following is nearly 60 million. But the way Beyoncé comports herself publicly more closely resembles the stars of years past than the grassroots branding machines who thrive today. Her social media presence is minimal and she is intensely private. She is not relatable. She is not accessible. She is not the prettiest cool girl at your high school, a la Jennifer Lawrence, and she’s not the spirit leader of your girl squad like Taylor Swift. She is the exception to many of the rules that dictate hysteria levels of fame in the digital age, all of which makes her level of impact on the discourse that much more impressive.
We’ve become so accustomed to being surprised by Beyoncé that it would be easy to gloss over the potency of “Formation” with a customary “YAS QUEEN,” or dismiss it as a continuation of the more raw and forward artist that emerged after the sneak attack release of Beyoncé, her audio visual opus from two years ago. But when you click play on “Formation” it is immediately apparent that something has changed. You realize this isn’t just “Survivor” or “Run The World (Girls)” or “Partition” or any of her other anthems. It is all of those songs combined to form a smarter, sharper and more deliberate woman. She has stepped out from behind a media iron curtain to declare her blackness and her southern roots and all the money and power she has amassed over the years.
The reaction to her unequivocal entry into racial politics has been swift and loud, and demonstrates the scope of what Beyoncé laid out in “Formation.” Jenna Wortham at the New York Times says the song is 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.”
Author and professor Dr. Zandria Robinson, who runs the blog New South Negress, calls the track, “A metaphor, a black feminist, black queer, and black queer feminist theory of community organizing and resistance.” She then adds that it is, “a recognition of one another at the blackness margins — woman, queer, genderqueer, trans, poor, disabled, undocumented, immigrant — before an overt action.”
It feels obvious to say that everything Beyoncé has done in her career has led her to this point, because of course that’s true. But what’s remarkable is that “Formation” feels like a distillation of her entire evolution from 1998 to present in one musical stroke. The song’s DNA is laced with Destiny’s Child, Sasha Fierce, Yonce and Ms. Carter. As she celebrates being black, being female and being “Bama,” she is demonstrating the perspective she’s gained from age, motherhood, marriage and being a veteran of the brutal music industry. By reaching the pinnacle of fame, Beyoncé has freed herself to finally express the identity of her past, and speak up for those in her community. She has choreographed her ascent so meticulously that while “Formation” is startling for its bold politics, it also feels inevitable. The country girl that blew us away with her voice on Writings On The Wall is more real to us now than she ever could have been all those years ago. And she has set a new standard for the level of influence one woman, one singer and one person can have on the cultural conversation – even with a scant 14 million behind her on Twitter.
And so we have our newest incarnation of Beyoncé, a star who is at once out of time and the definition of this exact cultural moment. A black woman, eschewing politeness in favor of brazen activism, who gets endorsed on the scale of the Super Bowl — and all the 111 million viewers it brought with it. We might forget that Bruno Mars sang “Uptown Funk.” We’ll definitely forget whatever Coldplay sang. But the image of Beyoncé Knowles, wrapped in belts of gold bullets and marching out onto midfield with a battalion of black, female dancers in military garb stepping alongside her, is one to be remembered forever.