Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Formation by Beyonce Knowles

Even from my secluded perch, far from the Twitterverse and shunning as I do all television (and especially the Super Bowl—here is a funny cartoon summary of televised professional sports that captures my sentiments exactly), I know that Beyonce is a big deal. And it's even come to my attention that she has just released a new song and music video that has the Internet abuzz. From what I gather, lots of people are excited that she'sgoing beyond her normal, vanilla, uncontroversial superstar image to celebrate black culture and even protest the abuse of black people in the US. I'm sure lots of people are also trolling about bad it is for black people to openly celebrate being black, but I haven't much read what those people write, and I'm not going to actively seek it out.

In any case, this all makes me a bit reluctant to comment on the video and the song, lest my [totally subjective, relatively unimportant] voice be added to the cacophony of value-laden, definitive pronouncements already out there about What This Video Means. But on the other hand, I always write about things like six months after everyone else has stopped caring about them, so I figured I'd seize the opportunity to write about current events when they're actually current.

In short, I agree with the people who are excited about a pop star's open embrace of what it means to be black in the US in 2016, from physical traits to music to food to funny cultural quirks to the specific challenges and oppression facing the community, without her worrying about projecting one monolithic, coherent image of blackness (because such a thing doesn't really exist).

As for my personal reaction to the video, I really liked it visually. It captures a sort of Southern Gothic aesthetic that has been latent in a lot of music for the past decade or two, but it makes this aesthetic explicit and conscious and intentional. The end product is slick and sexy and abrasive, and very eccentric. The tune isn't that catchy—it isn't in my head today after watching the video last night. Just to show you how not-catchy it is, what's in my head is Ciara's “One Two Step”, which I probably haven't heard or thought about in ten years. I guess “Formation” somehow reminded me of it musically. In general, I don't much care for the sound of most black pop music today—heavy on distorted electronic beats, lots of Autotune, slow chanting, everything very synthetic and inorganic. I think this is what people refer to as Southern-style trap music (which if I understand correctly has its even less charming but somehow more authentic—for me—cousin in the cold, stripped down drill music of Chicago). If Beyonce's video is intriguing, stylish Southern Gothic, much of Chicago's new drill wave is gray, depressing DeathGoth like the Crow, or maybe even some less-polished straight-to-video sequel of the Crow. Dark and sad and cold and post-industrial, with an active aversion to any flash that might make the Gothic seem elegant.

I now realize that I have long had a kneejerk aversion to the Southern tilt of rap music and black popular culture since the 1990s. I just can't get on board with the car-dependent, AC-addicted suburban sprawl of the Sun Belt, black or white, and I guess I subconsciously worried that granting any validity to the resurgence of Southern prominence in national black cultural discourse meant that I was legitimizing the abandonment of the Rust Belt and the suburbanization of the US. I like Outkast and the Goodie Mob, but I don't even like the concept of Atlanta. I don't like its sprawl, its unrepentant, unconscious segregation, its open embrace by black and white of bourgeois consumerist values. And I certainly don't like how it's drawn so many black ascendant professionals away from Chicago!

In any case, I recognize that my distaste for this music is just a subjective aesthetic preference, and my boosterism of all things Chicago (even our murder rate is better than yours) certainly colors my judgment here. And to be honest, given the choice between Chief Keef's “Don't Like” video of a bunch of teenage dudes jumping around to music in a house, or Beyonce's ultra-polished, beautiful production of Formation, I'd much prefer the latter. So in summary, yay for Beyonce on “Formation”.

One last note on what Formation made me think of. Much of the video and the song is an explicit, self-conscious, proud, and sometimes defiant series of in-group references to black customs and idiosyncracies—hot sauce, Red Lobster, natural and fake hair, designer labels, etc. This seems to be powerful, inspiring imagery for the video's black audience, and I can understand that. Insofar as this resounding reception of the video represents a given ethnic group celebrating and reclaiming its identity, this is a great thing.

But it can also border on the tacky or the pandering (though obviously not as noxious or destructive as right-wing politicians' call to “traditional” white values to easily win over an audience). It reminds me of something I see a lot in the US, across both black and white cultures, which is a parochial self-centeredness, an underlying lack of value for or awareness of the rest of the world, that arises naturally from living in the world's most powerful country. I feel that when any group in the US is too centered on itself, it implicitly comes at a cost to the rest of the world since, like it or not, our country bears such a heavy weight in world culture, politics, and economy. So while I see the importance of vindicating black identity and simply the right of blacks to live with dignity in the white-dominated US, I hope that Beyonce and the audience she is addressing with Formation don't become so smitten with the admitted beauty and fun and verve of their own culture that they forget that their struggle needs to also be tied up with other struggles in the world.

Just as much of organized black dissent to the injustice in the US amounts to a call for more consciousness and carefulness on the part of oblivious whites who by their very unawareness perpetuate and strengthen a system that hurts others, I feel that blacks and whites and everyone else in the US need to be more conscious of the problems that our behaviors and our politics and our beliefs can cause, are causing, in the rest of the world. I'm sure eating at Red Lobster may be an experience or a signifier that rings true for a lot of black folk in the US, but if that particular chain restaurant, and industrialized, protein-heavy diets in general cause irreversible ecological harm, rely on slave-labor-heavy value chains, and undermine locally-owned, non-franchise business, then none of us can be content to merely muse at how cute and culturally relevant it is, or how much it makes us feel an in-group solidarity. Ditto for Southern sprawl and car culture, ditto for a consumerist fashion culture, ditto for many other traits of black popular culture that Beyonce makes reference to in Formation. And certainly ditto for the equivalent white US cultural signifiers—meat-laden barbecues, suburban sprawl underlain by fear and hatred of minorities, oversized everything from TVs to cars to serving sizes, a dedication to rugged individualism that borders on a pathological aversion to other human beings. These things may seem to bolster our particular cultures, and to give us satisfaction and meaning for the group identity they provide us, but if they come at the expense of others, we can't celebrate them uncritically.

This is not Beyonce's problem to deal with, nor is it the problem of black folks writ large in the US to solve (nor is it any given US white person's problem to solve alone). It's just something we all need to think about more. I don't know that I've done a very good job with it myself; I have as yet been unable to wholeheartedly join the battle against any of the very real problems that affect our communities in the US, both black and white (bad diets, economic inequality, lack of political representation, violence, hatred, racism, etc.), because I can't get past the idea that my suffering compatriots are at the same time and each in their own way themselves oppressors, often of people living thousands of miles away in entirely different contexts. So I always feel stuck between a drive to work with the Third World poor, and applying my talents to try to improve life in my home country.  The former feels worthwhile but lacks both the glamour of highly-publicized and mediatized US problems, as well as the resonance for me of working with my own people (not to mention that I'd surely be more effective working with people from my own culture than from distant countries).

At any rate, a big thanks to Beyonce for giving me and millions of others some food for thought.

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