Beyoncé and When Music Writing Becomes Activism

by Danilo Bortoli

10 February 2016

The overall response to Beyoncé's "Formation" has been startlingly positive, but mostly for reasons attached to political agendas. It's time to investigate this trend.
 

Last Saturday saw the release of a new Beyoncé song and its accompanying video, “Formation”. It was met with both startling confusion but also, above all, excitement and the kind of overall praise and consensus you rarely encounter around the internet corners these days. The possibility of the strategic release behind “Formation’s” existence is a rarity, mainly because it represented startlement in unison.
  

“Formation” is a good showcase of Beyoncé’s abilities. The production is indeed flawless, making everything in the radio right now seems awkwardly laughable by comparison. Her delivery is strong as usual: “I just might be a black Bill Gates in the making,” she says, in what seems to be a song destined to go viral. Her lyrics and entire existence are Tumblr gif sets material: Red Lobster, New Orleans, Illuminati, all seems to be ready to be made into a signifier for her music.

Bearing this in mind, “Formation” is the typical self-congratulatory return single we’ve come to expect from Beyoncé every now and then. It worked this way with “Run the World”, released in anticipation of 2011’s 4, yet things changed a bit when “**Flawless” came by the time Beyoncé was surprise released.

Yet, this commemorative tone is only a tiny portion of what’s being taken into consideration when people talk about “Formation”—that is, when they talk about it at all. Since released, music writers are eager to politicize and apply to it a dominant discourse. The problem lies in the fact that this is all that has been done. Little has been discussed about the music and a lot has been mentioned I regards to Beyoncé’s blackness —a conceptually confusion word, for starters—and her contribution to a given idea. Amidst the way, something was lost. Music, namely.

Plenty has been written already about the effects of continuously approaching music and art in general as a sociological and, as of more recently, solely a political idea. The sociological canon—when applied correctly, that is—may help shed a light on a difficult subject. But when it is not handled properly, it can dissociate theory from reality. When applied to music, it strips art from what supposed to make it what it is: the interior voice, the creativity itself.

I admit my eyes and ears are subject to mistakes, but, indeed, “Formation” may be getting its overall consensus out of political ramblings. It’s been tackled as Beyoncé’s attempt to defend herself against the oppressions of capitalism and, good Lord, even Breitbart ran a piece on it – where, of course, it’s been deemed as “politically charged”.

More explicitly, the video for “Formation” has been tethered to Black Lives Matter, an idea that can be traced back to the fact that TIDAL, Jay’s music streaming company, donated a million and a half dollars to the movement. And, aside from the current controversy surrounding it, the fact is the song itself has little to do with politics when we strip it bare out of its context. Beyoncé has built an entire career without being politically engaged on discussions, but now she seems eager to contribute to an idea.

Or that is what she wants us to believe. In a post-Obama world, where a more Pacific post-racial world is still held as a 2008 pre-election promise, “Formation” begs to be seen politically because it wouldn’t thrive outside this bubble: Beyoncé’s words on her self-empowerment, under this political discourse, become the voice of a movement. Beyoncé herself relies on this political antagonism. She’s the one who doesn’t want anything to change—politically, racially, structurally.

Bearing all this in mind, and given the critical response “Formation” and its video have been receiving, we now see the rise of the music writer as an activist —one who is more preoccupied with the political implications of a work of music rather than with the music itself. The relativist, while looking at this, would be first to ask “what is music?” Well, it certainly isn’t poll numbers or anything mildly related to it.

The most immediate question pending an answer now is if this is inherently good or bad. For one, I would that music itself does not require context, but, as previously stated, it would be a mistake to disregard the role portrayed by politics in the music discussion field, given the fact that it is too damn rich and varied to be compressed into a series of finite arguments.

Yet, it wouldn’t be too risky to assume that, when the gates for this kind of rhetoric are finally open (and, don’t worry, such a thing is on the way) we’ll be left, for instance, with the discussions surrounding songs and entire works such as “Formation”, a simple song about celebration that, in the hands of relativists and internet-based political minds, become new things entirely, devoid of their original purpose and meaning and, ultimately, inserted with any kind of ideology people intend to play with nowadays.


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