Beyond Beyoncé: Politics of a pop-culture icon

She is the artist who has launched a thousand thinkpieces. Everything that Beyoncé does is extensively critiqued. Her songs and their accompanying videos, her tours, outfits and statements have become “events”: not just because of the media and public attention they generate, but also because of their function in black women’s lives.

Beyoncé speaks of in it her new song Formation: never before has one artist generated “all this conversation”. Never before has one artist been such a point of scrutiny, a kind of Rorschach test for people’s beliefs as they demonstrate their thinking and politics through her.

The meaning of Beyoncé is always a question – and an increasingly political one – and the answers are often worlds apart.

This week, in response to the release of Formation and her accompanying Super Bowl performance surrounded by dozens of black dancers in Black Panther-inspired outfits, black women have penned searing, critical, intellectual thinkpieces that are destined to become part of a rich cultural archive on Beyoncé’s work and our lives.

This is important, as Beyoncé is often overlooked in terms of her cultural contributions and artistic value. Her body of work is frequently disregarded as a rich site of politics and artistry, which is often the sole preserve of white men and women, with a few exceptions.

Beyoncé uses ebonics and slang in her lyrics, twerks on stage and draws from the archive of black entertainers in her visuals, speaking to the poetics of black people’s lives in a way that does not conform to the traditionally accepted mould of so-called high art or respectability.

In comparison, however, we are often willing to discuss Lady Gaga, Madonna, Prince, David Bowie and Michael Jackson and their work as important cultural artefacts – and more than that, we are willing to contend with their contradictions: how they, too, are complicit in capitalism even as their work contains important messages, how their legacies are complicated or how their feminism is imperfect. Their artistry and legacies are not “yes, but”, they are “yes, and” – a luxury Beyoncé does not enjoy as a black woman working in the mainstream music industry.

Beyoncé – ‘all things to many black women’ 
The release of the Formation video, with its powerful visuals questioning police brutality, black America’s burdens, the state of New Orleans, hair and beauty politics and more, is part of her growing body of work that is becoming bolder and more incisive and politically astute – even as it gets more complicated.

But it has further demonstrated how Beyoncé faces criticism that is not consistently levelled against many of her contemporaries. When Kendrick Lamar’s incredible and celebrated video for Alright, from his critically acclaimed To Pimp a Butterfly album – which addressed similar political issues – was released, its reception was not as complicated.

This is not to say that we should not analyse Beyoncé’s impact and meaning, but that we should be aware of the many layers underneath our critiques and of the body that they are aimed at: that of a black woman. Beyoncé, as a black woman who is arguably “the greatest living entertainer”, unfairly has to be all things at all times – an impossible task that all of us fall short of daily.

She is, in many respects, all things to many black women – who understand her work, politics and position in time and history. These women can clearly articulate their thoughts about her place in pop culture, feminism and complicity in the system of money, power and identity.

We know her, in many respects, because we know ourselves – even as our lives have such different textures. We know her because we know intimately the burden of being all things to everyone. Of being, as Donna Kate Rushin points out in The Bridge Poem, “the bridge to people’s understandings of themselves and everyone else”.

Our conversations about Beyoncé are often not about her alone. They speak to greater frustrations and projections about ourselves, society and structural issues.

The powerful visuals of Formation are a moment in time, deserving as much acclaim and artistic acknowledgement as thoughtful, pointed critique.

But these assessments need to acknowledge that Beyoncé is art, culture and politics colliding in a complex matrix that we must engage with. When we reject that, we should be aware of what the subtext of our refusal is.

Danielle Bowler is a writer and journalist.

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