What a perfect Beyoncé song name: “Formation.” All great pop involves people acting in formation. So does all great change. And while fans scream that Beyoncé’s a “queen” and “goddess,” her core appeal really is as a drill sergeant. With Beyoncé in command, greatness is scalable, achievable, for the collective. Everyone waves their hands to the same beat. Everyone walks around like they have hot sauce in their bag.
But in pop and in politics, “everyone” is a loaded term. Stars as ubiquitous as Beyoncé have haters, the “albino alligators” who “Formation” informs us she twirls upon. And in a more general historical sense, “everyone” can be a dangerous illusion that elevates one point of view as universal while minimizing others. Beyoncé gets all of this, it seems. As a pop star, she surely wants to have as broad a reach as possible. But as an artist, she has a specific message, born of a specific experience, meaningful to specific people. Rather than pretend otherwise, she’s going to make art about the tension implied by this dynamic. She’s going to show up to Super Bowl with a phalanx of women dressed as Black Panthers.
The poor guys of Coldplay, meanwhile, actually think they can work solely at the level of the universal. “Wherever you are, we’re in this together,” Chris Martin cried out, early on, last night. I don’t want to diss that intention, nor the take-home message at the end: “Believe in Love.” But from their first hit, “Yellow,” to their recent Holi-appropriating music video with Beyoncé, to their pan-cultural rainbow rally at Levi’s Stadium last night, their theme has only been about love to the extent that it’s been about how everyone loves colors. It’s music about being awed by the blandest kind of harmony: ROYGBIV, yeah yeah yeah!
Even at this level, universality’s unachievable. You could see it in the staging: a legion of human Pikmin with flower-pedal umbrellas, a youth orchestra’s members playing tie-dyed violins, and Coldplay in the middle of it all, wearing white. One shouldn’t politicize this choice too much. If their set had been the entirety of the halftime show—15 minutes of Coldplay spewing mediocrity from the center of a world of colors—the memory would have been totally eclipsed by the Vine of Eli Manning looking ambivalent (the music wasn’t going to save anyone because the sound system was so shoddy—maybe short-circuited by the woo guy?). But once Beyoncé and Bruno Mars showed up, discussions were inevitable. Contrasts needed to be drawn.
Both Beyoncé and Bruno wore black. They dressed the same as the people they stood shoulder to shoulder with. And then, before being interrupted by a strange retrospective video about past halftimes, they offered a reminder that synchronized dancing can be the best kind of spectacle there is—better than Left Shark, better than a middle finger to the camera, better than a crotch slide from Springsteen. There was no racial subtext to this, just text. Mars’s crew was B-boying. Beyoncé’s was channeling black radical movements and Michael Jackson in 1993. These were displays of cultural power coming from specific places, with specific meanings. They were rooted in history, but obviously spoke to the present.
In the short time since it arrived online without warning the day before the Super Bowl, “Formation” has already generated a monograph’s worth of writings about Beyoncé’s choice to tie her famous swagger explicitly (and hilariously, and cleverly) to her race, gender, and cultural heritage—to “Jackson Five nostrils” and dates to Red Lobster. The video features her on stoops and in parking lots and in old-money New Orleans drawing rooms, looking fly. Everyone has the potential to appreciate her infectious attitude, the song’s strange squeaky beat, and the video’s instantly iconic visuals. But among the group of people she is directly addressing, many say “Formation” feels like something more than just a great pop song—it feels life-giving and maybe even revolutionary.
But forgoing the universal also involves risk, as Beyoncé surely knew. The aggregating of social-media users who find her totally humane imagery “anti-police,” or who hear a song about a person’s lived experience and reply with the inanity of “all lives matter,” has begun. So too has concern trolling about her acclaim from people who’ve never connected to her music. If you find “Formation” tuneless or offensive, fine. Just don’t go impugning the motives of all the people in the weeks to come walking down the street in a very specific rhythm, internally chanting “I slay.” Beyoncé no longer asks that everyone get in formation, and that’s why so many people probably will.
A lot of headlines today say that Beyoncé won the Super Bowl, and a lot of memes are fixing on the moment toward the end when she, Mars, and Martin all sang together. It was meant to be a beautiful sight, but it ended up feeling awkward; Martin seemed weak, pitiful, next to the two of them and what they’d just done. There are probably a lot of reasons for that perception. One might be that he had pretended to stand for everything, but actually stood for very little. Beyoncé did not make that mistake.