For anyone plugged in to recent protests and writings about the country’s history of white supremacy and black resilience, the spectacle crystallized what was already in the air. Jenna Wortham wrote in The New York Times, “‘Formation’ isn’t just about police brutality—it’s 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 ... One could also read this as an existential call to action to her listeners and viewers: ‘Black women, join me and make your own formation, a power structure that doesn’t rely on traditional institutions.’”
But Beyoncé wasn’t simply speaking to people prepared to understand the message or to be sympathetic to it if they did understand. She had come to the Super Bowl, the most-watched event in American television, with 111 million viewers from both red states and blue states. Afterward, vast portions of the audience would not be reading essays by people who saw something poignant in her performance. They’d be listening to talk radio, watching Fox News, and scrolling through Facebook feeds dominated by people like themselves, people for whom the moment seemed a bit freaky.
On Fox and Friends the morning after the Super Bowl, the reaction to Beyoncé’s performance mostly consisted of loudly performed confusion. “I couldn’t really make out what Beyoncé was saying,” the host Brian Kilmeade announced. Anna Kooiman: “I’ve got to be honest with you, I had no idea when this was going on.” Rudy Giuliani: “I don’t know what the heck it was. A bunch of people bouncing around and all strange things. It was terrible.”
These comments were, on their face, an aesthetic critique, implying Beyoncé had failed as a performer—an arena-sized contrast to reviews elsewhere offering pity toward Coldplay for being shown up by a far more interesting artist. But the Fox commentators were also echoing previous generations of adult white gatekeepers who’d been confronted with developments in black and youth music: Like jazz and rock and hip-hop at various points in history, Beyoncé was being written off as “just noise.” It’s rhetoric that signals, more than anything else, a denial of legitimacy, a disinterest in engaging in good faith. It’s rhetoric that guarantees the most perfunctory analysis will be the only analysis.
And it wasn’t hard to guess at what the perfunctory analysis from these particular pundits would be. Kilmeade: “The song, the lyrics, which I couldn’t make out a syllable, were basically telling cops to stop shooting blacks.” Giuliani: “I thought it was really outrageous that she used it as a platform to attack police officers who are the people who protect her and protect us, and keep us alive.”
The song’s lyrics make no mention of cops. Its video touches on police violence, but as Wortham had pointed out in the Times, it touches on many other realities of black identity too. Dressing in Black Panther outfits may be provocative, but largely to the extent that one ignores much of the group’s history in favor of incoherently filing it as “the black KKK.” The same idea goes for the dancers joining into an “X” formation, presumably in tribute to Malcolm X.