Beyoncé's Year of Peace and Misunderstanding

From “Formation” onwards, the singer tried to build bridges while celebrating her identity—and revealed just how divided the country is.

USA Today Sports

In February, after Beyoncé gave a politically charged performance in the middle of Coldplay’s Super Bowl halftime show, someone set up a page online announcing than an anti-Beyoncé protest would be held outside of NFL headquarters in New York City. The media showed up; Beyoncé fans showed up; actual protestors, for the most part, did not show up. “Anti-Beyoncé rally is the worst-attended protest ever,” the New York Post wrote, reporting only five haters were on hand.

The no-shows seemed to suggest, at least to those cackling online about it, that a much-publicized Beyoncé backlash was just hype. But maybe the incident simply indicated that the people most likely to object to Beyoncé don’t live in New York City.

Conservative-leaning criticism followed the singer throughout the year. Police unions demonstrated outside of some of her concerts. When she played the Country Music Awards, some viewers complained on social media that the show had elevated a “cop hater” who “supports thugs.” The right-wing web-video star Tomi Lahren made a routine of attacking the singer. And stumping in swing states, Donald Trump criticized Beyoncé and her husband, Jay Z, for using coarse language (the irony did not go un-noted). Trump may have been right to calculate a political benefit to targeting her: A survey of likely general-election voters in Ohio measuring the impact of celebrity endorsements found that Beyoncé’s support for a candidate tended to negatively affect goodwill toward that candidate—to a greater extent than with any other famous person the pollsters asked about.

Which might be a surprising thing to hear if you live a life where Beyoncé is seen as the height of celebrity power, as the prime example of someone for whom “famous” and “beloved” is interchangeable. She is referred to as “queen,” as a “goddess,” as a musician for whom criticism is—jokingly—considered forbidden. Her signature adjective is “flawless,” less meant as an expression of vanity than of American-Dream faith in the power of hard work to transform one’s life—a fact that sometimes miffs critics on the left but that has fed the kind of broad appeal that results in 17.2 million albums sold.

Yet this year served as one long reminder that paragons in one segment of the country are villains in another, and that political fault lines are also cultural ones. Data shows that the people inclined toward Trump and the people inclined toward Hillary Clinton significantly differ in the TV shows they watch, the books they read, and the music they listen to. And it’s now a truism that the internet and fragmented media ecosystem make it easy to tune out what people who are unlike you are consuming and talking about.

Every so often, though, the entire nation is made to pay attention to the same things at the same time. Like with the Super Bowl. Or like with a presidential election. Beyoncé’s bold 2016 efforts intersected with both of those rare moments of monoculture—and ended up demonstrating just how divided the nation is and how maddening attempts at outreach can be. If the culture war is real, she was on its front lines.

Even before 2016, Beyoncé was among the entertainers most closely associated with the cultural-political cohort considered ascendant in the Obama era. She performed at the president’s 2008 inauguration; she filmed PSAs with Michelle Obama. In turn, she became a partisan flashpoint. She and Jay Z were accused of receiving favors from the State Department; Mike Huckabee called her music “mental poison”; a social-media meme arose when a Fox News commentator attributed the president’s success to “Beyoncé Voters.”

She was not always so eager to be politically identified. With Destiny’s Child, she performed at George W. Bush’s 2001 inauguration; five years later, still sometimes pegged as right-leaning for having done so, she announced that she in fact was not a Republican. “Maybe one day I will speak of my political beliefs,” she added, ‘but only when I know what I’m talking about.” That “one day” came around Obama’s election, an event that also mobilized an array of celebrities previously mum on politics. Coincidentally or not, her work over his two terms has become more and more daring—both musically experimental and socially conscious.

The culmination of this evolution came with 2016’s Lemonade, an album and hour-long HBO film that connected a story of surviving infidelity to generations of black female struggle. The February single “Formation” announced Beyoncé’s most overtly political era with a spectacular dance track in which she bragged about her “negro nose with Jackson 5 nostrils,” dissed the naysaying of “albino alligators,” and called on women to “get in formation.” Its music video touched on Hurricane Katrina’s destruction of New Orleans and on many black peoples’ fear of being killed by police: “Stop shooting us,” graffiti scrawled in one frame said. At the Super Bowl, she arrived with the song in the middle of Coldplay’s set, herself dressed like Michael Jackson at the same occasion in 1993 and her female dancers styled as Black Panthers.

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.

Later in Elle, Beyoncé would further clarify her intentions: “Anyone who perceives my message as anti-police is completely mistaken. I have so much admiration and respect for officers and the families of officers who sacrifice themselves to keep us safe. But let’s be clear: I am against police brutality and injustice. Those are two separate things.” This explanation represents a lot of Black Lives Matters’ supporters’ completely comprehensible stance on police as well. But for Beyoncé and for that movement, another message was being relayed, over time, about what they wanted. A plea for peace was being taken as anything but.

One of the post-election conversations that has unfolded among Donald Trump’s opponents has focused on how best to influence voters who seem unable to hear or understand their side. Do you persuade, or do you confront? Do you work with, or fight against? Do you reach out, or do you re-entrench?

It would be underestimating Beyoncé to say she didn’t expect to be provocative. She flipped off the camera in her “Formation” video, and the vibe of her Super Bowl performance was militaristic. When white pop and rock stars use similar maneuvers, they’re often assumed to be simply flaunting a rebellious attitude or sense of control. Beyoncé, rightly, was perceived to be saying more. She had a grievance with the country—that black people, especially black women, haven’t been afforded their due—and she had a solution of sorts in her art. Judging from the ecstatic and grateful response from many of her fans, the offering of psychic support and solidarity was largely received as intended.

But from white people, “Formation” asked for little more more than understanding. Indeed, an honest look at Beyoncé’s 2016 would suggest that she had cross-racial and cross-cultural connection in mind. The Super Bowl show, watched in its entirety, called for unity across difference: There were the white rockers Coldplay, the multi-racial and winkingly macho Bruno Mars contingent, and Beyoncé’s black female army, all of whom formed up into a super group in the final moments of the performance. This isn’t a deep reading, it’s the explicit message: Chris Martin shouted “we’re all in this together,” and signs in the bleachers at the very end spelled out “believe in love.”

As music alone, Lemonade works as portable pop about relationships, including hard rock and country and throwback soul songs that most anyone should be able to relate to. The accompanying film is more political, but even it culminated in a vision of inclusivity, with “All Night” soundtracking white and black and brown couples in lovey-dovey embrace. Beyoncé’s later appearance at the Country Music Awards with the Dixie Chicks, for all its controversy, came across as one more overture to the parts of the nation that seemed frightened by her.

But in all of her monoculture moments, a good portion of the audience missed the intended context of her message and processed it through the same mindset that asks why there’s no White History Month or sees the BET Awards as racist. No one pop star can hope to change so blinkered a reading of the country’s past and present. As Beyoncé put it to Elle, “If celebrating my roots and culture during Black History Month made anyone uncomfortable, those feelings were there long before a video and long before me.”

A lot of people would give “those feelings” a straightforward name: racism. As with so much else about the divides revealed this year, other factors tangle in too: sexism, rural/urban disconnects, the segmented media, and the great catchall, partisanship. Beyoncé had fundraised for Hillary Clinton, and she spent election eve performing at a large Democratic rally with Jay Z and others. After that, Trump began including Beyoncé in his stump speeches.

Beyoncé has been mum about the election since November 9 save for a report on Hollywood Life, a gossip website that claimed that “she cried and held Blue Ivy so tightly after realizing Trump had won. All she could do was comfort Blue, kiss her forehead and remind her how intelligent, strong and beautiful she is and told her to never forget it.” Which, in a way, is another small gesture in line with Beyoncé’s larger intentions this year—regardless of how they were portrayed to much of America.