Having sold over 140 million albums worldwide, and being named most powerful female musician of last year by Forbes, Beyoncé is widely regarded as one of the most talented and successful artists of our day. Over the course of her career, she has also garnered attention for her social awareness, and for fearlessly incorporating political messages into her music and performances. Beyoncé is no stranger to controversy and conservative push-back, and it is no surprise that her music video for “Formation” and her performance at Super Bowl 50 were met with swift backlash.
Two years after drawing criticism for her daring Video Music Awards closing, Beyoncé is again steeped in controversy and nearly every publication of note has released a think-piece about her performance of “Formation” at the Super Bowl (which totally eclipsed fellow performers Coldplay and Bruno Mars).
A few days before the big game, Beyoncé debuted the video for “Formation”, which featured powerful imagery evoking racial police violence and Hurricane Katrina. Although this video was much more confrontational and overt than her Super Bowl show, conservative America drew the line at bringing her message into millions of homes during a “wholesome” national television event, lamenting the insertion of politics into the nation’s pastime.
The response to Beyoncé at Super Bowl 50 is not unlike the backlash to her performance at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards, where she performed a 15-minute medley in front of a giant, light-up sign that read “feminist”, and projected lines from Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s definition of feminism behind the stage. Predictably, this bold closing performance immediately elicited criticism. Some took issue with a celebrity using her enormous platform for a political statement. Others protested that Beyoncé’s feminist message was at odds with her “suggestive” dancing. But the detractors only proved how brave Beyoncé was in making an unabashed feminist statement, and how momentous it was for a celebrity of her stature to do so.
This year on game day, Beyoncé and her dancers performed “Formation” in costumes reminiscent of 1970s black activists, the Black Panther Party, and some contend that the X shape they formed at one point was a nod to Malcom X. Many lauded the performance as an important social moment, but others were nothing short of outraged. Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani called her performance “outrageous” and said Beyoncé used it as a “platform to attack police officers.” But just as they did after her 2014 VMAs show, conservative critics of Queen B have proven why her Super Bowl performance was significant and necessary.
All of these criticisms belie an undercurrent of white discomfort at being asked to think about race. One song and dance performed by black women was enough to get Fox News commentators quaking in their boots and frothing at the mouth.
“Is there anything in America which can exclude race? I mean, why is race brought into the halftime show at a Super Bowl game, why?” asked economics journalist Stuart Varney on Fox Business.
But what Varney and others that share his opinion don’t seem to understand is that the privilege of not having to think about race is not afforded to everyone in our country. Varney has probably never been stop and frisked or followed around a store. White people aren’t made aware of race in their day-to-day lives. And when asked to think about the privileges they enjoy because of systems of oppression in which they are complicit, it’s more comfortable to look the other way. It is precisely this reason why it was necessary and appropriate for Beyoncé to perform at the Super Bowl. She brought the Black Lives Matter movement to the main-stage as only she could, on a scale which made it impossible for America to turn away.