Thursday, February 18, 2016

Formation

By now, everyone and their mother has seen Beyoncé's Formation video.  The think piece cottage industry has dutifully performed its reactionary function with assiduous alacrity, SNL has done a spoof, we've almost (but not quite) gotten to the inevitable backlash.

My immediate reaction to the video was a deep understanding of why black social media was so enthusiastically embracing this recognition from their self-anointed Queen coupled with a healthy dose of skepticism about Beyoncé's sudden political awakening.  I had an in-depth conversation with Dr. Rei about it, where we discussed whether this piece was "for" a non-black audience and who gets to say whether Bey is "authentic" or not, and I've had some time to marinate in this and absorb some thoughts from people much smarter than I, enough to formulate a tenuous, hopefully reflexive response, with the caveat that, as regular and faithful readers of this blurg now, I have not now, or ever been a member of the Bey-hive.

1) I made peace with the authenticity of Bey's strategically timed-political awakening (the timing, not necessarily the authenticity as a whole).  If she wants to get overtly political in her work now, then she's a grown a** woman, making her way in a workaday world, so if she wants to address this head-on now, then by all means, go for it.  And if it makes her basic white girl fans take a minute to contemplate the larger issues and systemic oppression of black bodies in contemporary North American society, all the better for it.

2) I would argue that the imagery of the video, the aestheticization of the black experience and the signifiers of southern blackness that she/the director (and for the purposes of this writing, Bey herself will stand in for the choices of the director) are invoking, the heavy hand with which these are put into play, diminishes the affect and meaning.  There are real bodies that drowned in New Orleans.  Creating that stylized aesthetic distance is somewhat problematic, but I'm not sure where I stand on that, only that I have misgivings.

And because I am now, and forever more rooted in a Marxist understanding of class and cultural studies, I would argue that the substitution of Bey's body for those real people, is a semiotic leap I cannot, in good faith, take.  The class privileges afforded to Bey separate her from those bodies.  Those people drowned not just because they were black, but perhaps moreso because they were poor, and the collusion between those two lines is impossible to untangle.  If Bey was actually in Katrina, there is no way that George W. Bush himself wouldn't have sent Air Force One to lift her out.

I get what she's getting at, but despite her southern black roots, I feel like the association has been severed.  You can't be BFFs with Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin, possibly the personification of clueless white/class privilege and then think that your black female body can be inserted into that symbolic narrative.

Or can you?  I don't think so.  I am also suspect of the invocation of Katrina, over 10 years after the fact.  But who am I to say?  Am I allowed to talk about this?  Do identity politics and resistance necessarily entail a zero-sum game where we have to pick which of our identities we privilege - why does Bey have to choose whether shes' identifying as a woman, black, or rich?

Post-colonial studies taught me about strategic essentialism as a tool for working around the homogenizing effects of global capitalism.  Is that what Bey is doing?

3) I think it's important to divorce the reception of the video and read that as a separate thing.  There's the video itself, the audience, the constructs that make the production of such a video possible (music industry), the author of the video, and meaning is constructed in the spaces between all of these forces/actors.  I think the fact that for the most part, black social media lauded the video and wanted to see this mass-market representation of a particular black experience reflected is in itself, a worthy by-product and its own discussion.  Who is the audience for this video?  Is it white America?  Is it black America?  Is it a primer for white America to understand black America?  Does this hunger for reflection trump the more problematic, perhaps (and I say, perhaps) exploitative elements of the imagery?

I haven't come to a conclusion on this, but these considerations, this nuance, is all a necessary part of the conversation.

Less controversial - Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau's cringe-inducing number at an MLK event:


I showed this to Academic Book Club last week.  When I showed it to the Dotytron, I was like, "Isn't this the worst?!" and he's like, "Totally, she white-lines it through 9 different key changes in that last line!" which I think misses the point, but is so endearingly Dotytron.

Pretty low-key weekend up ahead for us, for which I am extremely grateful.

Fin.





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