There’s this Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem that I love titled How Do I Love Thee? It opens with the Shakespeare line, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” And she goes on to list all these magical, breathtaking ways that she loves this person. It’s so rich and full. And that is exactly what watching and listening to Beyoncé’s new video for her song Formation felt like. It was an afternoon spent trying to count the many ways to love it. How many ways can one person love a video? A song? So many I tell you, so many. And the internet agrees with me, which means that we all agree that Beyoncé’s “Formation” is the gift we didn’t even know we wanted.
If you have yet to accept the Lord, our savior Beysus into your heart, today is the day to get in #Formation on her holy, holy line.
— I Came To Slay (@girlwthatlaugh) February 6, 2016
Giving me serious black witch here. The visuals and the references in this video! ?Learned from @alexispauline that there are cameos from the Howard women’s rifle team all through the vid, the ‘stop shooting us’ written on the wall with the line of police with their hands up, so many beautiful #naturalhair styles, #blackgirlmagic #formation
On an otherwise boring Saturday afternoon on the internet, Beyoncé delivered big and I sat in my house, jaw to the floor counting the many ways you could love a thing. It was 3:40pm, the unofficial video had garnered 168,102 views on YouTube. I hit replay, finding new things to love in this nuanced jugular to American culture as Beyoncé did that thing that only really great artists can do: deliver an eye popping experience, disseminate the feels, and unite us all (briefly). All while reminding us that she carries hot sauce in her bag and goes to Red Lobster. It was Beyoncé at her greatest, with a twist.
First, the aural experience of “Formation” is seductively sumptuous. Only rivaled by its visual experience delivered at the hands of fellow bad-ass, director Melina Matsoukas. Beyoncé is assured, but understated in her delivery, matched against emotive scenes that leave you with that thing in your spine. That thing that makes you sit up and lean in a little closer. Queen Bey has the chops for dynamic vocal performances as anyone who has lived on this planet during her reign can attest to, but this isn’t about that. “Formation” is a deeply layered protest song to a community she loves, and in its most flinching scenes and efficacious lines, it is an unapologetic political statement.
That Beyoncé peppers in the sounds of New Orleans through anonymous first person musings and an appearance by the city’s own Queen of Bounce, Big Freedia, is not meant solely as an auditory longitudinal placement either. Beyoncé is interested in doing more than pointing us to the map of New Orleans. “Formation” is a veneration to the city. As Beyoncé croons about her Louisiana mama and time travels through New Orleans’ rich black history, a city that had once held the largest population of free black people before the civil war, the call to black pride simmers and bubbles under crawfish lids, in flashy second lines, under a Mardi Gras Indian costume, and in rowdy church pews.
But she also steps outside New Orleans to make it clear that this is an anthem for black excellence everywhere and for female go-getters. It’s a love letter to the the South that raised her, and the idols that came before her. Never one to forget to shade the haters (because we can all relate to having haters) Beyoncé offers up, “Always stay gracious, best revenge is your paper.” All the while she is asking, “What happened to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina?” “What is happening to Black America now?” “What is happening to us?” The doublespeak is rife and it’s nearly impossible to ignore the many possibilities of getting “in formation,” even as Beyoncé’s troop of dancers get in physical formation in moves that my body still refuses to make.
Where “Formation” opens on a flooded New Orleans with Beyoncé popping a squat atop a police car, the law still afloat in a sea of destruction, it ends with two masterfully executed messages of redemption wrapped in visual symmetry courtesy of director Melina Matsoukas. First there is the tense reversal of “hands-up, don’t shoot” played out between the two fast moving feet of a young boy under a black hoodie and the wall of police clad in their Sunday best; riot gear. An all too familiar image in America’s continued denial of a race problem, except this time it ends differently, there is no dead black boy on the street for us to protest.
That thing in your spine, the one that had been pulling you closer to your screen, softens its grip on you as the words, “Stop Shooting Us” are scrawled on a white wall.
Then in the breathless final seconds before the stills fade to black, Beyoncé and the cop car that had made its appearance in the opening scene slip delicately under the flood waters. Queen Bey still flawless in that way that music videos and movies make slipping under the water seem sexy instead of frightful. Only then do you realize that the entire video is a lesson in distraction as a means of subversion.
In the 4 min and 52 seconds during which Beyoncé verbally salutes black beauty and making your own way, the police car sinking under the weight of lines like “I might just be a black Bill Gates in the making,” or her raised fist, are barely noticeable. Until they are. This is the genius of “Formation.” It is not just a suggestive wink, it is two middle fingers (literally) to the sky in celebration of Black America delivered with temerity, all while wearing a Givenchy dress. It is the collective exhaling of a black community. It is the dreams of black boys and girls across America narrated into performance. Queen Bey manifests the consciousness and vernacular of a young generation of black folks who have it all, except the one thing they want the most: to live.
764,753 views. I hit replay again.