In “Formation,” Beyoncé proudly shouts out her black Southern roots and calls up imagery of Hurricane Katrina and the Black Lives Matter movement. At the Super Bowl the day after it premiered, she took the overtly political imagery even further, with dancers in black berets as an homage to the Black Panthers who at one point even formed an X on the field, presumably a nod to Malcolm X. After almost 20 years of intense scrutiny by the public, of having her appearance, personal life, and “street cred” interrogated, she wanted to let everyone know that she’s not the apolitical, perfectly curated, tabula rasa we long assumed she was.
Perhaps she was taking a cue from one of her childhood idols, to whom she also paid sartorial tribute during her Super Bowl performance: Michael Jackson. In 1987, after almost 20 years of intense scrutiny by the public, of having his appearance, personal life, and “street cred” interrogated, Jackson made a similarly socially conscious statement to his fans.
That year, Jackson debuted the characteristically elaborate short film for “Bad,” in which he plays Daryl, a kid from the inner city who returns home after finishing his first semester at a fancy, all-white prep school. Daryl is stuck between two worlds, unsure of where he fits in—slightly uncomfortable among the rich white kids, but no longer willing to get into trouble with his wayward childhood friends (including Wesley Snipes, in his debut) from his impoverished Brooklyn neighborhood. They teasingly address him as “college,” and become upset with his newfound reluctance to participate in their schemes of mugging strangers, claiming he’s not “down” anymore and has gone “soft.” Daryl pushes back against this criticism, which leads us into the iconic West Side Story-esque musical centerpiece set in a Brooklyn subway station, in which he sings about how “bad” he is.
Like Jackson, Beyoncé has been subject to criticism throughout her career that she does not align herself enough with the black community: Accusations of a nose job and lightening of her skin, whether through bleaching or the power of photo shop, have fluttered around her image, while her perceived lack of public activism in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement (up until now) struck many as disappointing. (And let’s not forget the unfortunate, icky public spat between husband Jay Z and Harry Belafonte about activism within the hip hop community.) On top of that, her music and image from the days of Destiny’s Child up until her unabashed “feminist” branding in Beyoncé was harmless and non-threatening in a way that was not merely cross-cultural or palatable to white audiences—it made them love her, just as much as black people do. By offering up expertly crafted pop-infused R&B songs and R&B-infused pop songs about either a) love or b) being independent, she tapped into a universal language, with top-notch dance pieces to match.
Beyoncé and Jackson are the very definition of what it means to be a cross-cultural success as a black American, and the position is a difficult one to be in. Along the way, it’s expected that you have to discard or obscure the parts of who you are that are not deemed acceptable by white people. Both Beyoncé and Jackson walked this line throughout their careers, with their million-dollar Pepsi deals and closely chronicled friendships with famous white A-listers such as Elizabeth Taylor and Gwyneth Paltrow.
Which is why it’s so interesting that both of them, decades into their respective careers and still at the top of their game, chose to make such bold artistic statements reminding the world of their blackness. There is nothing subtle about the ways in which they did this. In “Bad,” a white colleague tells Daryl that he’s “proud” of how well he’s done in school, an unintentionally condescending compliment that Daryl takes in stride. In a brief montage showcasing Daryl’s commute back home, he goes from being surrounded by his white classmates on the Metro North train, until slowly they fade away, and he’s left behind with a few remaining riders (all people of color) when they get to the final stop of Grand Central. Later, when he arrives at an empty apartment (his mom, played by Roberta Flack in voiceover, has left him a note saying she’s at work), the camera pans the wall of his bedroom, which is adorned with pictures of famous black faces, most notably a statuesque Afro-sporting Quincy Jones and Stevie Wonder. And of course, he confronts the question of his blackness head-on by having Mini Max (Snipes) ask him, “Are you bad? Or is that what they teach you in that sissy school of yours—how to forget who your friends are?”
For Beyoncé’s part, her reaffirmation in “Formation” includes collard greens, carrying hot sauce in her purse, her daughter’s “baby hair afro,” and (ironically) “Negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils.” It also represents the horrors of systemic racism in the forms of police brutality and government-sanctioned negligence, as demonstrated in the video’s imagery of a young boy dancing in front of a chorus line of police officers, and her submergence into water while on top of a cop car.
The message of both these videos is clear: Yes, we are the biggest stars in the world, but we are not immune to the pangs of racism. Which is undoubtedly true. Yet in both “Bad” and “Formation” there’s a fair amount of disconnect between the artist and the message on display.. As they seek to prove how “bad” they are or just how much they “slay,” they hope the rest of us (black people) will see ourselves as one with them, the iconic pop star. (“We can change the world tomorrow, it could be a better place,” Jackson sings; “Okay ladies, now let’s get in formation,” Beyoncé commands.)
But Jackson was far removed from the rough streets of Gary, Indiana by then, and according to the music video’s director, Martin Scorsese, he was shocked when they arrived in the rough Brooklyn location where they shot scenes for the video. (“Do people live here?” he apparently asked Scorsese, nervously.) Then there’s the absurdity in his hiring “an asthmatic Italian [Scorsese] and an asthmatic Jew [writer Richard Price] to help “show the brothers that he’s down with them,” as Price himself amusingly stated in Spike Lee’s 2012 documentary about the making of the album. Meanwhile, Beyoncé, who also has lived the majority of her life in a somewhat sheltered bubble of fame, brags about going to Red Lobster after a particularly satisfying lay with her man while invoking Katrina and sampling the queer minority voices of Big Freedia and Messy Mya in the name of capitalism.
It’s difficult to understand what to do with such mixed messaging. On the one hand, these gestures toward this idea of blackness could be read as proof that no matter how big a star a black performer becomes, there will always be a desire to try to stay rooted in their community, away from the white, mainstream eye. And for many, the black pride messaging has worked. In that Spike Lee documentary, music writer Danyel Smith likens the final moments of “Bad,” when Mini Max and Daryl reach a mutual respect, to church: “If he was trying to reaffirm to people … the soulfulness that he has, and frankly, the blackness that he was, it’s those last 30 seconds.” Yet when that display of blackness is accompanied by a world tour and apparel adorned with the latest catchphrase that the star coined or revitalized for a mainstream audience, it might not go down as smoothly.
Nor should a single video/song stand as the sole measurement of how “down” for the cause a star is—it’s telling that the 5-minute musical section of “Bad” is often shown by itself, completely divorced from the actual narrative, on YouTube and on television, with no indication whatsoever of all the politics that swirl through that number. (I am a huge Michael Jackson fan, but it wasn’t until he died that I realized that part even existed.) It’s as if the explicit story of Jackson’s agonizing over his cross-cultural success as a black man was deemed unimportant in retrospect. For his part, he showed his appreciation for and identification with the black community in other ways, namely in interviews and songs.
Whether Beyoncé will do the same remains to be seen, though unlike the construction of “Bad,” she takes it a step further by making it impossible to isolate the music from the message. We have no clue as to what her next album will be like, if “Formation” is a one-off political track, or if she’s made the next Rhythm Nation 1814, in keeping with a different famous Jackson. But this is her “Bad” moment, another way for her to echo her idol and further burnish her place in pop music (and now, political) history.