Pop Matters: Beyoncé and the Everlasting, Envelope-Pushing Top 40

The term “shallow” being associated with the music leading our charts and airwaves is not a rare phenomenon.

Many state that popular music is too commercial, manufactured to appeal to the masses. Oftentimes some conclude that it has no artistic value.

This could not be further from the truthPop music is able to push boundaries and move mountains like no other medium; by captivating and empowering its listeners through its melodic earworms and the contrastingly brave songwriting that it often hides under a smart veil of commercialism.

To show just how real mutiny against mainstream music can be, we take a look about four decades back and observe a prime example. At the end of the ‘70s, so negative was the consensus on disco (the dominating musical genre at the time), the decade ended with a physical riot against the disco ball.

Image: ESPN

As reported by VICE, on the night of July 12th of 1979, aggressive rock fans and DJ Steve Dohl turned a doubleheader baseball game between the Chicago White Sox and the Detroit Tigers into the “Disco Demolition Night”.

For less than a dollar, fans would bring a disco record to blow up between games. Attendance was more than satisfactory for disco disapprovers; at least 50,000 people were present double what the stadium could hold. The explosion from the blast destroyed the field and 39 arrests took place.

Image: ESPN

One important fact supporters of the riot failed to see is that disco gave a big voice to communities that could only whisper at the time – the majority of the groovy chart-toppers of the ‘70s exist because of people of color (Bee Gees, Donna Summer, Boney M, etc.) and the LGBT community. I Will Survive, Gloria Gaynor’s disco hit, for example, has been defined as the ultimate gay empowerment anthem of all time.

The same way disco offered and continues to offer a platform to unprivileged and unheard communities, much of other popular music has actively helped push the envelope, sparking controversy and shaping public opinion as a result.

Image: Columbia Records

Taking a look at 2016’s ”Formation”, a bounce-pop hit by pop titan Beyoncé, one sees how real envelope-pushing chart leaders can be.

By The Recording Industry Association of America, the song is certified platinum with more than one million copies sold in the US alone.

It also spoke up and made a political statement through its message.

The song is the device through which Knowles raised her voice about brutality against the Black community in the police force.

In a time when we have to keep reminding each other that Black lives matter, a message of empowerment and unity delivered by a pop star larger than life is more than welcome.

Amidst hate and injustice, Knowles has not abandoned her background:  “Earned all this money but they never take the country out me” – she states in the song.

Her outspoken stance of love for her cultural heritage is clear: “I like my baby hair, with baby hair and afros / I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils” implying that – regardless of beauty standards predominantly revolving around caucasian features – she acknowledges and embraces her community’s magnificence.

On the subject of the music video, the visual counterpart of  ”Formation”is just as symbolical and empowering.

It contains complex images advocating for the fair treatment of the Black and African-American community, such as Knowles lying on top of a New Orleans Police car while sinking into a body of water. This one visual cue addresses multiple issues; police brutality against the Black community and the lingering aftermath of Katrina, the 2005 hurricane which still affects parts of New Orleans to this day.

Image: Columbia Records

The appearance of an African-American child in a dark hoodie dancing in front of a line of officers wearing combat gear marks another key scene in the video’s large selection of powerful images; the officers put their hands up and surrender to him. The hoodie on the child is suggestive in the context that, George Zimmerman, the man who fatally shot African-American teenager Trayvon Martin suggested that Martin’s hoodie made him look threatening.

To add, after the scene, there is a quick cut to graffiti words on a brick wall reading “Stop Shooting Us”.

Image: Columbia Records

As most bold artists, Beyoncé faced controversy for her outspoken work. After performing the song at the 2016 Pepsi Super Bowl Halftime show, many criticized her, insisting that her performance was an anti-police attack.

Image: Getty Images

Backed by 50 Black women dancers and dressed in a leather jacket adorned with gold bullets, the superstar took matter into her own hands and took a stance against injustice the way she knew best; by performing about it in front of an audience of 115.5 million people – the number of people who tuned in at home.

Outrage reached such magnitude that Javier Ortiz, the head of a Miami police union, called for a boycott of the superstar’s “Formation” world tour.

Image: Dr. Kinitra D. Brooks

Nevertheless, critical outcry did not affect the universal impact of the song and its parent album, “Lemonade”.

Its influence lead to it being used as the groundwork for the college course Black Women, Beyoncé & Popular Culture”, taught by Dr. Kinitra D. Brooks at The University of Texas at San Antonio.

To add, many publications crowned it the best song of 2016, such as TIME Magazine, which acknowledged it for its cultural weight and relevance.

Image: Metacritic

The parent album received a 92 rating on Metacritic, based on the reviews of more than thirty prestigious critics, indicating universal acclaim and making it the 9th highest rated album of the 2010s, the only female record in the top ten.

Commercial success and critical acclaim aside, Beyoncé’s “Formation” and its accompanying album have undoubtedly pushed the envelope. With shedding light on racial discrimination, by inspiring members of the Black community to embrace and wear their cultural heritage with pride, popular music proved to be able to make a difference, and Beyoncé’s conversation-starter pop is only one of many.

Nagy Zsolt

Nagy Zsolt