Beware of the pop star as activist (but don’t blame Beyonce)

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So I guess I’m talking about the thing everyone else is talking about and is always talking about and never stops talking about: Beyoncé.

I know I’m supposed to shut up about her, but let’s just say this isn’t really about Beyoncé and go from there, k?

So the video. You’ve seen it. It’s good. So good. What else?

Well, for starters, we have a bunch of powerful, political, radical imagery that celebrates black culture and pushes back against racist police violence. Good. Beyoncé’s message, both in the video and on stage at the Super Bowl, successfully pissed off a bunch of cop-loving white people who are afraid of black people rising up against white supremacy. Also good. And yet, there’s a problem.

One way of putting that problem is, as Jeff Guo did, “’Formation’ is a fantasia about black power, black beauty, and black success. It is political, but Beyoncé is not a politician.”

Another way is to say, as Dianca London did, that “Viewing monetary prowess as power is not only a familiar (and flawed) trope within her genre, it is also a predictably capitalistic formula for agency.”

My point? America has replaced activists and revolutionaries and theorists with wealthy celebrities and the result is confusing, to say the least.

It’s not as though I think actors or musicians need necessarily STFU when it comes to politics — it’s not a bad thing to use your platform for good. Also, there is the question of whether we would prefer our pop stars remain silent about politics and stick to party anthems. I mean, certainly we want everyone to be informed and to speak out against injustice, celebrities included. And what Beyoncé is doing is far more political and far more relevant than most of what we see from performers of her caliber. But when we turn pop singers and actors and Reality TV stars into political leaders, allowing and encouraging them to lead the conversation on radical movements, we inevitably bastardize these movements.

It’s not only the hypocrisy of hearing millionaires preach capitalism as they evoke images of working class suffering, but it’s also the simple fact that we shouldn’t idolize celebrities. We shouldn’t even idolize actual radicals. It’s dangerous.

But America has brought us a culture that worships at the altar of celebrity and offers idols instead of intellectuals. The ultimate success, in the U.S., is not to change the world or tear down oppressive systems and institutions, but to become famous, however you possibly can — whether through Instagram, a YouTube channel, a sex tape, or by humiliating yourself on some reality show. The best thing you can become in America is rich and famous.

So it’s no real surprise that Bey’s political message is all tied up with a capitalist one. On Tuesday, Jesse Wente accidentally put it perfectly when he said, on CBC radio, “Rarely has an artist combined such slick self-promotion — business savvy — with their most political artistic statement in their career.” This was in reference to Beyoncé’s Super Bowl halftime show, which featured a Black Panther-styled performance of “Formation,” shouted out the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and was immediately followed by an ad for her upcoming tour.

I mean, this is what we hear time and time again, as a way of celebrating all good capitalists. From Kim Kardashian to Madonna to Donald Trump to Steve Jobs, we offer “business savvy” as the thing we should be most impressed by (and often as an excuse for a lack of ethics and/or intelligence). “But you have to admit, she’s a really smart business woman” seems to be our collective response to any and all critiques, as if a desire to be rich is some kind of important skill we are all obligated to respect.

But ok, since we’re here, let’s talk about Bey for a moment: I don’t doubt that she cares about racial injustice, Black power, and the uprising against police violence. She is not a bad person, not a stupid person, and not an untalented person. She is, rather, a person who is widely adored — who can, to millions of people around the world, do no wrong. So when she says “Always stay gracious, best revenge is your paper,” as the conclusive message to an otherwise politically powerful video (and Super Bowl moment) that is critical of white male power, she offers a contradictory message. One that will be embraced by millions of people — young women, in particular — and is, arguably, kind of dangerous…

As a number of writers have already pointed out, capitalism is no solution to marginalization. Naturally we all participate in this system and none of us are exempt from the need to survive or to be consumers — we aren’t really offered any other options. When you’re poor, it certainly feels like financial success is the only way out and the fantasy offered as comfort are people like Beyoncé — that is, the idea of a celebrity who is “like us” and the idea that someday we, too, might spend our days off on a yacht with Jay Z. The reason celebrity culture is so overpowering in the U.S. is as a distraction from the depressing reality of our unjust world, but also as a way to sell the American Dream — the idea that we are all capable of achieving the capitalistic version of “success” if we simply work hard enough.

But we aren’t like celebrities and we aren’t like the wealthy. We will achieve nothing resembling liberation or empowerment in this system, even if we do become some version of Bill Gates. Because as long as capitalism exists, there will be a working class and there will be a minority of very wealthy people who pass privilege around among themselves.

So none of this really has much to do with Beyoncé anymore than it does any celebrity. The fact that we look to pop stars for political direction is a problem with American culture and the idea that one should empower oneself by becoming rich is not one that was invented by Bey. And, in fact, she deserves props for bringing that unjust world we are meant to be distracted from to light, through her platform.

It’s worth talking about this messaging she projects critically, though, because it’s a dangerously deceptive message.

“Staying gracious” in the face of injustice offers a particularly feminized approach to effecting change — as though revolting against violent systems of oppression should be done politely, by working not against the system, but with it. And the “best revenge” is only “paper” if you don’t care about leaving everyone else behind once you get yours.

Neither of these ideas are radical and neither of them work. And our politics need to come from people who understand that.

Love Beyoncé, love the video — it’s hard not to — but keep in mind that what she’s selling isn’t the answer.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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