Gothic Horror & Iconic Southern Style Through a Southern California Lens: Beyonce’s “Formation” ‘Slays’

When looking at Beyonce’s “Formation,” keep in mind migration. Sometimes the best way to get a handle on a situation is to change geographic location.

In “Formation,” Beyonce’s epic video, we see an ode to a people’s relationship to both the land and the American cultural politics of geography. Mood? Dark. Chic. Magic. The video was released the weekend of Super Bowl 50, a contest pitting the Panthers against the Broncos. This video appears early in 2016, when echoes of American activism sift through layers of soundbites and marketing ploys.

Part of the conceit of “Formation” is a commentary on American cultural politics. The video was not shot in the South, but in California. Perhaps this suggests that when the subject of commentary is systemic structural inequality, the vastness of Los Angeles, with a nod to Hollywood’s Gothic Westerns, provides an artistic safe space for exploration and creation.

“Formation” collapses history by reinterpreting Southern life. With copious references to historic events in African American culture and the human will to survive, this video provides echoes of a traumatic past merged with the promise of a future. Today’s struggles, whether for clean water, as in #Flint, or the struggle to thrive, spotlighted by #BlackLivesMatter, are part of the tapestry of “Formation”.

Beyonce Political Philosophy 101

After watching Beyonce’s “formation” video, I wondered: What local institutions exist to protect minorities from those in power who do not prioritize the needs of the vulnerable? What colleges and universities (besides Virginia Tech) work in tandem with local governments to safeguard the public trust? Note the existing controversy about the failure of local academic institutions to intervene in the Flint, MI water crisis.

Beyonce brings her brand of feminism to the world and graduate women’s studies classrooms flip out. Women’s studies departments are debate-grounds for discussing feminist vs. womanist discourse during a time when the “vs.” part should be ignored in favor of solidarity. During a time in America’s history when the potential exists for voters to elect the first female President of the United States, controversy abounds as to why more Millennial women do not appear to be behind Hillary Clinton. Are traditional Second Wave Feminists counting on feminism to save Hillary Clinton? If the answer is yes, then someone better call Beyonce — or at least one of her squad — because feminism has changed since the rise of the Millennials.

Politicians on both sides of the political spectrum may have trouble negotiating with various diverse constituents including democratic socialists, liberals, fiscal conservatives, feminists, womanists, and POCs. But Beyonce’s-style of feminism resonates with many youth. But how well does it resonate with traditional Second Wave Feminists? This question is purely hypothetical and meant to illustrate a potential cultural gap that could have significant implications this presidential election season.

I personally know how hard it is to be a feminist, a womanist, and a female person of color. Although I rarely see my perspectives reflected in public policy or political discourse, I’m still an avid consumer of news and public policy “White Papers”.

Public policy decisions that impact people’s relationship to infrastructure concern me most. The tale’s been told before: the citizens of Katrina, the citizens of Flint, the citizens of Southern West Virginia: Poor people, at the mercy of public policy makers, risking lives to stay afloat, and to avoid tainted water.

One cannot help but grieve, whether the grieving comes filtered through the lens of womanism or feminism.

More About The Video

Arresting imagery from daily life in New Orleans is the focal point of “Formation”. We see Beyonce resting atop a sinking police car wearing a red-and-white gown, maintaining characteristic poise despite (in spite of) her precarious position. The scene dramatizes the relationship between nature, the State, and the black body. Always precarious. A water-logged police car slowly, slowly becoming indistinguishable from the muck. Thus, it begins.

Beyonce and Squad as Cultural Creatives

Another part of this video shifts the focus to domestic life and features antebellum architecture. Yet, Beyonce and her team shot the video in Southern California, not in the U.S. South. Beyonce’s team scouted the Fenye’s Mansion in Pasadena for the “Formation” mansion. Without giving too much away (although the link about Beyonce’s crew visiting the Fenye’s Mansion provides some details), the production team’s attention to history, and to re-creating and re-interpreting the past, deserves commendation. This is Beyonce, the artist with a team of cultural producers, creating art, re-interpreting history, making history.

There’s a scene featuring Beyonce that also made me think of black-and-white photographs I have seen of the late painter Georgia O’Keefe who said, “To create one’s own world takes courage”. The word courage, typically associated with militarized tales of valor and bravery, takes on new meaning when applied to people of the Diaspora. Survivors feature prominently in “Formation” with all of the trials and tribulations. Despite the treachery of policy-makers and the betrayal of infrastructure, people survive to build new worlds.

Could Beyonce’s “Formation” be the beginning of a healing?

 

 

RIP David Bowie: Killin’ It in Death as in Life — David Bowie’s Blackstar Delivers

In the late ’60s and 1970s, some of my babysitters were young men. That’s how I learned about the musician and singer David Bowie. Cool. David Bowie. Bowie’s music flowed from the streets, to our home, from our home to the college campuses we lived on or near. Music was everywhere, jazz, classical, rock ‘n’ roll, blues.

I was a toddler, and then a kindergartner, and a soon-to-be first-grader, living on college campuses with my graduate school parents. My Dad started gigging in jazz clubs when he was a pre-teen. Most people I knew played an instrument. Life was great because of my parents’ album collection, my Dad’s live bass-fiddle playing, and the ubiquitous college kids who babysat my sibling and me. Despite the trauma of the Civil Rights Era, my life as a toddler and a child of the ’60s was great because of music, including David Bowie music.

Sometimes my babysitters were young ladies, but a lot of times they were couples, and sometimes, gentle-voiced young fellows.

My babysitters introduced me to “Space Oddity,” (1969), “Starman,” (1972), “Rebel, Rebel,” (1974), “Heroes,” (1977). I remember “Rebel, Rebel,” as somewhat confusing, slightly upsetting, and therefore to be skipped due to the reference of a torn dress. It wasn’t until I was older that I even heard the refrain “Hot tramp, I love you sooooooo.”

When you are a little girl whose BFFs are college kids from all over the world, music is mother’s milk. Life does not get better than frisbee, dogs, and rock music.

In a dorm room, I encountered a poster of a red-haired someone with a flash across the eye. That’s David Bowie. “Ziggy” from Outer Space. Cool. Outer Space. The Moon? Sure.

College kids listened to songs like “Major Tom,” and “Ashes to Ashes,” with its warning “… mama said, To get things done, you better not mess with Major Tom.” I learned early on how culture trumps strategy by listening to David Bowie. What is the need for a War on Drugs policy when you have the life stories of David Bowie set to music as a warning.

When “Modern  Love” came out, I remember being confused. How could this man be Bowie? David Bowie is Ziggy Stardust from Outer Space. (I was familiar with “Changes,” but still didn’t get the whole persona-change thing until much later.)

Now, with the release of his last album Blackstar (2016), and the unfathomable announcement of his passing just days after, I cringe at the Elder David Bowie because I do not want to accept his latest change. This is selfish, on my part. This also puts me squarely in the fan category when in fact, I’ve always seen myself as a friend of David Bowie.

The Elder David Bowie, the father, husband, friend, neighbor, and theater-performer, deserves my attention. When I listen to this latest incarnation of David Bowie, I honor his right to evolve. It is my job to manage the emotional cacophony his loss provokes.

The David Bowie tributes flooding the Internet disturb me. I love them, though.

(How can I ever be a kid again?)

David Bowie’s Blackstar (2016), brings darkness to my door. It is brilliant and devastating. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

 

Gail Taylor writes, researches, takes photos, reads books, listens to lots of music, cooks for loved ones. 

Kanye & Kim Make Pretty on #Vogue: Some People Freak and Franco-Rogen Strikes (Again!)

Are Vogue covers generally this controversial? Yes, when K&K make an appearance. Editor Anna Wintour continues her streak of deifying celebs with a cover. But this time, there is more to note than the notoriously controversial couple appearing on the front of the upcoming issue. After all, politics is what almost anything boils down to, even fashion magazine covers are a study in representational politics. Wintour must know. One of her predecessors, Grace Mirabella, made history by featuring the first African American model on the magazine’s cover, Beverly Johnson, in the 1970s.

The inaugural issue of Vogue was published in 1892. Kanye West’s appearance on the 2014 Spring cover may also make history. It is up to students, practitioners, and theorists of cultural studies to debate the whys and wherefores, in short, the relevance and meaning of this, and what his female-partner has to do with it. To add intrigue, another famous pair play a role in this fashion story: James Franco and Seth Rogen. The Rogen-Franco or Franco-Rogen stunting on Kardashian and West is becoming almost bigger than celebrity, itself.

How will USC/UCLA instructor/actor/artist James Franco explain the ins and outs, the political intrigues of this cover to his students? And why is Rogen wearing glasses? (I just don’t understand.) This is the pair’s second Kanye/Kim spoof after “Bound 3”. See this review by Pitchfork. For a fashionista’s perspective on Franco and Rogen, check out Garance Dore.

The micro blog site Twitter buzzed with the leaked cover of the ever controversial couple. This may be the first time the swanky publication has featured a couple on the cover. If it is not, then it is a rare occurrence.

Many websites offer different perceptions and reviews. Check out Leandra Medine’s The Man Repeller and note the snark-laden comments section. Also, Salon jumps to the couple’s defense, touting the cover as innovative. Both websites also mention the parody of the cover.

If you have not seen the cover, and if you surf the Internet, it is hard to believe you could miss this, you may have a strong reaction, or not. Draped in a creamy silk sleeveless gown that “haters” have derided for being ordinary, the female half of the power couple exudes what might pass for contentment whilst Kanye, the father of their baby girl, gently encircles Kim’s waist. A golden backdrop ensures the couple’s claim to royal-status, an American-style beatification. This cover epitomizes the concept of redemption through transformation, in this case, fashion is the medium. To many, Vogue represents class. What is burning up the comments sections of the blogosphere is how the Kardashian-West alliance heightens and exacerbates Kim’s X-rated past and Kanye’s crassness.

One blog commenter, “Eva S,” stated a common sentiment, that there were people more deserving of the honor of a Vogue cover:

I don’t know why she’d deserve a cover over so many other hard working and talented women – she wouldn’t have gotten it either if Kanye hadn’t pressured for it. What is she famous for, other than a sex-tape? What makes her special? Or unique? Style? So many other women have that. The new Marilyn? I don’t think so. She lacks poise and sophistication. That needs way more work than just a reality show. I’d rather see women there who REALLY changed the world. My Vogue subscription has been canceled. (Eva S, on The Man Repeller, Friday, March 21, 2014).

Another Man Repeller commenter, “early_holoscene,” said what was disturbing about the cover was that the woman in question lacked credibility. The commenter stated of Kardashian, “Unfortunately for her, she has documented every moment of her celebrity life, putting her constant fashion faux pas on full display.”

While many comments criticized Kanye’s presumed ambition in scoring the cover, a large number of blog commenters criticized Kim’s Vogue presence because of her past sex scandal. The two comments above demonstrate the public’s difficulty accepting a woman’s transformational journey, especially when change appears to be aided by gratuitous consumption and disregard for humility.

Women risk ridicule when courting the public. This is not a new idea. But taking big risks and creating an alliance with an equally ambitious partner might get an ambitious woman a magazine cover, which may also be seen as a public platform.

Vogue has historically symbolized high-society ideals such as poise, femininity, and beauty. Are these ideals relevant in 2014? If yes, how so?

Let me propose an alternative. The Vogue cover as a clean slate, thus reminding us that people change, or time changes us.

Thoughts?