Beyoncé gets political at the Super Bowl! The headline is cranked out by nearly every news source imaginable, usually with a tinge of outrage or frustration – how dare she, a black woman symbolizing black power, with a formation of dancers resembling Black Panthers behind her, have the audacity to invade my living room with a political statement (especially during this beloved American football game)?
But here’s the catch: the Super Bowl (and every other televised event, spectacle, and art form) has always been political. We just don’t recognize it because it usually carries a political sentiment endorsing or at least sympathizing with the dominant political narrative of this country. Every single $5 million 30 second ad ran during the span of that game was a ringing endorsement of corporate capitalism and the commodification of health (big pharma dominated these commercials) which has led radical pundits to state “If you were from another planet and judged earth solely on the basis of these Super Bowl advertisements, you’d be forgiven for thinking that we are a place of heterosexual breeders who somehow find people to have unprotected sex with, despite our toe fungus, irritable bowel syndrome, or opioid constipation” (from The Nation). It gets political.
Coldplay’s portion of the halftime show (while utterly lacking in charisma and musical ingenuity) included an overarching rainbow theme, Chris Martin specifically acknowledging a fan who was waving a gay pride flag, and a finale which proudly spelled out believe in love. It was a ringing endorsement of LGBTQ+ rights (and I imagine the only reasons why people aren’t as upset about this demonstration is that 1. It was trumped by Beyoncé’s performance and 2. It was a significantly dumbed down, white mainstream version of LGBTQ+ political sentiment which is at least palatable to Middle America these days). Nonetheless, it gets political.
Peyton Manning, even in what we would normally expect to resemble an ecstatic joy of victory while greeting his family members, found time to name drop Budweiser and kiss Papa John’s cheek. Yes, he was paid for those endorsements. Those two companies once again resemble a hierarchical corporate structure (selling us cheap beer and cheap pizza for our delight!) while the act of celebrity endorsement itself pronounces and reiterates versions of the society of the spectacle and culture industry that Guy Debord and Theodor Adorno so well-articulated years ago. Whether it’s in the background or right in our faces, things get political.
And let’s not forget about the National Football League itself. A proud sponsor of repeated concussions (often resulting in brain damage later in life), the NFL has lobbied extensively to cover up findings on players’ health and domestic violence, to both limit and extend broadcasting rights, and to maintain its exemption from anti-trust and monopolization laws. The teams themselves have political investments – primarily red ones. Open Secrets reports that “since 2012, the Broncos have given $112,475 to conservative candidates and committees, Center for Responsive Politics data show. During that same time period, they’ve contributed just $3,500 to liberals. The Carolina Panthers have given just over $21,000 — $17,201 to conservatives and $4,000 to liberals.” Peyton Manning has individually contributed a couple thousand dollars to Jeb Bush’s campaign, while the Players’ Association is constantly at war with the League over labor rights. The players, the teams, and the league itself regularly get political.
So what’s the beef with Beyoncé? It could stem from a number of reasons.
First, a lot of white conservative men like Rudy Giuliani just don’t get it. Giuliani, whose relevancy to mention in the first place is questionable at best, blasted Beyoncé and her performance for being anti-cop. But as Twitter user @juhneda very simply laid out in a reference to the Formation music video, “If ‘stop killing’ us anti-cop, then what’s pro-cop? ‘Keep killing us’?” In other words, there is absolutely no contradiction in appreciating everything the police do to protect us as citizens, while also calling them out (on a systemic level) for institutionalized racism and practices that unnecessarily escalate violence and disproportionately jail black people.
For some reason, people like Giuliani want all or nothing – if you criticize us, then you don’t appreciate us. That’s not the case. If anything, Giuliani’s sentiment and those like it are manifestations of rhetorical tools used by reactionaries to convince marginalized and oppressed people to get back in life. Professor Corey Robin has written that conservatism is “a meditation on—and theoretical rendition of—the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back,” which more or less synthesizes all of the backlash Beyoncé has faced in one way or another.
Second, there is a fundamental misremembering of history when someone brings up the Black Panther Party in America. Some have likened Beyoncé’s Black Panther allusion to a white performer coming out dressed in white hoods. It’s a dreadful comparison. The KKK was and is designated and self-professed supremacist hate group (and still wasn’t targeted as much as the BPP was by the FBI). The Black Panthers emerged in response to systemic injustices and specific instances of violence and murder committed on black communities during the sixties. They opposed the Vietnam War, and their main goal was to realize equality in housing, education, employment, and civil rights. They armed themselves not out of supremacy or hate, but out of the historical fact that their people were being gunned down, beaten, falsely accused and imprisoned, and dehumanized.
One can debate whether or not there exists a role for violence within revolutionary political movements – but to misremember the Black Panther Party as a terrorist hate group (which white American history evidently has) would be a hugely mistaken oversimplification. To those who stick with the whitewashed, feel-good version of American history, Beyoncé’s performance was insensitive. To those who understand the political context through which the BPP and Beyonce are operating, it becomes a valid political statement.
My urge, especially for young people and college students like myself, is to lift the veil which claims things can ever be apolitical. Everything is political. And when it doesn’t appear to be explicitly political, it’s probably because it’s a subtle but ringing endorsement of the dominant narrative – the way things are. If it makes you uncomfortable, then it’s probably seeking to dismantle or at least interrupt – in Beyoncé fashion – these institutionalized structures and myths we have inherited.