For Context See Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar

It has been a busy couple of weeks in North American entertainment. There was the Super Bowl spectacle on February 7th and more volatile, the release of Beyoncé’s  video “Formation” on the day before. There was the fallout and wide ranging commentary like here and here that followed. Then there were the Grammy Awards this week and celebrity outrageousness to accompany that. I have heard and read about most of this through my Twitter network who have kept me amply supplied with analyses, think pieces, satire and original links referring to all of these happenings.

There’s clearly a lot of meaning attached not only to the events themselves (i.e. the 50th Super Bowl, The Grammy Awards) but to what they represent, whom they represent and how that is received by a host of different characters. In truth, I am a lousy consumer of pop culture. For most of my adult years I have lived without a television. I live in a small German-speaking republic which subscribes to quite a bit of North American and British pop culture but my reception of what is offered (on the radio mainly) is spotty at best. While pop artists’ names may be known to me and I can sing along with a set of mainstream ditties, I have never been one to take much interest in celebrity lives or the vast entertainment industry which comes exported from the coasts of the United States.

So there, I have officially declared my limited knowledge of North American popular entertainment. Yet, the more I engage in my online networks, I find it increasingly helpful to process these events and their meanings, if only as a distant observer. As I explained to someone recently, precisely because I am not immersed in the same media overflow, I have to look for and at context more than anything else.

Here’s some of what I’ve discovered this week:

Beyoncé’s provocative video and halftime performance hit not just one but a whole bundle of nerves in the American psyche. By all appearances, no one was left cold or without an opinion on the matter. Having this high-profile mega-star lay claim to and broadcast her black identity precisely in the context of the hyper-masculine display that is the Super Bowl just pushed buttons in a way that I suspect few others could or would dare. And when I say “buttons,” I mean so many individual, outward and underlying buttons relating to identity, political beliefs, societal and personal values – hence the virulence and prolific nature of commentary that arose as a result. This Saturday Night Live sketch “The Day Beyoncé Turned Black” captures some of those buttons with scorching aptitude.

After finally watching Beyoncé’s actual halftime performance along with Bruno Mars (Oh, that’s who sings “Uptown Funk”?), Youtube smartly referred me to Lady Gaga’s rendition of the national anthem.

This is where I recognize how long I have lived outside my country of origin. Of course I grew up singing the national anthem and hearing it performed by various artists, but I suppose I kind of forgot the kind of patriotic swelling it tends to induce. I can’t hear the Star Spangled Banner at a sporting event and not be moved, but in watching Lady Gaga stand before that giant flag and seeing the fighter planes pass overhead at the conclusion, I had to flinch. I know, it’s the Super Bowl – what could be more American than that? But yeah, this was just a bit much for my ex-pat sensibilities. Oh well.

At the same time, the whole tableau reasserts the importance of context. That particular display shows what really counts – sufficient homage to this patriotic ideal which presumably bonds us together (before our teams do battle), a nod to the greatness of a country which understands so well how market and package its patriotism in an irresistibly compelling show. The spectacle and the expectation which precedes it tells a lot, at times perhaps too much, about where the market meets the populace and offers to swallow it whole.

Finally, the Grammy Awards about which I usually know very little but on the morning after happened to hear the results reported on the Austrian pop station’s news broadcast: 5 Grammies to Kendrick Lamar for his opus, To Pimp A Butterfly. Once again I might have been in the complete dark on this one had I not received a tip from a trusted Twitter friend who mentioned listening to #TPAB about a year ago and I asked him what that was.

He sent me a Spotify link and I gave it a listen. Complete fail. I could not hear it. It was too fast, incomprehensible to me, uneven in its melodies, stuffed with profanity – I gave up. Despite the proclaimed cultural and political relevance of the work, widely shared in my PLN and beyond, I just had to leave it alone. I chalked it up to being 15 years too old, or too conservative in my musical tastes. And I realized that in my immediate local circle this omission of cultural familiarity would not be noticed.

I’m not sure what happened that made me go back a try it again recently. I had time to myself. I was in my kitchen, preparing a meal. ‘Available’ is the word that comes to mind. In this state it was possible to listen. That was when I could hear the poetry, appreciate its complexity, and recognize the jazz influences in the music.  The sophistication of the whole work gave me pause.

So I was all the more receptive when a link to his performance at the Grammy Awards was shared on Twitter. (That video is no longer available anywhere, by the way!) I had never seen Kendrick Lamar perform before yet in this 6 minute spread the urgency of his message knocks you over. He makes plain what is no longer possible to ignore: mass incarceration, police brutality, the rise of a strong black activist movement. This, at the Grammy Awards. Again, the political message is showcased in a mega performance with a huge national audience. For white Americans who consider themselves ‘mainstream’ I can imagine that all this pro-black fervor on display at two major entertainment events, practically back-to-back (or black-to-black) to be a bit overwhelming. Because the commercial norm from fashion to food, from fitness to finance features whites, whites and a few sprinkles of color from time to time. These mega-events interrupted that norm, if only briefly, and have left much discussion and puzzling in their wake.  This is yet another aspect of this larger scenario that makes me sit up and listen more carefully not only to the recounting of events but to the reactions they evoke.

What do the reactions reveal about the fears, concerns, hopes and ambitions to be found among viewers? What can we learn about ourselves as we untangle our own reactions to these events as art? as political statements? as forms of contemporary social commentary?

I may not live in the United States any more but it is where my roots are. My citizenship is contained in much more than my passport. I have an American identity that is also African-American, which means subject to racism. The issues to which Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar draw the public’s attention are deeply relevant to me and the people I care about. My entry points to these creative works as a woman of 5o years are also significant. My upbringing, education, interests and affinities all figure into how these works reach and influence me.

What this excursion into pop culture has shown me is that the surface remains the surface unless we do some scratching and digging and reflecting. It would be easy for me to skip this exercise and no one would be the wiser. But I see that from where I sit, if I want to understand my culture of origin and the influence it exerts, I will need to continue to discover and unravel the context it nourishes and potentially obscures. Living outside the US media climate, I have a natural distance to certain events and widespread trends. In order to recognize what is relevant to my interests and understanding, I may need to travel unanticipated roads to get there.


Helpful reads on this particular trip:
PL Thomas: Politics, The Super Bowl and, of course, The Children

Jesmyn Ward, In Beyoncé’s ‘Formation,’ A Glorification Of ‘Bama’ Blackness

Not Ready To Stop Obsessing Over Beyoncé And ‘Formation’? We Got You Covered

Scott Woods, Beyoncé’s “Formation” vs. Monlithic Blackness



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