I recently signed up for a “Formation” dance class — basically a cardio fitness class where people who want their exercise disguised as “fun” are taught the choreography from the video and then perform it poorly. The class participants were overwhelmingly white women, which surprised me and led to several very uncomfortable moments. For example, when the woman next to me insisted on practicing twerking her ass just inches from my face while we were bending over for a stretch. Also, when a room full of 20-plus women patted their invisible Afros during the line “I like my baby heir with baby hair and Afros” and I realized that like only three of us could actually have an Afro to pat. During that, I thought to myself, Well, this is probably the worst thing I’ll see in a while, and then this was brought to my attention:
And then this:
And then, just when I thought it couldn’t be topped, this:
There are many more, but I don’t want to upset you.
Now, I’m not really a conspiracy theorist, but it sort of feels like white people are intentionally trying to ruin this “Formation” moment? Like … is the FBI involved? Should I call up Mulder and Scully to see if they can help me with this case? Because I’m finding it difficult to understand why, not even a month after Beyoncé gave this gift to the world, we are made to suffer through these covers.
I bet someone is going to tell me that “music is for everyone,” and we could go so many rounds about “who gets to enjoy what music” and “what constitutes as inappropriate appropriation,” and I bet we’d have a really good and enlightening discussion. (Actually, this is the internet, so maybe not.) But I’m not going to do that, because I’m coming down firmly on the side that says this song is not for everyone.
Let me be clear: It is for everyone to download, listen to, think about, learn from, and discuss. But it is not for everyone to take ownership over: This song, and its message, belongs to black people. And everyone needs to be okay with the fact that some moments in pop culture mean more to one group of people than to others. “Formation,” with its rare message of unabashed black female pride, is one of those moments. And if you understand that, then you understand why no white man should post a video of himself sitting at his piano, singing “You mix that negro with that Creole make a Texas bama” over a slow crescendo.
Covers, when they are good and valuable or even just entertaining, are about wanting to honor a song or an artist you admire. But it’s also about using your own voice to add a new resonance — be it bringing out a new vocal riff that could exist or maybe even uncovering new emotional material. You sing another artist’s song in your own voice because you think your voice can add something. Frankly, I don’t want to hear Beyoncé’s lyrics through a white man’s voice.
I also understand admiring an artist, admiring a song, and finding what appears to be a universal thread in the lyrics — and maybe these dudes really recognized themselves in Beyoncé’s message about recognizing your potential and loving all of yourself when society tells you not to — but Beyoncé was transmitting that message directly to a portion of humanity who rarely gets to hear it.
But we all get things wrong. Here, an example from my own life: When I was 14 and felt misunderstood and listening to Dashboard Confessional wasn’t enough, I decided to sing “Reflections” from Mulan at my eighth-grade talent show. But I didn’t want to whitewash it (erm, blackwash it? Jesus, this gets tricky) — I wanted to do a good job honoring Disney’s version of Chinese culture … which is why I wore a kimono. I still feel really bad about that. It was all so misguided. After my performance, a Chinese-American student asked me why I wore a kimono to sing a song from Mulan, which was a story about China. I had no answer other than “… Asian influences.”
So I don’t think white people have deliberately conspired to ruin “Formation” (maybe Coldplay, jury’s still out). But there are certain moments in culture that are just not open to interpretation by the majority’s voice. They are not improved upon by some random white dude with an acoustic guitar (things rarely are, especially house parties). And they are definitely not made better by someone’s bare ass in the shower. So, for now (and maybe forever), let’s just leave “Formation” to the people it’s written for. (Also leave Rihanna’s “Work” alone, while we’re at it.) If you really want to cover a Beyoncé song, go ahead and make another one of the billion “Drunk in Love” cover videos. Beyoncé wrote that song for everyone, but she wrote “Formation” for us.