Beyonce’s “Formation” tour is the most important tour in the world right now. Since the HBO debut of her visual album Lemonade in April, it’s been impossible to shake the impact this record has had on 2016. Whether or not you personally care for the music or the magnificent machination of Beyonce matters little — though history will and has consistently proven her detractors wrong — but to put it simply, the “Formation” tour is not for men. They may attend and enjoy it, they will probably be just as enthralled by the visual spectacle as their female companions, but every moment of the show caters to women.
In my observation at the Santa Clara date this past Saturday, not a single man appears on stage as part of Beyonce’s performance; all her backup dancers were women — women of color actually, save one — and she makes a special point of thanking her backup singers — all women of color — and “all-female band” toward the end of the show. The ease with which she pulled off this staffing decision lays to rest any excuses about lack of options within the industry, while the sheer excellence of the show proves much more than that. Multiple people within the industry and without have told me this is the best show of their lives. I’m inclined to agree.
The most telling moment of Beyonce’s “Formation” tour does not come during a performance of a song off her new visual album Lemonade. It doesn’t come during one of the spectacularly choreographed dance numbers from 2013’s industry-shifting Beyonce, or from a reworked reclamation of a throwback hit from her Destiny’s Child days. Instead, it comes approximately one third of the way through the show, when she dismisses her entourage, tones down the enormous monolith screen behind her and tells us she’s going to sing a track off her debut solo album Dangerously in Love.
Before launching into “Me, Myself and I,” she gently commands her fans to embrace the power of self-love. For all the ferocity of “Formation,” all the delicious defiance of “Sorry,” and the deafening girl power of feminist anthem “Run the World,” this moment encapsulated the emotional core of her latest tour, and drew a through-line from her earliest work as Beyonce all the way up to her latest project. Lemonade is rather infamously an album told from the perspective of a woman who has discovered her beloved has cheated on her. Despite the album’s technical and artistic brilliance, the conversation was quick to swirl toward gossip and the veracity of the story: Was this album about Jay Z? Was Beyonce finally addressing those persistent cheating rumors that have dogged her marriage with the rapper-turned-mogul in the most public way possible? Of course, we were asking the wrong questions.
The core of Beyonce’s music has consistently addressed negative scripts that are applied to women — particularly within her own identity as a woman of color — and flipped those stereotypes into a source of affirmation so sweeping they impacted the world at large. From her Destiny’s Child days, “Bills, Bills, Bills” attacks the idea of the money-grubbing girlfriend and reframes the need for shared economic responsibility as a valid foundation for a romantic partnership. Later, in the even more influential “Bootylicious,” the group directly challenged the standard of beauty-as-waif-thin and elevated curvier bodies into the most desirable position.
In her solo career, specifically, she begins to address the pain of infidelity early on (“Ring the Alarm,” “Resentment,” “If I Were a Boy”) and continually confronted the hard, difficult work of monogamous relationships (“1+1,” “No Angel,” “Jealous,” “Mine”) all the way up through her self-titled and most personal album. Throughout, she also praises the power of monogamy in terms that veer toward spiritual and hyperbolic in their adoration (“Halo,” “Dance for You,” “Love on Top,” “Rocket”). But Lemonade directly addresses the “worst” thing that society tells us can happen to a woman in love — the cheating husband.
The “Formation” tour preaches that surviving this is not only possible, but argues that the experience of it is yet another source of power to tap into. It doesn’t matter if any of this really happened to Beyonce or not, because it has probably happened to almost every single woman in the crowd at every stadium on her tour. Whether it’s cheating, betrayal of another kind, or simply romantic rejection, there are still few touchstones in our culture at large that acknowledge and tend to the painful emotional wounds women endure at the hands of men. Speculation about whether Lemonade is about Jay Z or Beyonce’s own father is similarly inconsequential; the ambiguity makes it even more accessible for women to work through their own betrayals, regardless of the circumstances. Lemonade makes something sweet out of all of these wounds; it is not just a successful pop album, it is an assertion that this pain matters, that it deserves to be addressed, and that it can be risen above.
Even in 2016, society teaches women that their primary source of worth is through validation from relationships with men. What a husband or boyfriend’s infidelity really boils down to is being told you’re not enough in a world that already identifies you as a second-class citizen. The narrative of Beyonce’s entire tour asserts that she is more than enough, and by experiencing that, the audience leaves with the affirmation that they are too. Lemonade and her tour are based around the idea that even if her relationship was broken and full of betrayal, it doesn’t make her less in any way. That’s why the moment when she tells us she understood that on “Me, Myself, and I” remains the crux of the entire performance; the music exhibits an independence in radical self-love that supersedes male romantic rejection.
The tour’s setlist is structured in such a way to mimic the emotional chapters of Lemonade, incorporating the anger from the beginning and running through toward the end into the deeper, lasting love. Instead of seeing this betrayal as an endpoint in the relationship, it becomes a beginning, a source of self-exploration and an examination of redemption that ultimately embraces one of the most powerful forces on Earth — that of unconditional love and forgiveness.
Pop music is often designated as a genre for fluff or shallow topics, and a big part of that is because the genre’s biggest fanbase is young women. It is written off as a industry-churned hits designed to stimulate the lowest common denominator, and maligned for the armies of experts who craft these songs, as though a community of creators is somehow less worthy of praise than a lone songwriter making music with traditional rock sounds and literary lyrics. Yet, the last two Beyonce albums have specifically sought to elevate literary works by two women of color writers, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Warsan Shire respectively, to the same level as an international pop star. The “Formation” tour is the most important tour in the world right now, because it presents a different world — one in which women are the dominant force — completely catered to, wounds and all. That is certainly something worth falling in line for, whoever you are.