Beyoncé – Formation (2016)
No question that Beyoncé’s Formation stormed across the Denver Broncos, Carolina Panthers, Coldplay and Bruno Mars at last weekend’s Super Bowl. The 34-year-old musician took centre stage at the year’s biggest televised concert, deploying 30 women in studded leather and Black Panther berets. Their formation? A giant, fire-silhouetted X. The singer’s surprise new single drills, trills, smoulders over a dry beat; it’s Beyoncé in her Southern mode, pitching and stalking, swinging like a pendulum. What’s new isn’t the gist of the song – boasts of status, bragging raps – but, as at halftime, the increasing centrality of black cultural signifiers. Beyoncé’s still talking about how rich and powerful she is, how triumphant, but this means something different when it’s expressed within the living history of African-American struggle.
Nowhere is this more evident than the video for Formation. Directed by Melina Matsoukas, filled with images of a flooded New Orleans, dancers versus police, with appearances by genderqueer performers like Big Freedia, this five-minute clip is much more political than the three-and-a-half-minute radio single. I don’t need to meditate on it here – critics like Yaba Blay and Zandria Felice Robinson have illuminated the video better than I could ever hope to. But it’s an interesting reminder of the way politics tend to operate in today’s mainstream pop music: moderate on the radio, radical on YouTube.
Sam Cooke – You Send Me (demo version; 1955)
My favourite valentine of a song is this one, which Cooke recorded two years before his studio version topped the charts. The singer sings over a strummed guitar, a stamped foot or clapped thigh, with a sincerity as naked as a paper heart. It is a sound of chaste affection, fondness; despite Cooke’s promise to “marry … and take you home,” he creates a nearly sexless intimacy, something ready for public view. A slow-dance beside a window, a tendered glimpse of what’s inside.
Julie Doiron – Thought Of You (2016)
Thought Of You is one of four amazing fruits from 2016’s Greville Tapes sessions, where one established artist (Julie Doiron) and one emerging act (Nancy Pants) were smooshed together at a studio in Port Greville, N.S., emerging three days later with four original songs. Nancy Pants’s loose, garagey warmth is a perfect companion to Doiron’s openhearted pronouncements; it feels as if they’ve been playing together forever, rolling with the punches, touching at the frays, dancing to The Troggs’s Wild Thing with sunshine in their hair. “Honestly / I felt ashamed,” Doiron sings. “Honestly / I’ve been afraid to say / that I thought of you.” Then the song splits open, breaks apart, that battered shoot finally unafraid to flower.
Sean Michaels received the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize for his novel Us Conductors. He is the editor of the music blog Said the Gramophone.