For those of us glued to social media, the discourse around a major record can be as loud as the actual sounds coming out of our speakers. Historically, mainstream media (print, radio and TV) has steered conversation around big hits and culturally significant albums. Now, social media accelerates the chatter, with fans weighing in on everything from controversial lyrics to polarising musical directions.
Fans lead socio-political conversations about music in the wake of its release. And sometimes, the backlash is loud enough for the stars to hear them. The latest acts to face the court of public opinion? Lizzo and Beyoncé, for their mutual use of an ableist slur on their tracks Grrrls and Heated, respectively.
On 10th June 2022, Lizzo dropped Grrrls as the first single for her fourth album Special, which included the word “sp*z” in the lyrics. Although her understanding of the word was in the context of African American Vernacular English, used to say something along the lines of “go wild”, it’s also a slur towards disabled people. Three days later, Lizzo posted a statement to apologise, advocating for “listening” and “taking action” against derogatory language and revealing that the track would be amended to no longer include the word.
A few weeks later, Beyoncé’s album Renaissance: Act 1 dropped on 29th July, and listeners were quick to notice that the term “sp*z” was also present on the track Heated. Disability advocate Hannah Diviney called her out, saying that the act felt like a “slap in the face” on Twitter. Three days later, a representative for Beyoncé’s team stated that “The word, not used intentionally in a harmful way, will be replaced.”
While not a lyrical mishap, Beyoncé also faced controversy for the song Energy, which includes a sample of the 2003 Kelis single Milkshake. The problem was that Kelis didn’t know about it before the track’s release. She soon posted an Instagram video response, in particular taking issue with Beyoncé’s collaborators, Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo aka The Neptunes, whom she’s accused of manipulating her lack of business experience when she first entered the industry, allegedly swindling her out of her early songwriting, publishing and masters accreditations. (“I was told we were going to split the whole thing 33/33/33, which we didn’t do,” she told the Guardian in 2020.) Kelis asked Beyoncé to show “human decency”. By 2nd August, the Milkshake sample had disappeared.
This isn’t strictly a 2022 phenomenon. Outside of the realms of contemporary pop and rap, in 2011, the longrunning rock group Dire Straits faced a ban on their song Money For Nothing – which was released in 1985 – based on a precedent set by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council against its use of “f*ggot” in its lyrics. Months later, after an amendment of the slur to “queenie”, Canadian radio lifted the ban, and Dire Straits sang the adjusted lyrics in following live performances. Taylor Swift also quietly updated lyrics in 2008’s Picture to Burn, replacing “Go and tell your friends that I’m obsessive and crazy /That’s fine /I’ll tell mine you’re gay” with “you won’t mind if I say”; The Black Eyed Peas changed Let’s Get R*tarded to Let’s Get It Started a year after the song’s original release in 2003; Michael Jackson removed anti-Semitic lyrics from 1996’s They Don’t Care About Us.
There’s the argument that artistic expression and cultural commentary is censored when lyrics are changed. Take Kendrick Lamar’s Auntie Diaries for example, from his latest studio album Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers. The divisive song details Lamar’s experiences with homophobia and transphobia and his unlearning of that in the context of understanding his two transgender relatives’ identities over time. But he repeatedly uses the word “f*ggot” which, of course, has consequences for the communities addressed. Would there be a case for Lamar editing the slur out the song? Considering his stance on so-called “cancel culture” elsewhere on the album, that never seemed likely. However, recent performances of Auntie Diaries translate as awkward, and it’s been cut from the setlist of his US tour.
So how hard is it to actually switch a song that’s already been released? Not very, it seems, particularly in the age of streaming. Soundcloud, for example, simply instructs artists to contact support with the new file and universal product code, and the change will be updated in between three to five working days. Now that fans know that artists can amend problematic lyrics, the possibilities are endless in the face of pushback. With Lizzo and Beyoncé proving how easy it is to edit a song, this may have opened a can of worms. Many long-running artists have lyrics in their back catalogue which haven’t aged well. Will we have more of them cleaning up the older missteps in their discography?
Upon the news of the Heated amendment, Monica Lewinsky asked for her name to be removed from Beyoncé’s 2013 song Partition (“He popped all my buttons and he ripped my blouse/He Monica Lewinski’d all on my gown,” goes the lyric, referencing the fact that Bill Clinton’s semen was identified on Lewinski’s dress). It’s hard to gauge how serious Lewinsky was from her tweet (she’s said she uses humour to handle painful or embarrassing situations, hence why she includes “rap song muse” in her Twitter bio to acknowledge the many crude lyrical references to her), but nevertheless it does open up a debate of where exactly to draw the line.
In the case of “sp*z” and derogatory terms in music, cultural customs (i.e. the use of problematic terms when ignorant) don’t necessarily align with the “right” and “justified” action in real time. Values change over time, and so does the context of certain words. It’s OK for artists to learn, like every flawed human on the planet. Evolution and dismantling harmful practices is something to be embraced and welcomed, not scrutinised. These days, artists are scanning social media for feedback and potential edit suggestions. Let’s hope the fans use their power responsibly.