Beyoncé’s new album Renaissance has been leaping across the airwaves since its release on Friday.
And with the album generating thousands of articles, reviews, responses, videos, tweets and other comments on the internet, it’s fair to say that it has also dominated online discourse.
The renaissance has particularly provoked conversations around black culture, queerness, the resurgence of dance tracks in mainstream music and the reclaiming of certain music genres. Beyoncé worked on the album with several prominent trans and queer black artists such as MikeQ and Honey Dijon, both important players in the LGBTQIA+ and ballroom scenes.
Beyonce: Renaissance (2022)
But the response has not been good. Disability rights campaigners pushed back against the singer last week after the words used in the song Heated were deemed to be a skilled slur. On Monday, one of Beyoncé’s reps said the singer would change the words “spaz” and “spazzin” from the song, saying, “The word, which is not intentionally used in a harmful way, will be replaced.”
Some fans in America came out to defend the singer, saying that the word did not have the same meaning in the United States as it does elsewhere in the world. In the UK it is a pejorative term derived from spastic diplegia – a type of spastic cerebral palsy that affects leg movement. But for others, these environmental excuses did not wash.
Speaking to The Guardian, disability activist and writer Hannah Diviney said: “I thought we had changed the music industry and started a global conversation about why appropriate language – intentionally or not – has no place in music. But I guess I was wrong, because now Beyoncé has gone and done exactly the same thing.”
Beyoncé’s decision to use the words came just weeks after Lizzo apologized for using the same word in her song GRRRLS. She said she would change the text, saying: “I would never promote derogatory language. I’m proud to say it’s a new version of GRRRLS with a lyrical change. This is the result of me listening and taking action.”
But yesterday Lizzo tweeted: “Damn… Beyoncé and Lizzo are trending… 12 year old me in Houston listening to fate her child cries rn. Never in my life did I think this would be my life…” seems to forget that one of the reasons the two acts are popular is because they both used the same slang in their songs. For some, the comment diminished the conviction of her GRRRLS apology.
But the story doesn’t stop there. When Beyoncé agreed to change Heated, US activist Monica Lewinsky, who describes herself as a “rap song muse”, tweeted: “Uhmm, while we’re at it… #Partition”. In Beyoncé’s 2013 track Partition, a line goes: “He hit all my buttons, he tore my blouse. He Monica Lewinski had everything on my dress”.
Lewinsky has previously spoken about her relationship with President Bill Clinton causing her a lifetime of shame, humiliation and years of therapy.
When a fan asked Lewinsky if she had talked to Beyoncé’s team about it before “all the heat,” she said, “No, I haven’t.” I mentioned it in the first vanity fair article I wrote in 2014…which was the first public thing I had done in 10 years. but you make an interesting/fair point…”
So far, it doesn’t appear that anyone from Beyoncé’s team has responded to Lewinsky.
Social media has brought audiences and artists closer together, with conversations between musicians and their fans now a random, and even expected, occurrence online.
But this week’s event—where fans have been able to influence a major release so quickly—seems like a departure. In a way, it is: Beyoncé is often seen as one of the most powerful people in the music industry, and her latest album will have spent months and months in the studio, editing rooms and then with record company executives.
However, the lyrical drama is actually not as new as it seems. In 2019, following backlash, Drake changed a lyric from his track Jodeci Freestyle in which he used the words “autistic, retarded” as a slur. Drake subsequently released a statement saying: “I share responsibility and offer my sincere apologies for the pain this has caused. People with autism have brilliant and creative minds and their gifts should not be belittled or belittled.” The lyrics were removed from the song.
Then, a 2013 remix of Future’s track Karate Chop saw Lil Wayne in his extra verse say, “Beat the p**sy up like Emmett Till.”
Following the criticism, the lyrics were removed and Lil Wayne issued a public apology to the Till family saying, “I can’t imagine the pain that your family has had to endure. I would like to take a moment to acknowledge that you are hurt, as well like the letter you sent me via your lawyers.”
There are dozens of similar examples, including the 2003 Black Eyed Peas track Let’s Get It Started, which was originally called Let’s Get Retarded, and the 2009 Taylor Swift track Picture to Burn, which said, “So go tell your friends that I I’m obsessive and crazy, that’s fine, I’ll tell me you’re gay,” which was duly amended.
And it’s not just a recent, internet-driven phenomenon, either. The day before Michael Jackson released the track They Don’t Care About Us in 1995, The New York Times reported that the track contained racist and anti-Semitic lines. Especially the lyric “Jød me, sue me, alle mård meg/ Kick me, k*ke me, don’t you black or white me” caused offence.
At the time, Jackson responded to the newspaper, saying: “The idea that these lyrics could be considered offensive is extremely hurtful to me and misleading. The song is actually about the pain of prejudice and hatred and is a way of drawing attention to social and political issues “, later said on ABC News, “It’s not anti-Semitic because I’m not a racist person … I could never be a racist. I love all races”. Just a week later, however, it was agreed that Jackson would return to studio and redo the song, replacing the offending phrases with “do me” and “strike me.” Jackson also apologized for the mistake.
So while it may feel like we’re witnessing a revolution of sorts, where fans and critics alike have a new power to influence the work of the world’s biggest stars, Beyoncé’s oversight of Heated, and her willingness to change the lyrics, actually confirms just one pattern of fallibility that has been going on for decades.
And for Beyoncé, the lyrics controversy isn’t the last problem the singer has faced since her release on Friday. The Houston-born singer has now also begun the process of removing a Kelis sample from her Renaissance track Energy after Kelis said she had not been credited or even consulted about its use. The original song had Beyoncé singing a sequence of ‘las’ to the tune of Kelis’ 2003 hit Milkshake.
Taking to her Instagram, a fuming Kelis said: “There are bullies and secrets and gangsters in this business who smile and get away with it until someone says enough is enough. So I’m saying it today. I am coming for what is mine, and I want compensation.”