Beyoncé, Lizzo, and the reality about slur amendment in pop music

Journalist Kate Demolder takes a deep dive into the controversy surrounding Beyoncé’s Renaissance, wading through topics of censorship, call-out culture, ableist slurs and learned kindness.

In 2007, BBC Radio made the decision to censor popular Christmas song Fairytale of New York. The decision was made to instead push the track’s radio edit––set to conceal and remove two slurs pertaining to women and the LGBTQ+ community––before reversing the decision shortly afterwards.

The track, performed by The Pogues and the late Kirsty McColl, continues to be debated every year, somehow uniting the liberal and traditional classes over one, very modern cultural lacuna; the debate around the rudderless authoritarian regimes of censorship and cancel culture.

At the time, BBC’s decision was met with mixed reactions, particularly around the use of the f-slur, prompting Radio 1 boss Andy Parfitt to say that the decision was “wrong” while also saying “Radio 1 does not play homophobic lyrics or condone bullying of any kind.”

Shane Macgowan Of The Pogues With Kirsty Maccoll, Shane Macgowan Of The Pogues With Kirsty Maccoll (Photo by Brian Rasic/Getty Images)
Shane Macgowan Of The Pogues With Kirsty Maccoll, Shane Macgowan Of The Pogues With Kirsty Maccoll (Brian Rasic/Getty Images)

Around the same time, a 19-year-old Taylor Swift, still firmly in her country-music area in deepest former British colony Tennessee, released a song entitled Picture To Burn. It details a young Swift’s first brush with adultery, her fictional boyfriend acting as the antagonist, driving another woman in his red pickup truck.

In the track’s chorus, Swift chants: “So go and tell all your friends that I’m obsessive and crazy/ That’s fine, I’ll tell mine/ You’re gay,” an obvious slight to his character and potential dating prospects.

A number of years later, Swift’s career trajectory pivot in the direction of pop––specifically, accepting, campy, quasi-ironic pop, beloved by younger audiences and the LGBTQ+ community (the cat of Queer Eye featured in her music video for You Need To Calm Down).

Citing this shift in demographic, and appreciating an on-the-job learning perspective of anyone who now knows the jokes one ‘cannot get away with’, Swift censored her original Picture To Burn recording, scrubbing clean the ‘gay’ lyric from existence.

Taylor Swift (4th from R) and Kelsea Ballerini (R) pose backstage with Todrick Hall (C) and the cast of the musical "Kinky Boots"
Taylor Swift poses backstage with Todrick Hall and the cast of the musical Kinky Boots. Getty Images.

Social media’s proclivity towards criticism when it comes to Spotify policy decisions (indignation raged online when Neil Young’s music was removed earlier this year over his vaccine “misinformation” posts) is well-documented.

Despite this, other streaming services have engaged in similar conduct-based editorial decisions, such as Pandora, whose policy states the streaming service will not ‘actively promote artists with certain demonstrable behavioral, ethical or criminal issues to ensure we address components true to Pandora’s principles while not overreaching and avoiding censorship’.

These moves neither bray toward a politically correct mob nor translate into political programmes, instead opting to commit to the ever-evolving culture of living under an international climate.

Both policies align more clearly with the oft-referenced “call-out culture” but it seems that the time for solely highlighting individual blunders for the edification of a global audience has passed.

Instead, the trend of accusing and retracting language in modern-day music exists within the comfort zone of two separate goals: the righting of a specific, harm-enducing wrong and the redress a larger imbalance of power.

Singer Neil Young in 2015
Singer Neil Young in 2015. Getty Images.

Neither account for cancel culture nor censorship, but are both purposefully linked to it in a way that allows for the casting of blame in an ever-shifting landscape. Left unanswered, then, is the unwillingness to change in a world seen to presently benefit you, and the desire to condemn those who question it.

Some months back, in June 2022, recording artist Lizzo was accused by fans of ableism by the release of her track ‘Grrrls’, which contained a derogatory term for the condition spastic cerebral palsy.

It is a word linked with the medical term ‘spasm’ as well as an American term referring to ‘freaking out, moving crazily, becoming overly excited, or, possibly, something failing to function properly’, according to Reason.com.

The accusation incited an apology from Lizzo, and a swift lyric amendment, encouraging disability rights advocate Hannah Diviney to label the musician “a true and effective ally.”

Lizzo performs during her 'Cuz I Love You Too Tour' at Radio City Music Hall on September 22, 2019
Lizzo performs her Cuz I Love You Too Tour at Radio City Music Hall on in 2019. Getty Images.

Two months later, a remarkably similar incident occurred, this time by way of Beyoncé, who used the same slur in her track ‘Heated’.

“I thought we’d changed the music industry and started a global conversation about why ableist language — intentional or not — has no place in music,” Diviney wrote in an opinion piece that originally appeared on Hireup, an online platform for people with disabilities. “But I guess I was wrong.”

Through social media, both able-bodied and differently-abled fans accused the artists of making their art feel unsafe, triggering feelings of hate-crimes and worst and bullying at best. Both artists responded quickly, keen to resolve issues with their fans, but criticism prevailed.

No one ever really wants to talk about censorship. Artists are bred to discuss production and creation, whereas censorship is anti-creation, uncreation and the bringing into being of non-being. British humourist and author Paul Jennings once penned an essay that served as a spoof on Sartre’s existentialism, entitled Resistentialism, arguing that the world was divided into two categories, “Thing” and “No-Thing”, further arguing that both parties waged an unceasing war on the other, neither ever to win.

Beyoncé. Photo: Getty Images
Beyoncé on stage during the On the Run II tour in 2018. Getty Images.

Ireland boasts an intimate relationship with censorship, the highly controversial and recurrent Censorship of Publications Acts 1929, 1946 and 1967 deeming anything ‘obscene and morally corrupting’, largely dictated by the Catholic Church, grounds for national censorship.

Sometimes brilliant, banned works defy the censor’s description and impose themselves on the world––Ulysses, Lolita, The Country Girls trilogy. Sometimes brave artists and creators defy censorship by turning to crude and underground measures to make their art, such as the samizdat literature of the Eastern Bloc under the Soviet Union.

Censorship is not good for art, but what has been cited in the examples above are not censorship, they are learned kindnesses, dedicated to turning their back on the hardship of the past and look forward into the hope of the future.

In cases such as Lizzo and Beyoncé’s, the assumption of guilt replaces the assumption of innocence. Ableism, in particular, is extensive and inherently woven into our society and language, with objectively negative terms such as crippled, disfigured and lame conjuring up imagery of something that requires avoidance.

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Targeted reminders of this are vital for progression, with self-censorship––the kind present at the beginning of music and will remain to be present in futuristic ‘parental advisory’ albums the next generation chooses––needed throughout.

Saying that, race plays a complex role. Black art has always been policed aggressively––a continuum that stretches from hip-hop to pop to jazz.

Spotify has been criticised for their inconclusive removals of artists like R Kelly and XXXTENTACION while musicians like Jim Gordon, who was convicted of killing his mother in 1984, and Eminem, whose explicit lyrics often mention hate-speech and rape, both remain.

Music’s consumer landscape today is rife with family streaming plans and parental filters, and now that we’ve grown to realise the impact of certain art on the mind of a child, so should they be.

Music has, too, grown significantly less innocent in recent decades, growing away from the Daniel O’Donnell-adjacent era of guilelessness now centring around Cardi B brass.

While both hold a place in society, with more lavish opportunities come more lavish reactions––and the choice to listen when spoken to and act accordingly is neither a reflection on the state of the industry nor a compromise on one’s art.

The truth is that culture, in its entirety, never cancels anything. It evolves, and will continue to for the rest of time. Shunned ideas and those who thought them up simply move on, unburdened by the restrictions of debate within an intolerant society.

“The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument and persuasion, not by trying to silence of wish them away,” Harper’s Magazine recently published, in what it called A Letter on Justice and Open Debate, a creation subsequently signed by Noam Chomsky, Gloria Steinem and Salman Rushdie, among others.

For now, this is the circus that sates us, that keeps us right and true, reminding us that we indeed are human and not perfect, unmoving, robotics.

“Waking up this morning to hear @Beyoncé has heard and recognised the disabled community’s call to remove ableist language from her music is an incredible feeling,” Diviney later said on Twitter. “Where she leads, the music industry follows.”

If pointed, learned change doesn’t happen by way of the highest-earning musicians on the planet, it will never happen in ur humdrum, run–of-the-mill, day-to-day society as we know it.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.

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