Song lyrics have changed throughout history and for a variety of reasons. But the recent reviews by Beyoncé and Lizzo are noteworthy for the conversations they sparked about the skill, the speed with which their critics expressed their views – as well as the discussions about what we expect from artists and art. as a whole.
Some of the stars behind the new hottest music of the summer found themselves in hot water when listeners and disability advocates spoke out against a text seen as an enlightened insult.
The backlash came quickly and the artists responded just as quickly. Lizzo turned to Instagram to announce that she had changed the text, observing her: “I never want to promote derogatory language”. Beyoncé’s team released a similar response a few days after her album was released, stating that “the word, not intentionally used in a malicious way, will be replaced”.
The term in question, “spazio”, first appeared on “Grrrls”, a single released by Lizzo in June. He then appeared on “Heated,” a track on Beyoncé’s highly anticipated album, “Renaissance,” released last month.
The word, derived from “spastic”, has different cultural connotations: in the United States it is mainly a colloquial language to describe the loss of control. It can describe being “in the zone” or “doing everything” in African American vernacular English – or being in a state of arousal that is negative or positive, said Nsenga Burton, a cultural critic and professor at Emory University.
However, in the UK, the term is most immediately interpreted as an insult to the disabled community, particularly those with spastic cerebral palsy.
Changing song lyrics is nothing new. Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” was a bold disco tune before it was sterilized for mass consumption. Contemporary artists, including Taylor Swift, have revisited previously recorded songs and altered lyrics with negative or offensive connotations, citing personal growth.
But the recent revisions by Beyoncé and Lizzo are noteworthy for the conversations they sparked on the subject of abilities and the speed with which critics of the offensive text were able to express their views. The chatter surrounding these tracks is also linked to broader discussions of what we expect from some artists, particularly black women, as well as how society interprets and preserves entertainment and cultural milestones.
Why song lyrics change and what’s different this time
Lyrics, regardless of whether they are part of a cover or an update of an artist’s music, are changed for several reasons. Many reviews are related to language regarding race, gender and sexuality, as well as religion, said Jocelyn Neal, a professor in the music department of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Some texts are edited to align with public tastes or modern times, while others are updated to better emphasize the artist’s views.
“There are many examples in Johnny Cash, where he made changes to lyrics that would address a religious perspective,” said Neal, pointing to The Man in Black’s modification of a John Prine text, as well as one for his cover. by Nine Inch The “evil” of Nails
It is not uncommon for artists to create multiple versions of some songs. Sometimes, this is done to appeal to specific regional markets, Neal said, pointing to instances where the lyrics could refer to something like a local baseball team. Artists with explicit music often release “clean” versions (even in the streaming era), allowing for radio playback and other forms of commercial exposure.
What’s different when it comes to Beyoncé and Lizzo’s rapidly updated songs is the amount of conversation they’ve generated about the skill, Neal said.
“Ableism hasn’t been as much a part of these conversations (around text changes) in the past as it is now, and I think it’s a shift in awareness and a shift in focus that’s probably long overdue,” he said. , adding that most of the previously revised songs “don’t have the skill at the heart of these language changes.”
Remarkable too? The criticism in this case has been amplified thanks to social media, which serves as a “much more public platform for providing feedback to artists,” said Neal. In previous decades, a listener may have sent a postcard to complain to a radio station, she noted, with no guarantee that their remarks would be widely shared for others to consider.
Various cultural strata make these reviews less spot on
Lizzo and Beyoncé’s decisions to remove the “space” from their respective songs were mostly celebrated, save for a few instances where some focused on criticizing it being used in the first place.
But the move also sparked discussions that the intended use of the word should be considered more deeply. Some have expressed concern that the discourse surrounding artists is an example of black women held to a different standard.
In an essay for Insider earlier this week, writer Keah Brown spoke of cerebral palsy and being grateful for Lizzo and Beyoncé’s decision, also underlining her frustration with the white and non-black artists they received. ” much more play in using an enabler language “.
The company did not dismiss non-black artists who used other enabler terms like “psycho” or “lame,” it noted, nor did those artists in question change such lyrics as quickly as Lizzo and Beyoncé did. “The problem for me goes beyond the word ‘space’,” she wrote.
Burton, for his part, initially appreciated Lizzo’s willingness to acknowledge that offensive text was an offensive term to some and that he registered again so quickly. “I think that requires responsibility and a willingness to be educated,” she said.
But he noted that very few people talked about how the term is used in the African American community.
“People feel comfortable controlling black women’s bodies and language, and that’s a problem, particularly when dealing with art,” she said. “Particularly when you’re dealing with two black women who come from the United States and use the term in a way that blacks do, which has nothing to do with the disabled community, at least in this iteration.”
Burton added that what is meant by language and how it is perceived “can be two different things” and that “in the end, you want your message to be received the way it is intended.”
“If it’s not received this way and you can change it, then you should,” he said. “But I don’t really feel like black women always agree. We cannot make mistakes, we cannot even use words in the way our culture uses them without suffering rejection ”.
The changes are related to broader questions about conservation and confrontation with art
Technology today makes it easy to update some work, from online articles to music, quite quickly. Although people still collect physical media, streaming remains a popular mode of consumption and this is where changes are made quickly. “Renaissance” hadn’t even been out for a full week when changes to the streaming versions of the songs, including “Heated”, were carried over to Apple Music, YouTube and Spotify.
“If there is a source that checks the digital version of a song for streaming, and that source changes, the average fan will have a hard time accessing that previous version,” Neal said, noting that what we are seeing with nature ever more ephemeral than some popular music is something that is seen in all forms of media and even academia.
This has led to more questions about “people being allowed to change things too quickly” and about accountability, he said, and is something that those who work in libraries and information sciences are actively thinking.
The ability to respond to audience feedback and update art in “real time” is also something that could pose a problem for musicians someday, Burton said.
“What’s the end? Now you can go back and say, ‘Listen, I don’t like this refrain here’ “, she said.” Where does it end? “
There may not be a clear answer. But even amid some broader philosophical questions, many pointed out that by listening to their critics and promptly adjusting their lyrics, Beyoncé and Lizzo ultimately did something positive. (Lizzo even noted in June that she was using her position of hers to be “part of the change I’ve been waiting to see in the world.”)
“Lizzo took a moment to do good in the world and it’s something an artist who has that platform can do,” said Neal. “I think it’s exciting.”
While there have been decades of debate over whether folk song lyrics matter, Neal said artists right now – and even those before them – are indicating that they do.
The various conversations around Beyoncé and Lizzo mark a new period in what we expect and question about popular music. They are also part of a larger tradition of questioning and elaborating on the way the world around us continues to change.
“It’s not just music, it’s not just pop music, it’s not just right now,” said Neal. “It’s about our stories and our educational processes.”