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In the last few months, alone, both Beyoncé and Lizzo have altered their songs post-release to remove the term “spaz” after ableist concerns were raised regarding the songs “Grrrls” and “Heated,” respectively. Though many Americans seemed shocked that anyone could take offense at the term, the word is considered a slur in much of Europe – particularly in the U.K. – where it is used as an offensive short-hand for ‘spastic’. In response, both artists speedily edited the slur out of their music – something that would have been practically impossible just a decade or so ago when music was primarily consumed via physical copy. The implications of this cannot be understated; Lizzo and Beyoncé have set a precedent, and already calls are being made for the likes of Kesha and Katy Perry to retroactively alter their old songs. The question is whether this has opened up a progressive new age of music where artists can respond to listener wishes with record speed and efficacy or whether this is the start of a slippery slope where artists will soon feel compelled to conform to the demands of whoever has the loudest voice online.
Both Lizzo and Beyoncé are expected at all times to pull off a difficult – some would say impossible – task; to create music that at once represents the unique reality of their lives as Black women, while also creating something that is easily digestible and relatable to a mainstream, largely-White audience. Such demands have previously led both artists to create uplift-anthems that rely on empty sloganeering over personal experience (see: Beyoncé’s “Run The World (Girls)” and Lizzo’s “Special,” as well as so much more of the latter’s catalog).
It’s no coincidence that the songs that landed the two in such hot water are exceptions to this – almost the entirety of Renaissance prioritizes giving voice to marginalized musical creators and their ideas over mainstream palatability, while “Grrrls” is an uncharacteristically jagged number from Lizzo that goes as far as shouting out Lorena Bobbitt. The word that sparked this original controversy, itself, has long been used in the Black community; with a colloquial meaning entirely removed from any ableist roots. The resulting outcry, on both sides, represented a sincere sense of marginalization; of disabled people deeply concerned about having a slur used against them re-enter the realm of acceptable language and of Black people who felt like their vernacular was being whitewashed and misunderstood.
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Though many portrayed the lyrical edits in question as an example of cancel culture and the “woke mob” claiming another victory, it is instead more accurately described as a fruitful dialogue between two communities who have long been under-represented in the music industry. Though the discourse around the subject was often intense, both Beyoncé and especially Lizzo seemed eager to make up for any offense they caused. Both songs were changed within days of their release – thus causing minimal disruption – without watering down either star’s identity. Though concerns from all sides were more than understandable, it’s hard not to see the eventual outcomes as a win for inclusivity and productive debate.
But what happens when the song people want to be changed isn’t days old, but many years old, and what happens when people are calling for the change of not just one word, but an entire line or verse? Following the “Heated” edit, Monica Lewinsky – who’s spent over a quarter-century being the butt of lazy, crass jokes and one-liners – asked Beyoncé to remove a particularly unfortunate reference to the 1995 scandal involving her and then-President Clinton from the song “Partition.” Lewinsky’s demand was more than understandable and consistent with her ideals as an anti-bullying activist. But to edit a song approaching a decade old feels less like a correction and more like a fabrication.
Songs are historical documents – they speak to the realities of a moment in time; particularly what was and wasn’t deemed acceptable. An artist changing a problematic lyric nine years later doesn’t so much feel like an attempt to heal wounds as it does one to save face. There is so much history to be learned from old music – we would not have the understanding we do now of the Civil Rights Movement without Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” or Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” nor of the Vietnam War without Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” But to learn from, and understand, the past, we must take historical documents as we find them. To retroactively change songs years, even decades, after their release isn’t noble, but instead, a conscious decision to choose ignorance over the thorny, but necessary, confrontation of the past and of every person’s inherent imperfection.
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