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Lizzo, Beyonce, and the ways and reasons musicians update offensive art

Beyoncé, photographed on Sat. April 28, 2018 in Oakland, Calif.
MediaNews Group/East Bay Times
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MediaNews Group via Getty Images
Beyoncé, photographed on Sat. April 28, 2018 in Oakland, Calif.

After releasing her album Renaissance, Beyoncé received backlash for the song, "Heated." In it, she initially used a word that some consider a slur towards people with disabilities — but has since changed the lyrics in the versions you'll hear on streaming services.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. To hear the broadcast version of this conversation, use the audio player at the top of this page.


Daniel Estrin, All Things Considered: So help us understand what is going on. It's usually the case that Beyoncé can do no wrong – but this time, she was called out. So what is the controversy that she's facing? How did she respond to it?

Aisha Harris: So as you already mentioned, in her song "Heated," she uses a term that some consider derogatory, and that word is "spaz." As soon as the album dropped last weekend, some people called her out for it – and she, pretty promptly, just a couple days later, revealed that she would change the word that she used in there. So she went back into the studio, I'm presuming, and re-recorded that moment. She went from using that word to the word blast.

So now, if you're listening to it on Spotify or any other streaming service, you are going to hear that version.

I went on Spotify, and it's just as if it were never there before in the first place. The new word is right there. And she's not the first major artist compelled to change their lyrics, right? It happened to the singer Lizzo recently over her song "Grrrls" — she used the same slur, right? What are a few other examples of this?

When I heard about this, the first thing that immediately came to mind for me was the movie Aladdin, the 1992 version. In that film the opening song, "Arabian Nights," had lyrics that were definitely offensive to Arab Americans and actually spurred a complaint from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

"They're barbaric, but, hey, it's home?" Is that the one that was changed?

... also where they cut off your ear if they don't like your face. That was the original line. And so they changed that. So that's one example.

Another one is in 1995, Michael Jackson released the album HIStory and on that album he had a song called "They Don't Care About Us," and it contained some antisemitic lyrics. He claimed he was trying to use it in a not-antisemitic way, but it got so bad and there were so many complaints that just a few days after it was released, he gave an interview and said that he would go into the studio and change the lyrics.

Now, I don't actually know if he changed the lyrics because if you listen to it now, and if you watch the music video that was made for it afterwards, they don't actually change the lyrics. They instead kind of blurred it out, so that you can't really hear it. You get rid of those lyrics. In any case, it's obvious that at that time, it was a big enough deal that he had to address it in some way and say that he was going to change the lyrics.

So, I mean, offensive lyrics have been around a long time in music and in art. I mean, what has changed?

Well, for one thing, we live in a digital age now. Those two examples I just gave - obviously, those were before we were streaming everything, where physical media was still very much king. And physical media, if you're doing that, that makes it a lot harder to go back and change things, or respond to controversies where people are urging you to change the lyrics. So now that we live in this digital age, it makes it so much easier to be able to just - as we saw with Lizzo and Beyoncé - hop in, change it up really quickly. And you're updating the song just like any company would update their software. And a lot of artists are more aware and want to be seen as being aware of what's happening and willing to change and please their audiences.

In 2015, the rapper Snoop Dogg gave an interview. And he said he would not change any of his offensive lyrics from the past, even though today he has a different attitude toward women. And his argument is that the words he used represented who he was at the time. So is there something to be said for just leaving art as is?

There is something to be said for that. This kind of comes up a lot in other art as well, too, right? So, like, think of something like Gone With The Wind where, you know, obviously, years have passed, and most people realize this movie is - as well-made as it is and as memorable as it is, it is also very racist. A company like Turner Classic Movies, who broadcasts this movie, they have taken, in recent years, to putting a disclaimer ahead of any showings and really talk about the history and put it in context.

How have race and gender shaped this conversation? Because, you know, a lot of people note that in music, there's a higher standard for Black women than other artists. There does not seem to be a public outcry for Eminem to change his many offensive lyrics, for instance.

So far we've seen Black women, like Lizzo and Beyoncé, be really willing to do these things quickly and address them quickly, whereas men, especially, and other people have not. They've dug their heels in. And so once people like Beyoncé and Lizzo start doing this, then of course people are going to keep asking them to do things, like Monica Lewinsky did ... It's really hard. And I think that we have to be willing to challenge not just the Black women artists, but also challenge all the other artists as well.

What does all this tell us about the moment that we're living in? What does it say about pop culture right now?

Pop culture is very much at a crossroads, and has been for a while, about how to balance artistry with the changing times and with audiences being more progressive and wanting to see their - the artists that they love also reflect those same values. You know, seeing Beyoncé and Lizzo respond to this, I think, is a good path forward. But I think, also, we haven't even gotten to the point yet where we think about those lyrics before they even make it out into the world, you know?

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Aisha Harris
Aisha Harris is a host of Pop Culture Happy Hour.