Warning: This story contains an offensive term used to describe people with cerebral palsy and other disabilities.
Several pop stars have removed offensive slurs from new songs in recent weeks after calls from fans, a sign that the relationship between music artists and their listeners is evolving.
Lizzo made headlines in June for removing the word “s–z” from her song, Girls. The term, according to disability advocates, is an offensive slur against people with cerebral palsy and other disabilities.
Just a few weeks after Lizzo’s switch, Beyonce released a new song, Heatedusing the same word, which she later removed as well.
The two artists are not alone in retroactively removing published song lyrics. Lana Del Ray did it with her 2020 song ultraviolenceremoving a lyric about domestic violence popularized by the 1960s girl group The Crystals.
Famously, the Black Eyed Peas quietly changed the chorus of their hit song. Let’s get it going a year after its release in 2003, removing the R word.
“It feels good to know your artist is paying attention to how you feel about the art they’re featuring,” said pop culture writer Veracia Ankrah.
As the relationship between fans and artists changes, and during the digital age of music, songs can be easily re-recorded and re-released, artists must retain ownership of their music while considering the impact of their words, experts say.
Lizzo and Beyoncé address offensive lyrics
In her Twitter statement announcing the lyric change, Lizzo told fans that her decision was based on her experiences being the subject of hurtful speech.
“I never want to promote derogatory language,” the artist wrote. “As a fat black woman in America, I’ve had a lot of hurtful words used against me, so I understand the power words can have (either intentionally or, in my case, unintentionally).”
“I’m proud to say there’s a new version of GRRRLS with a lyric change,” she said.
Disability advocate Hannah Diviney, whose online campaign for Lizzo to change the lyrics played a role in the artist’s decision, wrote an op-ed in The Guardian expressing disappointment at Beyoncé’s subsequent use of the word.
“I thought we had changed the music industry and started a global conversation about why capable language, intentional or not, has no place in music,” Diviney wrote. “But I guess I was wrong, because now Beyoncé has gone and done the exact same thing.”
Within days, a spokesperson for Beyoncé wrote a statement to The Associated Press announcing the change. “The word, not intentionally used in a harmful way, will be replaced,” he said.
Diviney is now asking Eminem to remove the same word from a recent song, but there has been some trepidation about what these interactions mean for the music industry.
So @Beyonce used the word ‘spaz’ in his new song Heated. She feels like a slap in the face to me, the disability community, and the progress we’re trying to make with Lizzo. Guess I’ll just keep telling the whole industry to “do better” until the music slurs are gone 💔
One piece published in Rolling Stone he said that while the retroactive corrections were well-intentioned, they also felt dystopian due to the ease with which artists, or record labels or production companies, can alter a product in the digital age.
Paul Banwatt, partner in a Toronto law firm who blogs about music law, said the power dynamic between record labels and their artists can add an extra layer of complexity to these scenarios.
There could be situations where a music publisher wants an artist to change their lyrics “to make them less offensive or less problematic and therefore make a song more marketable,” Banwatt said.
“And that could be a good thing. But at the same time, you want to make sure the artist has a say in that, in how their art is altered to make it less of an issue.”
Hold artists accountable
Rose Jones, a Toronto-based singer-songwriter, said she applauds Beyonce and Lizzo for listening to their fans and then taking the initiative to re-record and release their songs without insults.
“I think when you have so much influence and you’re powerful and you have an impact, you have to use it responsibly,” he said.
While the age of digitized music has made it easier to re-upload modified music, Jones added that it can hurt independent artists who rely on apps like Spotify to share their music and boost their profile.
Having to delete and re-upload a song means losing all streams associated with that song, which means starting over at the bottom of the algorithm based on the popularity of the app.
“I think that would be something that would concern me, is if you release a song and you get all these streams, and you also have to take it down and re-upload it and all the streams are gone, right?”
Sometimes a track just ages poorly. Such was the case with the 2007 song by Paramore. miserable businessleading singer Hayley Williams to remove the song from live shows because she felt it spread misogynistic ideas about women.
In 2019, Lady Gaga removed a collaboration with R. Kelly from her album. art pop – the song do what you want – in light of allegations that Kelly, who was sentenced to 30 years in prison in June on racketeering and sex trafficking charges, was sexually abusing young women and minors.
Ankrah, the culture writer, said that in an age of instant feedback fueled by social media, artists need to make well-thought-out decisions about their music, regardless of how easily they can re-record and upload tracks.
“I think maybe the artists need to do a little more work before the music comes out, before things go to print,” he said.
“Nina Simone said that an artist’s duty is to reflect the times, and these are the times we’re in where you have to be held accountable for the things you say in your music.
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