Challenger's first mission, STS-6. Photo via Department of Defense
Brace yourself: I'm going to give Beyoncé more press. But it is in the name of all things noble and righteous, I promise. As you may have already heard, Beyoncé's new song “XO” has sparked controversy over its use of an audio sample from the 1986 Challenger disaster. The single opens with NASA public affairs official Steve Nesbitt reacting to the aftermath with the words, “Flight controllers here looking very carefully at the situation. Obviously a major malfunction.” Check it out for yourself:
"XO" by Beyoncé via YouTube.
The flippant use of the disaster has inspired a passionate backlash. On Dec. 31, NASA press secretary Lauren B. Worley released a disapproving statement to the Associated Press. “The Challenger accident is an important part of our history; a tragic reminder that space exploration is risky and should never be trivialized,” said Worley. “NASA works every day to honor the legacy of our fallen astronauts as we carry out our mission to reach for new heights and explore the universe.”
Those who knew and loved the Challenger crew have also spoken up about “XO.” Dr. June Scobee Rodgers, who lost her husband Commander Dick Scobee in the tragedy, released a statement reading: “We were disappointed to learn that an audio clip from the day we lost our heroic Challenger crew was used in the song "XO." The moment included in this song is an emotionally difficult one for the Challenger families, colleagues, and friends. We have always chosen to focus not on how our loved ones were lost, but rather on how they lived and how their legacy lives on today.”
Beyoncé responded to the criticism by telling ABC News that “the song ‘XO’ was recorded with the sincerest intention to help heal those who have lost loved ones and to remind us that unexpected things happen, so love and appreciate every minute that you have with those who mean the most to you. The songwriters included the audio in tribute to the unselfish work of the Challenger crew with hope that they will never be forgotten.”
The Challenger's final crew. Photo via NASA
A pop star displaying a lack of historical sensitivity isn't exactly scandalous, and this whole incident could have been chalked up to poor judgment and forgotten. But then people actually started defending Beyoncé's choice of sample. The reasons behind the defense are such a special variety of awful that before we can lay the whole matter to rest, we must kick every single one of them in the ass. Do join in.
Reason 1: Other artists have sampled the Challenger disaster, so who cares?
Douglas Wolk defended Beyoncé in Wired, arguing that “XO” isn't in poor taste because that particular clip has been sampled before. “The first instance was Keith LeBlanc’s 'Major Malfunction,' a dance track recorded only days after the Challenger exploded and released shortly thereafter—with a video featuring images of the catastrophe.”
So, Keith LeBlanc's aggressively crappy video from 1986 is somehow meant to exonerate Beyoncé? The argument seems to be basically that since she is not the first to sample the recording, it's all cool. Well, Jack the Ripper wasn't the first guy who ever murdered people, so let's cut him some slack too. Since when is being an unoriginal jerk preferable to being the inaugural jerk?
It's irrelevant that Keith LeBlanc, Ratcat, GWAR, and likely scores of less famous bands have used controversial samples like Nesbitt's. Maybe some songs have incorporated the sample well–I would have to know the context for each one. What I do know is that there is no contextual reason for it to be in “XO,” which leads me to reason #2.
Reason 2: “XO” is thematically linked to the Challenger disaster.
A week ago, Slate's Forrest Wickman wrote an article arguing that “XO” is obviously about Challenger, if only we'd all just give it a chance and listen to what she's saying. “A simple glance at the lyrics explains why the sample is in the song,” he wrote. “It isn’t about 'a girl in a relationship.' It’s about mortality, and about the urgency of spending time with the ones you love before you lose them, because you never know when that could be.”
This explanation sheds exactly zero light on why the sample opens the song. There are reminders of mortality in all of our lives every day. Why does the Challenger disaster have to step and be the singular touchstone for the most pervasive theme of all time? Other artists have had plenty of success writing about death without involving space tragedies (David Bowie excepted).
Wickman titled his piece,“Beyoncé's Sample of the Challenger Explosion Isn't As Random As You Think.” Actually, I think “random” is the perfect word for it. It is incredibly random. If you don't believe me, read the lyrics. They aren't even explicitly about mortality, and the only thing I find remotely “space-themed” about the whole song is that the title reminds me of Colonel Tigh.
Add to that the fact that the video is rife with fireworks, and the whole thing seems even more arbitrary. If you really wanted to honor the Challenger crew, why would you show shots of people partying under massive explosions in the sky? Beyoncé may have perfect pitch, but that shit is emotionally tone deaf.
Reason 3: Artists can do whatever, so stop whining.
Nobody is arguing against artistic license. Beyoncé can sample clips of 9/11 if she wants to (again, she would not be the first). But critics are also allowed to point out when something sucks, and they are on the ball about this one. The use of the sample is insensitive, stupid, and most of all, really bizarre. We're talking apex weird. It serves no purpose but to confuse or offend the listener. It boggles my mind that it was ever suggested, let alone accepted, as the opener to an upbeat pop song.
Applying Occam's razor, the purpose may have always been to create controversy, and produce a flurry of press to promote her new album. If so, I wish I could say “well played.” But if that's the case, and Beyoncé's team knowingly used a tragedy like Challenger as a spring board to more sales? That is some real-life super-villainy, Mrs. Carter.