What Beyoncé and Lizzo’s lyrical changes say about our current times


The backlash came quickly and the artists were just as quick to respond. Lizzo took to Instagram to announce that she had edited the lyrics, noting, “I never want to promote derogatory language.” Beyoncé’s team posted a similar response a few days after her album’s release, stating “the word, not intentionally used in a harmful manner, will be replaced.”

The word, derived from “spastic”, has different cultural connotations – in the US it’s mostly colloquialism to describe loss of control. It can describe being “in the zone” or “doing it all” in vernacular African-American English — or being in a negative or positive state of excitement, said Nsenga Burton, a cultural critic and professor at Emory University.

Changing song lyrics is nothing new. Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” was a risque nightclub track before it was sanitized 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 Beyoncé and Lizzo’s recent reviews are notable for the conversations they’ve sparked on the subject of ableism and how quickly critics of the offending lyrics have been able to air their views. The chatter surrounding these tracks also ties into larger discussions about what we expect of certain artists, especially black women, as well as how society interprets and preserves entertainment and cultural touchstones.

Why Song Lyrics Change – And What’s Different This Time

Lyrics, whether part of a cover or updates of an artist’s own music, are changed for a variety of reasons. Many revisions relate to language regarding race, gender and sexuality, as well as religion, said Jocelyn Neal, a professor in the music department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Some lyrics are changed to align with audience tastes or modern times, while others are updated to better showcase an artist’s own opinions.

“There are a lot of examples in Johnny Cash where he made lyrical changes that would address a religious perspective,” Neal said, pointing to The Man in Black’s modification of a John Prine lyric, as well as one for his cover of Nine Inch. “Wounded” by Nails.
It is not uncommon for artists to create multiple versions of certain songs. Sometimes it’s done to appeal to specific regional markets, Neal said, pointing out instances where the lyrics might refer to something like a local baseball team. Artists with explicit music often release “clean” versions (even in the age of streaming), allowing for radio play and other forms of commercial exposure.

What’s different about Beyoncé and Lizzo’s quickly updated songs is how much conversation they’ve generated around ableism, Neal said.

“Ableism hasn’t been as much of a part of these conversations (about lyric changes) in the past as it is today, and I think it’s a shift in consciousness and a shift in focus that’s probably expected. for a long time,” she said. said, adding that the majority of previously revised songs “don’t have the ableism at the center of these language changes”.

Noticeable too? Criticism in this case has been amplified through social media, which serves as a “much more public platform for providing feedback to artists,” Neal said. In previous decades, a listener may have sent a postcard complaining to a radio station, she noted — with no guarantee that her observations would be widely shared for others to heed.

Various cultural layers make these revisions less dry

Some critics say the backlash surrounding Beyoncé (pictured on the 94th Annual Academy Awards telecast) and Lizzo's lyrics show a double standard for black female performers — and disregard cultural context.

Lizzo and Beyoncé’s decisions to drop “spaz” from their respective songs were mostly celebrated, except for some instances where some focused on criticism that it was used in the first place.

But the move also sparked discussions about whether the intended use of the word should be looked at further. Some have expressed concern that the discourse surrounding artists is an example of black women being held to a different standard.

In an essay for Insider earlier this week, writer Keah Brown opened up about his cerebral palsy and his gratitude for Lizzo and Beyoncé’s decision, while also highlighting his frustration that white and non-black artists are getting “much more flexibility in the use of ableist language”.

Society didn’t push back against non-black artists who used other ableist terms like “psycho” or “lame,” she noted, and those artists in question didn’t change those lyrics as quickly as Lizzo and Beyoncé did. “The problem goes beyond the word ‘spaz’ for me,” she wrote.

Burton, for her part, initially appreciated Lizzo’s willingness to acknowledge that the offensive lyrics were a hurtful term to some and which she re-recorded so quickly. “I think it takes responsibility and a willingness to be educated,” she said.

But she noticed very few people were talking about how the term is used in the African-American community.

“People are comfortable policing black women’s bodies and language, and that’s a problem, especially when it comes to art,” she said. “Especially when you’re dealing with two black women who are from the United States and who use the term in a way that black people use, which has nothing to do with the disability community, at least in this iteration.”

Burton added that what is meant with language and how it is perceived “can be two different things” and that “ultimately you want your message to be received as it is intended.”

“If it’s not received that way and you can change it, then you should,” she said. “But I don’t really feel like it’s always black women who acquiesce. We can’t make mistakes, we can’t even use the words the way our culture uses them without being rebuffed.”

The changes are linked to broader questions about the preservation and confrontation of art

Today’s technology makes it possible to update certain works relatively quickly, from online articles to music. While people still collect physical media, streaming remains a popular mode of consumption – and that’s where change is rapidly being made. “Renaissance” hadn’t even been out for a full week when changes to streaming versions of songs including “Heated” were reported on Apple Music, YouTube and Spotify.

“If there’s a source that controls 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 seeing with the increasingly ephemeral nature of some popular music is something seen in all forms of media and even in academia.

This has led to bigger questions about whether “people are allowed to change things too quickly” and accountability, she said, and it’s something those who work in libraries and information sciences actively reflect.

The ability to respond to audience feedback and update art in “real time” is also something that could one day pose a problem for musicians, Burton said.

“What’s the ending? Now you can come back and say, ‘Look, I don’t like this chorus here,'” she said. “Where does it end?”

When Lizzo announced a new version of "Grrrls"  she said she was
There may not be a clear answer. But even amid broader philosophical questions, many pointed out that by listening to their criticisms and quickly adjusting their lyrics, Beyoncé and Lizzo finally did something positive. (Lizzo even remarked in June that she was using her position to “be part of the change I’ve been waiting to see in the world.”)

“Lizzo seized a moment to do good in the world and that’s something an artist who has this platform is able to do,” Neal said. “I think it’s exciting.”

Although there’s been decades of debate about the importance of popular song lyrics, Neal said artists right now — and even those who’ve come before them — are indicating they’re doing it.

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 dealing with how the world around us continues to change.

“It’s not just music, it’s not just pop music, it’s not just right now,” Neal said. “It’s about our own stories and our educational processes.”