The history of art as a form of human expression is full of provocative moments, with many instances of an artist’s work challenging the morals and views of the times. Indeed, there hasn’t been a time in human history when artistic expression hasn’t been received as an insult to the sensibilities of at least part of the general public and society at large, often poking fun at sensitive social, political, religious, and other issues. From the ancient Greek comedy plays of the 5th and 6th centuries BCE to Time Rice’s and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar rock opera of the 1970s, countless works of art from every art form have been heavily condemned, criticized, and ridiculed for their challenging and oftentimes offensive content.
The pop/rock music genre is also replete with bands releasing songs whose titles or lyrics have taken provocation to the extreme, touching or crossing the boundary of “truly sickening.” From Slayer to Eminem to Marilyn Manson, contemporary pop/rock music could be seen as the apotheosis of obscenity. Although this characterisation could not be generalised, for the aforementioned bands aren’t representative of the whole genre by any stretch, they do serve as an example of the power of music and imagery over contemporary culture and the human psyche.
Another artist that has recently earned the “provocative” definition is R&B/pop singer Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter, or better known as Beyoncé. Although nowhere near as provocative and repulsive as the aforementioned music bands, the young singer nevertheless attracted the criticism of the space community for her song “XO,” featured in her latest, self-titled album released in the final weeks of 2013. Better known for songs dealing with female independence, sexual issues, and other erotic love themes, Beyoncé decided in a surprisingly awkward move to incorporate a sample at the beginning of “XO” from the recorded audio broadcast of the STS 51-L Challenger tragedy in 1986.
“Flight controllers here looking very carefully at the situation. Obviously a major malfunction.” These words, voiced by NASA’s public affairs officer Steve Nesbitt, have been carved forever in the minds of millions of Americans and space advocates worldwide, and have now reached a far greater and younger audience through Beyoncé. They were uttered by Nesbitt, following the utterly horrific and tragic disintegration of Space Shuttle Challenger, 73 seconds after lift-off, on Jan. 28, 1986, resulting in the death of its 7-member crew. I was too young to remember the Challenger accident when it happened, but almost 30 years later, I still can’t bring myself to watch any video footage from that launch. The scenes of the shuttle orbiter breaking up, with the solid rocket boosters flying uncontrollably over the skies above Florida through an expanding plume of smoke and debris, haunt me still and will probably do so forever.
Beyoncé forced a lot of people to revisit the memories and the painful feelings associated with that fateful day. One of them was Dr. June Scobee Rodgers, founder of the Challenger Center for Space Science Education and widow of astronaut Dick Scobee, commander of the ill-fated flight, who released a statement following the release of the song on December 16, criticizing the use of the Challenger audio sample: “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.”
The popular singer also received heavy criticism from many within the space community, including ex-NASA employees, with the space agency’s Public Affairs Office issuing a response: “The Challenger accident is an important part of our history; a tragic reminder that space exploration is risky and should never be trivialized. NASA works everyday to honor the legacy of our fallen astronauts as we carry out our mission to reach for new heights and explore the universe.”
Video Credit: Challenger Center for Space Science Education
Negative publicity isn’t a bad thing in music and show business, with many artists and celebrities regularly feeding off it to build their careers. Nevertheless, Beyoncé addressed the criticism by issuing a statement on ABC News, saying “My heart goes out to the families of those lost in the Challenger disaster. 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.”
It is unknown whether Beyoncé was knowledgeable of the Challenger accident as a whole and the meaning of the audio sample in particular, in context with her own song’s meaning. As a professional artist and songwriter, it is required that she has knowledge and understanding of the meaning of anything included in her recordings—and ability to take responsibility for it following its release. Despite the controversy that the song helped to generate, many among the general public were sympathetic of the singer. Forrest Wickman, writing for the Slate online magazine, defended Beyoncé’s choice, arguing that “ … a simple glance at the lyrics explains why the sample is in the song. 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. The choice to use space shuttle imagery to convey this kind of sudden loss isn’t senseless, either. Beyoncé has used such metaphors to describe her relationship with Jay Z for years, perhaps most notably on ‘Lift Off,’ which uses a sample of the Apollo 11 launch, as well as on ‘Rocket’ and ‘Countdown.’”
Artistic freedom and the right of free expression are prerequisites for a free and sophisticated society. “Whatever the artist’s standard of excellence is, it is not pleasing the public,” writes Howard Richards, professor of Peace and Global Studies and Philosophy at Earlham College of Richmond, Ind., and author of The Social Responsibility of the Artist. “Instead, it sets him apart from the public as an independent force. If it were not so, he would lack integrity, and for this reason, he would not be an artist.”
Yet, as much as freedom of expression and artistic integrity are the foundations of a free society, so is an artist’s responsibility toward society. “The social responsibility of the artist, is to improve the public’s taste,” comments Richards. “The artist is not dominated by the public’s taste; he acts upon it. The effects of his actions may be good or bad. And to say that the effect of the work of the artist on the public taste may be good or bad, is equivalent to saying that it is the responsibility of the artist to improve the public’s taste.”
Having taken part in theatrical shows performing on stage as a dancer, I can understand the importance of Richard’s words. In the shows that I have participated in, the director and choreographer wanted to touch upon and comment on the evolving ethics and sensibilities of the Greek society through the years, while reflecting on societal tragedies and painful incidents that had affected these ethics and the country’s course as a whole. The goal was to treat the subject matter with respect and sensitivity, without trivialising or making fun of it. For that matter, these experiences on stage have been some of the most instructive and fulfilling of my whole life.
Seen in this light, criticism of Beyoncé’s usage of the Challenger audio sample as being “tasteless,” “offensive,” and “obscene” can be justified. If the singer had “the sincerest intention to help heal those who have lost loved ones,” then her intention, as honest as it may be, really fails characteristically. If Beyoncé wanted her song to act as a tribute to the “unselfish work of the Challenger crew,” then the song’s lyrics dealing with the loss of an erotic relationship and subsequent break-up reveal no such intent. If she had recorded a song with lyrics dedicated to the Challenger accident, the singer would have met her goal. The way the audio sample was used makes it seem like it was added because it just sounded “cool” and “catchy,” and served as fodder for a brainless audience that just doesn’t care. It just shows an artist who is ignorant of the meaning of Challenger’s last, fateful flight and its crew and of the magnitude of the whole tragedy. It shows a singer who is indicative of the mainstream pop music industry. An industry with an unimaginative and shallow character, interested in cheap thrills, greed, and money-making sensationalism, trying to come off as “deep and artistic,” but instead seeming cheap and lacking.
Beyoncé’s statement serves only as a lip-service to the meaning and impact of the Challenger accident, showcasing a pop culture that is ignorant and largely apathetic of the successes and failures of one of humanity’s greatest and noblest endeavours. And since the relationship between the artist and the audience, especially in the music industry, forms a closed loop with one feeding and influencing the other, Beyoncé’s ignorance and apathy is indicative of that of the general public and contemporary society at large. “What we do in space just isn’t as important to young people today,” commented retired NASA astronaut Clayton Anderson, following the release of Beyoncé’s song.
“The artist acts upon the taste of the public,” writes Richards.“The audience is a field where the fruit of his work ripen. Effects occur in the lives of the viewer, the reader, the listener, that are partially caused by the artist … The artist invents emotion.”
If Richard’s words hold true, and the audience is a “field where the fruit of the artist’s work ripens,” then the huge lack of taste and class that characterises a big part of the contemporary pop music industry today, coupled with the prevalence of meaningless sensationalism, dumbed-down and brainless lyrics, and water-thin and vacant personalities, are truly indicative not only of the modern music industry’s identity, but of the mainstream, popular culture’s one as well.
And that’s a tragedy bigger than Challenger’s.
The opinions presented in this article belong solely to the author and do not necessarily represent those of AmericaSpace.