Today’s title comes with an addendum:
“Public outcries against references to “significant” deaths:
An unintended red herring to what the offended are really angry or upset about?”
The past week or so has seen mainstream music powerhouse, Beyonce Knowles, as the most recent music celebrity to get thrown onto the stand of the “court of public opinion” and subjected to quite the backlash for her choice to sample audio from the 1986 Challenger disaster in her lead single, “XO,” off her just released album, “Beyoncé.”
It would be easy to sit here and type out a dual list of meat and potatoes-type reasoning as to how the “side” of Beyoncé and the “side” of NASA and the families/colleagues connected to the Challenger launch each makes points -either factual or socially implied- that “defend” their positions. What I am reflecting on with this particular publicized situation, is less about the specific focus of XO and more about the general topic of,
“X-artist just mentioned THIS EVENT/PERSON/PLACE/THING that relates back to a painful or difficult part of my REAL life. It now makes perfect sense for me to lash out and for my emotional needs to be met in whatever way I demand because they are my feelings, and feelings can’t be wrong!!”
While the idea that anyone can feel whatever way they want, whenever they want, for how ever long they want, is a completely valid statement, the idea that Beyoncé now, or anyone creative in the past or future, gets a digital flogging for sampling or intensely referencing something of public and widely acknowledged pain, seems futile, infinite and fruitless in the scheme of humanity’s ongoing existence. A single attempt to get notable retribution, like what NASA is doing now, by flexing its “we’re as big as you” muscles, since most people or companies are not big enough to take on the likes of Beyoncé or other corporate-level sized entities, makes sense on the surface, but not as once a person digs down to the deeper context of why.
(Side note: While not for reasons of or relating to grief, a small pub in Missouri does demonstrate the occasional exception to the rule in managing to gain large-scale visibility and take on an entity much bigger than itself in rebutting against Starbucks)
Art forms, like music, connect to emotion. Emotion is not factual, as has just been stated above. Nonetheless, when factual things like historical events, get put in a creative, and consequently subjective context, if that factual element cites negative associations, the seemingly implied nature of art as a free form, un-boxed practice, becomes immediately irrelevant. XO’s particular “infraction” references an event associated with many deaths, that were also witnessed by many, and left permanent emotional and mental scars for those involved. Refraining from going into the sincerity or lack thereof in Beyoncé’s official response toward public criticism, isn’t the whole conflict unnecessary? At least in terms of being held in the public eye, which almost makes it a form of literary “entertainment” unto itself?
People die. When they die, the loss is painful and leaves a void behind for the loved ones still alive. Dealing with and healthily getting through that loss is hard work. One can find, that even if they manage to keep showing up at work or attending to their kids and functionally executing their daily life rituals, that absent actively facing their emotions, a loss can continue to inflict the same amount of emotional shock even years after the fact. Hence the development of theories like that of Sigmund Freud’s “grief work,” which comes from his 1917 essay on Mourning and Melancholia.
It could be postulated that the bereaved involved with Challenger are simply agitated by this very sensory-direct reminder of their trauma. Perhaps they flashed past the song on the radio in their cars at just the wrong moment and found out about it that way, or, it could be that they heard about it second hand and simply want emotional respect given, via omission of reference, toward this traumatic event. The thing is, does this conversation just boil down to a matter of relativity?
I am not out to specifically cause distress to people with this piece I am writing but will my opinion possibly cause someone to react negatively? Yes. That’s the nature of opinion and that could very well be the nature of thinking for any artist whenever they use the phrase,
“It was never my intention to offend with ________.”
Going back to the topic of death, when someone dies, the memories and associations loved ones retain can be as specific as homemade recipes or as general as a day of the week. The Challenger disaster was something that had large scale visibility and so it should be implied that it not be used in a commercial endeavor like a pop single, right? What though, makes the loss of the Challenger astronauts and hearing the voice of former NASA public affairs officer, Steve Nesbitt, any different or more required for alteration/removal than any other sensory-related reference to anything ever?
People lose people everyday and every single one of those losses can make some piece of the human existence, or of existence in general, become a taboo, or, at the very least, a source of temporary but ongoing pain whenever it gets brought up in conversation or in one’s mind.
Does this mean that musicians (or any artist for that matter) can never create again, in fear that someone somewhere will experience an episode of post traumatic stress because their particular taboo, their particular trigger, was referenced in something creative -even if the creator in question was referencing said trigger for completely different, and possibly their own personal reasons? In a way, we as “regular people” could take away something from PR teams, whether for a single artist or large scale arts organization.
Much like what Met Opera General Manager Peter Gelb said to the world in response to the staging of Eugene Onegin and Russia’s government’s current laws regarding the LGBT community, (which I discuss further in this post), if the court of public opinion is ready to give Beyoncé a “Scarlet Letter treatment” for disgracing the memory of these publicly witnessed deaths, then the same treatment should be at the ready for any artist in question, A-lister or emerging, and regardless of whether the painful reminder is utterly public and specific, or, obscure and unique to the bereaved. If the idea of trying to establish such a universality seems impossible, then think about the level of criticism being shelled out for this one song and perhaps the bombastic character will become more apparent. At the bottom of it all, if something out in the world really truly will always cause distress you don’t want, you avoid it unless you are prepared to cope with the emotional repercussions.
If anything, there can sometimes be a lack of tact or social awareness utilized on the part of artists when it comes to timing of things or the level of directness used. That’s fair to say. Yet, the shouting out of these “rules” on the connecting of music to death(s) are really quite confusing and cacophonous themselves.
A parting thought:
If someone dies and no one who lost them is around to experience pain from a reference to their death, is the reference still offensive?