On Language in Music

Let’s think about music. When a musician or songwriter constructs a song, they face the task of curating lyrics that rhyme and convey a message to their listeners. Whether that message is about self-empowerment, love, or something else entirely, the songwriters get to choose the language they use. The best facet of speech is it's complete with synonyms, homonyms, and homophones, giving songwriters the ability to craft masterful lyrics.

The first recorded song containing lyrics was the Seikilos Epitaph, believed to originate between 200 B.C. and 100 A.D., according to an article in All Things Interesting. Were there lyrical songs before this marble inscribed sheet music? Probably, but anthropologists have yet to uncover an earlier record.

Since the origin of using language in music, songwriters and musicians grapple with specific language vernaculars and terms to use in their music. For some, this extends to using different words to rhyme with what they’re trying to say or skillfully singing multi-syllabic words to trick the listener into hearing a rhyme that isn't there. Others might debate which cuss words to use or, in Lizzo’s case, unknowingly incorporate a slur into their discography.

“And, for the most part, people who utter these phrases aren’t intending to hurt anyone – more commonly, they don’t have any idea they’re engaging in anything hurtful at all,” deaf writer Sara Nović wrote for BBC.

The Grammy award-winning, multi-platinum superstar released one of the hit singles off her second studio album Special, on June 10, 2022, just a month before the album dropped. Unbeknownst to her, the song contained an offensive slur toward the disabled community, especially those diagnosed with cerebral palsy.

The chorus sang, “Hold my bag, [redacted], hold my bag/Do you see this [redacted]? I’m a spaz.”

One day after the song came out, Australian disability advocate and writer Hannah Diviney took to Twitter to express her thoughts on using the slur in the song.

Diviney wrote, “Hey @lizzo my disability Cerebral Palsy is literally classified as Spastic Diplegia (where spasticity refers to unending painful tightness in my legs) your new song makes me pretty angry + sad. Spaz’ doesn’t mean freaked out or crazy. It’s an ableist slur. It’s 2022. Do better.”

Lizzo quickly responded to the reaction of upset fans and released a new version of the song on June 13. Her Twitter apology stated she did not intend to harm any community, “As a fat black woman in America, I’ve had many hurtful words used against me so I overstand the power words can have (whether intentionally or in my case unintentionally).”

The new version of Grrrls sings, “Hold my bag, [redcated], Hold my bag/Do you see this [redacted]? Hold me back.”

Now, slurs have differing connotations in music. They literally refer to running two or more notes together without a noticeable change. They also refer to language that harms or offends people or people belonging to a specific population or community. In Lizzo’s case, she was not aware of the implications the slur toward the disabled community had because the slur is not as common in America as it is in other countries. But, because music is a widespread and appreciated platform of media when crafting lyrics, to do proper justice and refrain from using slurs in your music, you have to look into different countries and cultures to ensure you don't offend a population.

Even though Lizzo reissued her song after fans expressed their upset, many artists continue to release music with slurs without rereleasing non-offensive songs. So, are slurs ever justified to use in music? Who decides these rules, and when does a track strays from commenting on hot topics to offending populations?

The music industry has a history of using offensive terminology in songs, but when are they justified? Is Green Day’s use of a gay slur comparable to Lizzo’s and, most recently, Beyonce’s use of an ableist slur? Or does this argument border on the bridge of stepping into a racist and sexist double standard?

Green Day’s album American Idiot hit shelves and radios in 2004. The titular track is an anti-Bush political anthem that attacked the actions of the Republican president and the American government in response to the Iraq War.

The use of the gay slur serves a profound purpose. To attack Bush’s authority and comment on the anti-gay political stance of America in 2004. The song harps anger toward the government's decisions, and in the second verse, frontman and lyricist Billie Joe Armstrong sings, “Well, maybe I'm the [slur], America.”

Green Day never released an edited version of this song, and Armstrong continues to sing the slur at shows today.

In 2017 Beyoncé and Eminem collaborated on the song “Walk on Water,” in which Eminem raps, “Kids look to me like as a God, this is [r-slur] /If only they knew, it's a façade and it's exhaustive.”

Both artists came into the spotlight as disability activists pushed for them to edit the song and rerelease the tune. Jay Ruderman, President of the Ruderman Family Foundation, wrote a letter calling for Eminem and Beyoncé to meet with their organization to chat about their harmful use of the slur. Neither Beyoncé nor Eminem responded to this letter, and the song still contains the slur today. Walk on Water also has the lyric, “Every album song I was spazzin’ the [redacted] out on.”

Eminem and Beyonce never reissued the song, but two months after Lizzo dropped Grrrls and rereleased the track, Beyoncé dropped a song with the same slur Lizzo received heat for. Beyoncé’s team did reissue the song with updated lyrics, and her team set to Twitter for an apology statement.

While Beyoncé did not rerelease her song with Eminem, fans and advocates asked her to rerelease one of the most recent songs from her seventh studio album. The track “Heated” contained the same slur Lizzo used in GRRRLS. Beyoncé's team responded to fans' outrage with an apology and a reissue of the track.

Diviney also tweeted to Beyoncé, asking her to explain her usage of the same slur. Then, Diviney wrote an op-ed piece for Higher-Up where she acknowledged Beyoncé's talent and enormous following, “But that doesn’t excuse her use of ableist language – language that gets used and ignored all too often. Language you can be sure I will never ignore, no matter who it comes from or what the circumstances are. It doesn’t excuse the fact that the teams of people involved in making this album somehow missed all the noise the disabled community made only six weeks ago when Lizzo did the same thing.”

Amidst Diviney’s reception of trolls and hate mail for calling out Beyoncé, on August 1, Beyoncé's publicist issued an apology on her behalf, “The word, not used intentionally in a harmful way, will be replaced.”

Lizzo and Beyonce are prominent black women in the music industry, while Eminem and Armstrong are white men and this recent call to change seems to affect the music careers of black women rather than those of esteemed white men.

Amidst all this controversy, the boy band Big Time Rush announced they would release one of their vaulted singles entitled “Paralyzed.” The title itself is ableist and harmful to those who live with paralysis. Big Time Rush stutters a few lyrics throughout the song, furthering ableism in music.

Fans and activists do not think it is fair this male band can progress with releasing this offensive song, while two of the most famous black women in the industry had to issue apologies and rerelease their songs.

Language in music evolves daily, and connotations shift. However, these recent events illuminate elements of a racist and sexist industry that female artists have fought to change.

This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.