Beyoncé’s Sample of the Challenger Explosion Isn’t As Random As You Think

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Slate's Culture Blog
Dec. 30 2013 5:37 PM

Beyoncé’s Sample of the Challenger Explosion Isn’t As Random As You Think

Beyonce performs in Rio in September
Beyoncé gives a recent performance in Brazil.

Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images

Beyoncé is getting “slammed” this week for one of the samples she used on her blockbuster new album. (No, not the French version of The Big Lebowski.) Lead single “XO,” which has been rightly praised as one of the album’s best anthems, opens with a 6-second audio clip from the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. “Flight controllers here looking very carefully at the situation,” says NASA public affairs officer Steve Nesbitt, in his historic announcement of the explosion that claimed the lives of seven astronauts. “Obviously a major malfunction.”

For the words to be used in the video is simply insensitive, at the very least,” former NASA astronaut Clayton Anderson told ABC News. Family members of the astronauts lost in the explosion are also dismayed at the choice to use the clip. “We were disappointed to learn that an audio clip from the day we lost our heroic Challenger crew was used in the song ‘XO,’ ” said June Scobee Rodgers, widow of Challenger Space Shuttle Commander Dick Scobee. “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.”

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It’s entirely understandable, of course, for those close to the victims of the tragedy to find the sample insensitive, and to be upset that they might relive it just by flicking on the radio. But media reports about this controversy thus far have made the sample seem more unconscionable than it really is, by belittling and misunderstanding the song’s (admittedly somewhat vague) lyrics. As NewsBusters puts it, it’s only a “pop confection.” According to ABC News’ reading, it’s about “a troubled relationship.” Fox News is even more dismissive: “The song is about a girl in a relationship and includes lyrics like ‘I love you like XO, you love me like XO, you kill me boy XO.’ ” (Beyoncé, in the eyes of Fox News, is apparently just a “girl.”)

When I first listened to the song, only half paying attention to the lyrics, I didn’t understand it, either. But, insensitive or not, I was sure it wouldn’t be senseless. If there’s anything anyone should know by now about Beyoncé Knowles, it’s that there’s nothing in her self-presentation that isn’t carefully chosen.

And 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. “Baby kiss me/ Before they turn the lights out,” Beyoncé sings, and later, “You better kiss me/ Before our time is run out.” If there was any doubt about the meaning of these terms, Beyoncé confirmed her intended message in her apology, sent to ABC News (emphasis added):

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 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.” (As that last song reminds us, the rocket metaphor holds some personal significance for the singer: She’s from Houston.)

None of this means that the sample wasn’t a mistake. People may find personal significance in national tragedies, but such disasters mean most to the victims and their loved ones. Perhaps someone should have spoken up—or perhaps, if Beyoncé and her team wanted to include the sample, they should have asked for the families’ permission, explaining the message they intended to send with the song. But as Beyoncé’s new album reminds us again and again, she’s mortal, just like the rest of us. Sometimes even Yoncé makes mistakes.

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. 

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