Scott Woods: Beyoncé, Streaming Services and Worm-Filled Cans

Following the release of ‘Renaissance,’ the pop star’s recent concessions raise questions about the honesty of art in response to public pressure.

Scott Woods
Beyonce's new album, "Renaissance," sparked multiple controversies within days of its release.

New Beyoncé albums have become inescapable social events. The media—all of it—covers the drops. Social media devours her albums whole, combing every track for any potential messaging (and where there likely isn’t one, a message will be inferred with extreme prejudice). I’ve taken to filtering any Beyoncé references for at least 24 hours after a release, lest I suffocate from the avalanche of thesis-length hot takes. This time around is different in at least one distinct way: Beyoncé made headlines several times in the five days since the July 29 release, each for a different reason, and none of which had anything to do with determining if the album, “Renaissance,” is any good.

The first post-BD (Beyoncé Drop) development was the artist’s decision (we assume) to edit an ableist slur from the song “Heated.” The second and more notorious story centered on a singer who isn’t even on the record: Kelis, who took Beyoncé, uber-famous producer Pharrell Williams and the recording industry at large to task for sampling her 2003 hit “Milkshake” in the song “Energy” without asking permission. Beyoncé flipped the news cycle on its head once more by removing the sample from the song, deftly decreeing the matter resolved.

Honestly, I’ve never felt older than reading those news stories.

In the interest of self-preservation, I have several rules when it comes to buying records, the preeminent one being, “Only buy what you can’t stream.” It’s not a perfect rule, but it keeps me from signing over my mortgage payments to Lost Weekend Records every month. The new Beyoncé album has made me consider bending the rule, though I’ve yet to break it.

I collect vinyl for the music, but also for the history it captures. Despite the fragility of a record, vinyl’s permanence calls to me. I am getting music the way that it was written, performed and recorded at a moment in time. I am getting it the way it was marketed, and with whatever lyrical content and meaning it possessed upon its release. Taken in that light, every album is a time capsule. (Obviously one can make this case with other formats. Cassettes and CDs render the same point, and every format degrades given enough time. But vinyl is indisputably the most romantic.)

I already had issues with streaming. Music that is available on Spotify one day is gone the next, leaving gaping holes in your playlists and your heart. YouTube regularly has music pulled by request of companies. Streaming is not owning music. It is accessing whatever licenses happen to be available for public consumption in a given moment. It’s no way to build a canon or a record collection. That artists can nip and tuck their releases after the fact hits me in my music-collecting spirit. It’s a dishonest way to not only engage art, but create it.

To be clear, Beyoncé didn’t have to make any of those changes. She is famous and rich enough that she could have just plowed through the negative press, cut Kelis a settlement check and kept it moving. That said, icons serve masters just like anyone else. And while I’ve stopped saying that cancel culture doesn’t exist, I will point out that it is completely powerless against someone like Beyoncé. Whatever reason anybody thinks she had for deciding to make those edits, please understand that it isn’t because she can be canceled. There is almost certainly a point to be made here about the insatiable hunger of the powerful, but I’m already digressing.  

Scott Woods

When you can instantly change the content of music in response to public pressure, that opens up all kinds of worm-filled cans. In fact, I’m pretty sure I hate that we have the ability to do this at all. I didn’t hate it when it happened to Lizzo for the same reason two months ago, but I should have. And why is it these extremely powerful Black women are compelled to make such changes while others who have made similar headlines aren’t? (Kendrick Lamar’s latest album, “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers,” springs to mind for at least a dozen reasons.)

I don’t engage an artist’s work because it’s pure, but because it isn’t. People change. Rockers catch religion. Rehabilitation generates reflection. I’m OK with letting artists show us who they are and compelling them to do better the next time at bat as they learn and grow as human beings and not just dance party avatars. There is something truly wrong and broken about art that you cannot trust to, if nothing else, be its honest self.

Scott Woods is a poet, cultural critic, essayist and founder of the arts nonprofit Streetlight Guild.