Beyoncé is a rare human being, a top-tier uber celebrity who can create a media uproar out of seeming thin air. When she released an album last month with zero pre-publicity, it was as if she'd reinvented the music industry. Her name became a verb: "To do something unpredictable + bold, with smart strategic intention."
When she and rapper Jay Z decided to go vegan, it was reported as news by major sources like The Washington Post (and just about every other news agency and blog site).
Even conspiracy-theorist types know Beyoncé's name is a good for a few hundred thousand YouTube hits, as evidenced by the number of videos of last year's Super Bowl halftime show that claim to expose the singer as a satanist.
So, when a six-second audio clip from the NASA Challenger explosion was used in the opening of her latest single, a love song titled "XO," backlash was harsh. Astronauts were angered. NASA itself responded with a statement saying the tragedy "should never be trivialized." Blog sites like Slate and Salon defended and condemned the choice. Beyoncé herself offered an apology that only reinvigorated interest in the story.
Two weeks later, it is still making headlines. An online petition has been put up to get the singer to donate proceeds from the song to the Challenger Learning Center.
The entire controversy is probably a clever bit of publicity, banking on Beyoncé's popularity and the fact that the story broke days after Christmas, a notoriously slow time for the news business. The video for the song does have upwards of 11 million views on YouTube.
Still, the use of the sample (which features the voice of NASA public affairs officer Steve Nesbitt from news footage on the day) is a conversation starter and poses some interesting questions about national tragedies and pop culture's collective memory. The Challenger explosion was a generation-defining event — like JFK's assassination and Sept. 11. Those of a certain age no doubt remember being at school in 1986, watching the lift-off as it happened.
No doubt, the families of crew members who were killed see no statute of limitations here, but our collective memories change with time. I was 8 years old in 1986. I don't remember hearing Nesbitt's voice that day.
Listening to "XO," I wouldn't have been able to place the sample had I not known. Beyoncé was 4 years old in 1986.
Trivializing tragedy isn't anything new, either. There are entire hours of television dedicated to airing 911 recordings. If shows like "48 Hour Mystery" don't trivialize the most horrendous moments in people's lives, they certainly do profit from it. One wonders which is worse.
Focusing on a six-second sample used in a pop song seems to overreach, especially given that this is not the first time the sample has been used in a song.
Look, I can't come up with a good reason for the writers of "XO" to use that particular audio clip. Other than the obvious: It works with the song.
At face value, the words and tone convey an emotional resonance that makes the song better. Yes, the writers (which included Ryan Tedder of One Republic and Terius Nash) either failed to recognize the subtext of the clip, or underestimated its emotional impact, or both.
That's not trivializing tragedy.
This columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6479, firstname.lastname@example.org or @joshuatehee on Instagram and Twitter. Read his blog at Fresnobeehive.com