Cancel Culture

Stop Spazzing Out About 'Spaz'

Social media, streaming, and a new era of digital self-censorship


Even if you didn't know about the scandal that preceded its release, you still might notice the digital sleight of hand on Beyoncé's new album, Renaissance. It comes toward the end of the song "Heated," as Bey snarls her way through the lines of a staccato rap.

Yada, yada, yah, yada, yada, yah-yah

Yada, yada, yada, bom-bom, kah-kah

Blastin' on that ass, blast on that ass

Fan me quick, girl, I need my glass

You don't have to be a Beyoncé fan—or even able to pick her out of a lineup—to sense that something's not quite right.

Maybe your brain stalls for a moment on the question of what it means to blast on someone's ass, since neither of the two possible meanings—that Beyoncé is either threatening to shoot someone or commanding someone to ejaculate on her—makes a ton of sense in context. Maybe you hiccup over the slightly disproportionate weight of the word "blasting," the extra split-second of time it takes the singer to wrap her mouth around that first syllable, so that the rest of the line feels like it's hurrying to catch up.

Or maybe you only sense the change, the way you do when you take your first step down a familiar but freshly paved street. There used to be a pothole there—or was it on the other side? The new curb is just a little higher than it used to be—or is it?

Maybe you're the one misremembering. Maybe it was always "blasting." Listen again: Do you still hear it?

Are you sure?

In fact, "Heated" was the second song this year to be bowdlerized in post-production after some listeners took exception to one of its lyrics. Lizzo's "Grrrls" was the first to come under fire in June over the word spaz, which some British and Australian listeners described as an "ableist slur."

As journalists covering the controversy at the time were obligated to explain, "spaz" hits differently across the pond. The closest American analogue in terms of offensiveness is probably "retard," which is why the 2003 Black Eyed Peas banger "Let's Get Retarded" had to become the more staid "Let's Get It Started" in order to pass muster as an NBA promo song.

Like most contemporary squabbles over cultural sensitivity and censorship, spazgate started with a call-out on social media. On June 11, an Australia-based writer and self-described disability advocate named Hannah Diviney tweeted at Lizzo, "'Spaz' doesn't mean freaked out or crazy. It's an ableist slur. It's 2022. Do better."

What was unusual was how fast the artists capitulated. Within two days, Lizzo had announced her plans to alter the song. The statement she released read, in part, "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)." When Beyoncé was subject to the same criticism two months later, the resolution was even more frictionless: The announcement that "Heated" would be altered came almost instantly via a spokesperson, without a word from Bey herself.

These moments represent a remarkable shift in the cultural landscape, a transformative one-two punch by the twin forces of social and streaming media. The former allows audiences to levy direct, immediate demands on artists whose work they dislike. The latter has made it possible for artists to quickly edit their work in response.

Spazgate, in other words, is about more than just a single controversial word in a couple of hip hop songs. It's a rapidly advancing new frontier for the suppression of speech and artistic expression even after they've been recorded and sent out into the world. It's different than government censorship, something beyond burning books, something beyond destruction; it's stories and songs and films cut apart and written over, leaving no trace and no remnant of whatever used to be. It's George Orwell's Ministry of Truth meets George Cukor's film Gaslight, with a little bit of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind thrown in for good measure. And it puts us on the cusp of an unprecedented and insidious new era of censorship.

The rapidity of this change is perhaps best illustrated by an incident involving the same word, in the same context, from before 2020. In 2015, when Ye (formerly Kanye West) sang "I'm 'bout to spaz" on the Rihanna song "FourFiveSeconds," one spokesman from the U.K. charity group Scope raised objections—but the group got little attention, even from other disability advocates. There was certainly no response from the artists, nor any expectation thereof.

What was different in 2015? Not the music or the way we consumed it. Streaming subscription services had been around for ages by then.

But we hadn't yet updated our concept of the art itself, which was still static, still unchangeable, still expected to exist for all time in whatever form it took upon first release. A song, for instance, could spread to other genres. It could spawn covers, riffs, and remixes. It could be edited for radio, although even this seemed positively quaint. But the original was, well, the original—not least owing to the longstanding impossibility, in a world of mass-produced physical media, of putting the cat of an already-released album back in the bag.

It's not that post-release editing never happened. In the late 1990s, Michael Jackson edited his song "They Don't Care About Us," replacing the word "kike" with "strike" after months of controversy. Sitcoms were re-edited for syndication and, in the pre-VHS era, no authorized original editions remained in circulation. Books, too, were sometimes issued with altered language or even missing chapters: For over a decade, Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451—a dystopian novel about book burning—was distributed with language softened for school-age readers (a move that incensed the famously cantankerous Bradbury when he found out about it). Editing for offense was considered an insult to art, and there was little respect for those who demanded such concessions.

This was markedly uncool, the province of squares, church ladies, and the faceless suits at the Federal Communications Commission. The way artists felt about it was perhaps best summed up by an author's note appended by Bradbury to the censored edition of his own novel: "There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches. Every minority, be it Baptist / Unitarian, Irish / Italian / Octogenarian / Zen Buddhist, Zionist / Seventh-day Adventist, Women's Lib / Republican, Mattachine / FourSquareGospel feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse."

This was particularly true when it came to the "bad words" brand of censorship, which tends to render the art ridiculous while insulting the intelligence of the audience, as if we don't know which finger someone is holding up behind that pixelated blur. The force that animated the modification of "spaz" to "blast" in 2022 is the same that gave us Bruce Willis quipping "Yippie ki-yay, Mister Falcon!" in a bowdlerized Die Hard, or John Goodman in The Big Lebowski screaming nonsensically about what happens when you "find a stranger in the alps," or CeeLo Green's pathetically forgettable "Forget You" replacing the various forms of F-bomb he had actually uttered. In every case, the underlying idea was that some specific word was deemed too offensive to be said or heard.

Meanwhile, nobody has come in for more contempt than an artist who tries to yank their own work out of the hands of consumers in order to sanitize it. Consider the fan backlash when George Lucas edited the famous Star Wars scene in which Han Solo ends a tense conversation by shooting the bounty hunter Greedo. Lucas' defense of this decision was absurd in its own right: "Han Solo was going to marry Leia, and you look back and say, 'Should he be a cold-blooded killer?'" he whined, in a remarkable instance of a man undermining his younger self's creative choices and the agency of an iconic female character at the same time.

But even if you accept the notion that Han's behavior had to be digitally revised to make him worthy of a marriage plot, this change fundamentally altered the entire arc of his character, and by extension of the entire film. Suddenly, a man with the razor-sharp instincts of a kill-or-be-killed survivor became a swaggering, incautious rube who survived only by the grace of Greedo's (equally ludicrous) inability to hit the 180-pound stationary target sitting three feet away from him. It was a change that cheapened the story and everyone involved with it—including the audience, who were treated like infants unable to handle a little moral ambiguity.

In this world, it was a given that movies, songs, shows, and other artworks were artifacts of an artist's intention and of the time in which they were created. Even as recently as 10 years ago, creators who continued to hover like helicopter parents over their work were not heroes, but embarrassments: Before J.K. Rowling became a pariah on the left for her gender-critical feminism, her penchant for retroactively revealing which of the Harry Potter wizards were sexual minorities was the subject of ridicule.

The artist was supposed to be, if not dead, then at least not meddling, always stepping in to tweak this or update that, continually re-inserting himself between the work and its audience.

But today's most common music and movie libraries no longer comprise physical objects but digital ghosts, songs and stories floating disembodied in the ether until we summon them up with a click. In the pre-digital era, the only way to listen to your favorite album was to dig the CD or vinyl out of storage; the only way to re-watch a favorite movie was to unearth the DVD or VHS; and if the music didn't slap like it used to, or the comedy didn't quite hit the same way, you understood that it was you, not the art, who had changed. The ascendancy of the streaming model of entertainment has transformed what we expect of art, and what we demand from creators.

In a moment where we are increasingly obsessed with the idea of aging well—and obsessed with applying that notion not just to our bodies but to the media we consume—it is increasingly tantalizingly possible to imagine that the art should grow up too, evolving to match the sensibilities of the current year and the Current Thing. When the offensive lyrics of that Beyoncé song can be digitally altered for maximum sensitivity to the cause of the moment in a matter of minutes, why not drag the entire Western canon into compliance, one deepfaked line at a time?

It's possible to imagine a future in which works of art are not only subject to change at any moment, but only as permanent as the public's willingness to overlook the bits of them that don't age well. It's not quite a cultural revolution yet, but there are signs of it taking root. Characters on old movie posters hold up two fingers from which a smoldering cigarette has been digitally stripped. Dozens of episodes from Joe Rogan's back catalog have quietly disappeared from Spotify's archives, as has the original version of "Let's Get It Started." Many Disney films, including from as recently as the 1990s, are now preceded on the Disney+ streaming service by a title card warning audiences that they contain "negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures"—but there's also no mention that some songs, including the opening number of Aladdin (a song I knew by heart as a 10-year-old in 1992), have had their lyrics quietly and retroactively altered to eliminate said depictions. The original versions of Lizzo's "Grrrls" and Beyoncé's "Heated" have been scrubbed from official channels; the evidence of these politically incorrect missteps now survives exclusively in pirated versions.

And as physical media becomes increasingly rare—or just inaccessible, trapped on unplayable compact discs or deteriorating VHS tapes—we seem bound for a future in which the "dirty" version of a sanitized work is de facto disappeared from the public sphere, at least for the average consumer. Digital archivists may retain and trade secret collections of problematic originals; for everyone else, these songs, films, and stories will exist only in the memories of those who happened to encounter them before the censors stepped in.


Of course, in a future where our media libraries live on servers instead of on shelves, subject to control and back-channel censorship at the whims of a handful of risk-averse corporations in charge of distribution, a robust underground full of pirates and bootleggers will almost certainly arise in response. The same things that make a song like "Grrrls" instantly alterable also make it infinitely replicable; for every work that's updated and replaced in real time with a new and improved, less offensive and more sensitive version, five unauthorized mirrors of the original will spring up in its place.

This is good news for the type of consumer who, in a previous era, would have spent countless hours rifling through dusty thrift-store record collections or browsing the shelves of used-book stores in the hopes of finding an unedited version of this album or that book—at least until some Digital Millennium Copyright Act bot sniffs out your collection of pirated originals and eats through them with all the destructive force of a digital silverfish infestation, at which point you'll be back on the torrent sites, hunting for a replacement. But this is the difference between the Xerox era and this one: The copy of a copy of a copy of "Grrrls" that springs up in place of a lost one will be indistinguishable from, and just as good as, the original.

But if digitization makes an original work of art much harder, if not impossible, to destroy, it also makes it less precious to begin with.

This essay is not the first to note what we are losing in this transition to digital, including the fact that your library isn't yours if it lives on a server that belongs to someone else who can meddle with its contents at any time, or allow the government to do so with or without your knowledge. But the decline of physical DVDs, of CDs, of books printed on paper and bound with cloth—and the ease of editing the digital versions of these things in a matter of a few hours and a handful of keystrokes—does more than just raise questions about who really owns your digital copy of a given work.

When stories and songs become alterable, so does history, and consciousness, and our shared understanding of what is true. If George Lucas insists that Han always shot second, and in self-defense—and you insist that he didn't, you saw it— people will eventually cluck their tongues and look at you like you're crazy. If this Han-shot-first moment ever existed, where is it? Why can't you show it to us?

The past is alterable. The past has never been altered. We've always been at war with Eastasia.

At the same time, we are increasingly steeped in the idea that censorship in the name of sensitivity is not just an unmitigated good but the path of least resistance. "It costs you nothing" is the common refrain: to employ the preferred lingo, to use the bespoke pronouns, to redact the offensive word from your artistic vocabulary.

But if conforming costs you nothing, the reward for kicking up a fuss over problematic art has never been greater. If you make the right noises, if you invoke the right causes, you can change not just the discourse around a culture product but the actual work of art itself, up to and including policing the word choices of the most powerful entertainers in the world.

With this power available, it is no surprise that the audience of media consumers is increasingly home to two groups whose interests do not overlap. On one hand, there are the ones who want to consume art. On the other, there are the ones who want to control it.

And in this world, artists who want to create for the former instead find themselves held hostage by the latter—people whose only real interest in the work is how to bend it to their will.

Ironically, the notion of art as subject to limitless updating has arisen in tandem with a cottage industry of offense archaeology that demands accountability from full-grown adults for whatever stupid thing they tweeted and deleted at the age of 15. Only art can be allowed to change, apparently; people, on the other hand, not so much. Pirate sites and private servers might keep offensive bootleg editions available for obsessives and archivists with niche tastes and the energy to satisfy them. But in five years, for the modal listener, it might well be easier to find a deleted tweet from 2011 of a then-teenaged celebrity using a racial slur than it will be to find a copy of the original version of Lizzo's "Grrrls." The internet is forever, except when it isn't.