Bey has eliminated an ableist phrase and a controversial sample from Kelis’ “Milkshake” – Could this technique be applied to more trivial musical matters? Instead of Twitter, what we really need is a button to edit our entire lives. Imagine the ill-fated relationships we could have avoided forming. The war criminals whose election we could have avoided. The celebrity “novels” we could have avoided purchasing. We could have avoided the scabies-infested booking.com death traps and one-for-the-road Jagerbomb blackouts. If only, with a few clicks, we could reverse-engineer a lighter, happier, Bastille-free life for ourselves.
At least now art can be modified. The era in which an artwork was complete the moment it was hung on a wall, a novel was complete the moment it came off the presses, and a song was complete the moment it was etched on vinyl has passed. They perished, like so many obsolete notions, at the hands of Beyoncé. Beyoncé changed the online version of her new album ‘Renaissance’ last week to remove an ableist phrase and an interpolation of ‘Milkshake’ that ‘Milkshake’ singer Kelis objected to. This is not the first time an artist has retroactively altered their music. Black Eyed Peas renamed a distastefully titled album track as ‘Let’s Get It Started’ for its Grammy-winning single release in 2004. This is similar to the common practice of scrambling, reversing, or re-recording expletives for ‘clean’ single versions of songs.
Numerous artists, including Mike Oldfield, Jeff Lynne, Car Seat Headrest, John Cale, and Tangerine Dream, have re-recorded albums in the belief that age and new technology will improve the quality. In 2003, Paul McCartney reverted ‘Let It Be’ to its original ‘…Naked’ vision, removing Phil Spector’s strings and excessive production. Kanye West has made so many online changes and additions to ‘Donda’ and ‘Donda 2’ that it appears he considers Spotify his personal “Work In Progress” folder.
However, Beyoncé’s swift and decisive alterations have undeniably inaugurated a new era of artistic revisionism. Now that we have entered the Age of the Update, high-profile albums will be reworked in their first weeks online based on audience feedback. Due to Queen Bey, it is now mainstream and acceptable to return to the digital versions of your records and edit them as you see fit. Historians may debate the wisdom of erasing awkward or distasteful elements of culture as it evolves and the black holes it could leave in its development, but the fact remains that it is now acceptable to return to the digital versions of your records and edit them as you see fit.
There are numerous straightforward justifications for morally amending digital releases. Streaming services are even more publicly available and universally accessible than radio stations, so it is easy to argue that they should be held to the same standards for acceptable content. Why, then, shouldn’t this extend to artistic revisions as well, given that streaming platforms now feature approximately 76% album filler that is algorithmically pumped into the ears of oblivious music fans? While the CD and vinyl versions will always serve as a sonic historical record, the possibilities for enhancing digital music are now practically limitless. McCartney could not only remove ‘Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?’ and ‘Revolution #9’ from ‘The White Album,’ but he could also replace ‘Yellow Submarine’ with ‘Paperback Writer’ on ‘Revolver’ to end the best-albums-of-all-time pub debate for good. Imagine ‘Be Here Now’ if each song was trimmed of a few minutes of cocaine indulgence. Or all of those Babyshambles albums without the five or six songs that the studio musicians were too drunk to play.
If we seize it, it is a liberating moment. Radiohead could easily remove “Fitter, Happier” from the digital record. Month-long albums like U2’s ‘Rattle And Hum,’ Guns N’ Roses’ ‘Chinese Democracy,’ ‘Donda,’ and everything by The Smashing Pumpkins since 1995 could shine online as the flawless EPs they were always intended to be. For the sake of retrospective musical perfectionism, I would gladly accept a “Country House” without brass instruments. Beyoncé has effectively granted the entire music industry administrator rights over their respective legacies. Musical history has been declared officially fluid, and in this brave yet harsh new world, entire irritating elements of otherwise brilliant records could be eliminated overnight. Sam Smith’s albums, for instance, could be presented as evocative, potent, instrumental-only records with a small amount of editing.
All those bagpipe solos, improvised poetry codas, and twenty-minute kazoo freakouts that seemed like such a good idea when you were “refreshed”? It is now acceptable to return with a wiser, more sober mindset and remix them from their most widely available album. The door is now open to leave the musical missteps, indulgences, and blunders of the past 60 years or so to the vinyl heads and to show future streaming generations, under constant sonic bombardment by the algorithm, the best possible face of music. Get pruning, popsters…