In the last six weeks, two superstars have changed—or promised to change—lyrics in their songs after disability advocates criticized them as ableist.
First, in June, Lizzo re-recorded a lyric in “GRLLLS,” the second single off her album Special, then shared her reasoning online, with some lauding her actions as an example of responsible allyship. Then, following the release of Beyoncé’s seventh studio album Renaissance, her team announced that she would change the same lyric after her song “Heated” was criticized for similar reasons.
The rare occurrence of a post-hoc lyric change has shed new light on the negative connotations of the term “spaz.” Here’s what to know about why these artists made these changes.
What happened with Lizzo’s song “GRLLLS?”
The second single off of Lizzo’s latest album is no “Truth Hurts” or “Good As Hell,” but it is a Lizzo song: an empowerment anthem with a chorus manufactured to stick. But when “GRLLLS” came out on June 10, it met with criticism.
“Hey @lizzo my disability Cerebral Palsy is literally classified as Spastic Diplegia (where spasticity refers to unending painful tightness in my legs) your new song makes me pretty angry + sad,” disability advocate Hannah Diviney tweeted the next day. “‘Spaz’ doesn’t mean freaked out or crazy. It’s an ableist slur. It’s 2022. Do better.”
Diviney was referring to a lyric in the first verse of the song, originally “Do you see this sh-t? I’ma spazz”—and her tweet was shared more than a thousand times. Within days, Lizzo changed the line to “Do you see this sh-t? Hold me back.”
“It’s been brought to my attention that there is a harmful word in my new song ‘GRRRLS,’” Lizzo wrote in a statement she shared on social media. “Let me make one thing clear: I never want to promote derogatory language.”
“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),” she continued. “I’m proud to say there’s a new version of GRRRLS with a lyric change. This is the result of me listening and taking action. As an influential artist I’m dedicated to being part of the change I’ve been waiting to see in the world.”
What happened with Beyoncé and her song “Heated?”
Just over a month later, Beyoncé released her seventh studio album, Renaissance, to great critical and public acclaim. But the pop icon, too, included the same word—“spaz”—in her music.
“Spazzin’ on that ass, spaz on that ass,” Beyoncé sings in the outro of “Heated,” the eleventh track on Renaissance.
“So @Beyonce used the word ‘spaz’ in her new song Heated,” Diviney tweeted the day after the album dropped. “Feels like a slap in the face to me, the disabled community & the progress we tried to make with Lizzo. Guess I’ll just keep telling the whole industry to ‘do better’ until ableist slurs disappear from music.”
Diviney, who lives in Australia, then wrote an op-ed for Hireup, an Australian disability support provider. From there, the op-ed—now titled “When Beyoncé dropped the same ableist slur as Lizzo on her new album, my heart sank”—got picked up by The Guardian.
The UK disability equality charity Scope shared the article on Twitter, writing, “Here we are again. Not long after ableist language from Lizzo, Beyoncé’s new album features an ableist slur not once, but twice. Disabled people’s experiences are not fodder for song lyrics. This must stop.”
That same morning, Beyoncé’s team responded, telling Variety that “The word, not used intentionally in a harmful way, will be replaced.”
What is the history of this term?
The word “spaz”—which both artists used to mean lose control or release inhibitions—comes from the term “spastic diplegia,” a form of cerebral palsy that often mostly affects motor control in the legs.
Lizzo, known for championing inclusivity, and Beyoncé, known for attention to detail in her work, may have surprised fans by making the same oversight one after the other. But both singers also have massive fan bases (Lizzo’s “About Damn Time” is currently at no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100; Beyoncé’s “Break My Soul” is at no. 7) and wield outsize soft power in popular culture.
Lauren Appelbaum, the senior vice president of communications at RespectAbility, a nonprofit that works toward self-advocacy for those with disabilities, said that as people, especially celebrities, take more time to learn, many will become more conscious of their language choices.
“In an ideal world, the lyric never would have been used,” Appelbaum said. “But we do understand it takes a little bit of time for people to learn. And so the hope is that—after two high profile examples of allyship, of listening and changing based on feedback—others will avoid making a similar mistake.”
On Twitter, fans pointed out that a cultural barrier might exist: “Spaz” has its own meaning in African American Vernacular English; has been widely used in historically Black genres like R&B, hip-hop, and rap; and both Beyoncé and Lizzo used the word as a verb, not a noun. Some fans took issue with the lyric changes.
The term may also have a more deeply-rooted history as a slur in the UK and Australia than in the U.S.
Either way, Appelbaum says she hopes that representation of disabled people at all levels in the music industry will improve. “The same way that many people are very conscious of having a diverse team in terms of different genders and sexual orientations and races and ethnicities,” she says, “the same should be to be intentionally inclusive of disability.”