Ableism In Music: With Great Artistic License Comes Great Responsibility

October 14, 2022

Artistic license means “the way in which artists or writers change facts in order to make their work more interesting or beautiful.” A prime example of artistic license is when films “based on true events” don’t stick to the actual events of the historical event. Another is White Jesus, how a Middle Eastern man looks like a California surfer in 2022. The extent of the impact of artistic license is visible in how they shape societal understanding of a concept or idea.

Artistic license applies to language too, subsequently in music. In the Black community, arguments for and against the continued use of the N-word indicate of a difference in opinion about where to draw the line on artistic license. While there’s not been a definitive conclusion on what is right or wrong, the consensus is that the word should not leave your mouth if you aren’t Black. Hence, it’s understood why there is uproar when celebrities like Tekashi69, Madonna, or Charlie Sheen, used the N-word. 

Derogatory language in action

With the same logic, it’s arguable that if you are using a derogatory word specific to a particular community, you should at minimum be a member of that community. Granted, this is an oversimplification of a highly nuanced ideal. Nevertheless, it is through this oversimplification where people can begin to see the line in the sand regarding language and artistic license. In recent months, Lizzo and Beyoncé were accused of using ableist language in their records, “Grrrls” and “Heated” respectively. 

The term “spaz” comes from “spastic”, meaning “the inability for a disabled person to control their movements,” as written by Clementine Williams. The outcry against the use of the word is layered, given how it has a different meaning in AAVE. Williams describes the AAVE definition as more of a “descriptor for “going wild,”.” Simply put, does the term carry derogatory history? Yes. Does it have a completely different meaning in other contexts? Absolutely. 

Conflicting arguments among minorities

This is where Beyoncé and Lizzo changing their lyrics divides folks. Among the disabled community, there’s division on how to approach the cultural nuances of the term. If we use the logic of the Black community, don’t use the term if you aren’t disabled. At the same time, every disability isn’t always visible at any given time. Take Billie Eilish, for example. She recently shared her Tourettes Syndrome diagnosis during a David Letterman interview, but because of her perception, many thought she was joking around. 

So where to from here? Two things can be true at the same time. The term is derogatory in one context and has a non-offensive meaning in another context. Regardless of personal opinion or division in the disabled community, Lizzo and Beyoncé have changed their lyrics. They considered what their audience said, amended their lyrics, and repositioned their artistic license. Perhaps, while there’s still discourse about whether to engage the term at all, we consider the outcome of this occurrence. Artistic license is not as discretionary to the artist as we have often been led to believe. Creative artists have moved human life along for centuries. They are integral and powerful sources in human history. As such, these are moments to remember the Peter Parker principle, “With great power comes great responsibility.”