The reason: her use of a short, spoken audio clip taken from broadcasts of the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster at the beginning of a song about kissing — and its accompanying video showing Beyoncé at Coney Island amusement park in New York, laughing and smiling as she rides a roller coaster and engages in other delightful-seeming activities.
“The Challenger accident is an important part of our history; a tragic reminder that space exploration is risky and should never be trivialized,” said the NASA statement, quoted in USA Today. “NASA works every day to honor the legacy of our fallen astronauts as we carry out our mission to reach for new heights and explore the universe.”
The clip, or “sample,” appears at the opening of Beyoncé’s song “XO” from her new album, as well at the opening of the amusement park video.
The sample itself comes from the 28-year-old recording of NASA’s then-Public Relations Officer Steve Nesbitt describing the shuttle explosion as “obviously a major malfunction.”
While Beyoncé’s “XO” video has already accrued over 8 million YouTube views, this is not the first time the “major malfunction” sample has been used on a music recording.
Just months after the 1986 disaster, Keith LeBlanc — who had been the session drummer on many of the earliest hip-hop recordings including The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” — issued a solo album entitled, Major Malfunction, including a track of the same name, which can now be heard via YouTube (see the 1986 video for the track below).
But that track, which would be considered avant garde even today, had no lyrics and consisted entirely of samples from the Challenger broadcasts, including recordings of President Ronald Reagan, over LeBlanc’s backing instrumentals. It was clearly intended as commentary on the disaster itself and on America’s optimistic faith in technology.
But in the case of Beyoncé’s recording, neither the song nor the video offer any further context for the “major malfunction” clip nor explanation of its source. It seems likely that large segments of Beyoncé’s mostly young fan base were not even born at the time of the Challenger disaster.
Beyoncé herself, now 32 according to Biography.com, was only four years old when the January 28, 1986 shuttle explosion that killed all seven astronauts on board horrified the world.
Shortly after Beyoncé, whose full name is Beyoncé Knowles, released her new album with its accompanying 17 videos including “XO,” families and friends of the Challenger astronauts expressed dismay at what appeared to them to be a casual use of the “major malfunction” sample, and an unfeeling exploitation of the tragedy, the music and entertainment magazine Rolling Stone reported.
One retired astronaut termed Beyoncé’s inclusion of the sample, “insensitive, to say the least.”
In response, Beyoncé issued a statement saying her intention was to pay tribute to the deceased astronauts, even though there is no mention of them, or even allusion to their existence, in the song outside of the “major malfunction” sample.
“My heart goes out to the families of those lost in the Challenger disaster,” her statement, issued Monday, read. “The song ‘XO’ was recorded with the sincerest intention to help heal those who have lost loved ones and to remind us that unexpected things happen, so love and appreciate every minute that you have with those who mean the most to you.”