Tasteless: New Beyoncé Song Samples Challenger Disaster Audio

Tragic sound bite starts inane pop song.

They say tragedy plus time equals comedy. But is 27 years enough time? And what if the product isn’t comedy but another run-of-the-mill pop song about sex?

At the beginning of the song “XO” from her eponymous new album, pop star Beyoncé includes an odd sample: a few seconds of audio from the immediate wake of the space shuttle Challenger disaster. On Jan. 28, 1986, the Challenger exploded in mid air just 73 seconds into its flight, killing seven astronauts. The tragedy played out on live TV. 

“XO” opens with the sound of NASA Public Affairs Officer Steve Nesbitt saying just moments after the explosion, “ … flight controllers here looking very carefully at the situation. Obviously a major malfunction.” Continues after the video.

Then the music starts. The song’s first verse is:

You love is bright as ever
Even in the shadows
Baby kiss me
Before the turn the lights out
Your heart is glowing
And I’m crashing into you
Baby kiss me
Before they turn the lights out
Before they turn the lights out
Baby love me lights out 

The video for “XO” takes place entirely at an amusement park and features a lot of dancing and couples kissing. In short, it has nothing to do with the Challenger or even emotions compatible with such a tragedy. 

In an enthusiastic review of the album, The New York Post’s Hardeep Phull wrote on Dec. 13, “Starting with a sample of the audio from the 1986 Challenger Space Shuttle disaster sounds tasteless, but with ‘XO,’ Beyoncé is trying to create light from darkness, and she does it pretty well.” 

Phull was too kind. Whatever Beyoncé was trying to do, mining a tragedy in service to a pop confection (Phull called the song “a buoyant celebration of love and life”) doesn’t just sound tasteless. It trivializes the deaths of seven brave men and women.

But big stars like Beyoncé can afford to be callous. Just ask Cuban refugees what they thought about her and husband Jay-Z vacationed in Castro’s Workers’ Paradise last winter.