Apologies Needed For Beyonce's Song?

Critics are slamming Beyonce for using an audio clip from the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in her new song "XO." Was she being insensitive, or artistic? Host Michel Martin hears from the beauty shop ladies: journalists Bridget Johnson and Keli Goff, and Maria Teresa Kumar of Voto Latino.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time to visit the Beauty Shop - our first visit of the new year. That's where our panel of women commentators and journalists take a fresh cut on the week's hot topics. Sitting in the chairs for a new 'do this week are Keli Goff, political correspondent for The Root, an online publication that features a variety of African-American voices. She also writes a column for The Daily Beast, with us from New York. Bridget Johnson is the Washington, D.C. editor for PJ Media. That's a conservative-libertarian news and commentary site.

She's here in Washington, D.C. along with Maria Teresa Kumar who is the president and CEO of Voto Latino, a nonpartisan group that encourages Latinos to engage in civic life. And they're both here in Washington, D.C. Welcome to everybody. Happy New Year to everybody.

BRIDGET JOHNSON: Happy New Year, Michel.

MARIA TERESA KUMAR: Happy New Year, Michel.

KELI GOFF: Happy New Year.

MARTIN: So let's start with Queen B, Beyonce. She ended 2013 with a hit album and a controversy. And that's because of a new song "XO" that starts with a sample - a very brief sample from the 1986 Challenger shuttle disaster. And I'm just going to play it for you. It goes by really quickly, so you'll want to listen closely.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "XO")

MARTIN: Now some relatives of the crew members who died in the explosion have criticized the song. On Tuesday, NASA's press secretary issued a statement that read in part, the Challenger accident is an important part of our history, a tragic reminder that space exploration is risky and should never be trivialized, unquote. And Beyonce released her own statement saying, my heart goes out to the families of those lost in the Challenger disaster. The song "XO" was recorded with the sincerest intention to help heal those who've lost loved ones and to remind us that unexpected things happen. So love and appreciate every minute you have with those who mean the most to you, unquote. So let's just hear from everybody on this. Bridget, what do you think about this?

JOHNSON: Well, so I started thinking that the Challenger has been used before in a popular song. That was Garth Brooks' "The Dance," the video for that. So I went back, and I watched that last night and watched Beyonce's video, too. And so Garth began his song by saying, you know, look, people think this is a love song. But it's, you know, dedicated to the people who, you know, left us too early doing something that they love - chose JFK, MLK, the Challenger people. So I don't think that Beyonce's sample had the same memorial effect. To me, it just had more of a dramatic effect. And I go, and I watch the...

MARTIN: It doesn't show in the video.

JOHNSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: It's not depicted in the video.

JOHNSON: She's happy. She's smiling. She's greeting her fans. You know, they're out on Coney Island, playing amusements. So I can see why NASA came by and said this is trivialized. And I think that if she was doing it in tribute to the families, she didn't - they certainly didn't know anything about it. So as an artist, yes, she has license to use whatever she wants. But it would've been the courteous thing to do to go to them first.

MARTIN: Keli, what do you think?

GOFF: Well, look, I think - not I think - I know Beyonce will go down in history as one of the greatest marketing gurus in the history of the world, right next to Madonna. But the thing that I give someone like Madonna and possibly even Miley Cyrus credit for is that they sort of own the fact that they do a lot of things just for attention, right, and to get as much attention as possible to convince you to buy their product. And the thing that sort of bothers me about Beyonce is I think she's - not I think - it's pretty clear that she's being disingenuous. I mean, I don't recall hearing the families asking her to help them heal. I don't think she did this to help them heal.

I think she did it to get people like us talking about her - which we are, so good for her - and to sell as many albums as possible - and not necessarily anything wrong with that in capitalist America, but just own it. You know, Madonna used crosses in "Like a Prayer" to get us talking about "Like a Prayer" and to make that album a hit. So just own it. You know, my sort of issue with Beyonce is this idea that she does everything to sort of be a role model or to make great art. And it's like, well, no, you want to be an, you know - an iconic superstar who sells a lot of albums. Just own it. Don't - save us the bull, which is what I kind of...

KUMAR: That's a quote.

GOFF: ...Think the defense of this was.

MARTIN: What do you think, Maria Teresa?

KUMAR: Yeah, I think that the unfortunate part is that she did have an opportunity, as Bridget mentioned, to basically pay tribute to these families and to pay tribute to this tragedy. And I remember when the Challenger actually - what happened. It was devastating to the world over and to our country. But what she fails to do in her statement is she never straightly apologizes for the hurt she had may caused. And had she acknowledged that, I think that her fans right now, who are very angry at her - her fans would've actually been able to resolve that and say, OK, she made a mistake. Or, as Keli is pointing out, is perhaps she's actually doing it to gain more publicity - but actually recognize it and connecting with that family, which she hasn't done.

MARTIN: See, I don't think she needs any more publicity, number one. Number two, she's from Houston, and she's used sounds and images from the space program before in her work.

KUMAR: Right.

MARTIN: I mean, she uses that kind of space and going off into space as kind of an analogy for a number of things. I don't think she needs any more publicity. I do think the tricky - that kind of the tricky and interesting question for me for a lot of these issues is that sampling has become so much a part of our lives. When is an image, you know, OK to use and by whom and for what? I mean, if you look at kind of the some of the, you know, the Facebook posts we used. I remember getting, you know, face - there was a Facebook commentator we had on our site for a while who used those images from Abu Ghraib as his or her signature, right, kind of...

KUMAR: Right.

MARTIN: ...You know, avatar - right, the people who were piled up on each other, you know, stark naked. It was a huge international sort of outcry. And I could never figure out, like, to address this poster and say, what you trying to - what is the point of this? What are you trying to say with this? Why are you using this image...

KUMAR: But I think that...

MARTIN: ...You know, in this way - never got a straight answer...

KUMAR: Right, well I think that...

MARTIN: ...And so.

KUMAR: But I think that's where she kind of dug herself in. She basically said that this was a tribute to people who have lost loved ones. But you never get that sense when you're seeing people walking around taking pictures of her, and she's basically enjoying the rides on Coney Island. So I think it's just - it's like Keli said. It's disingenuous what she was trying to do.

GOFF: Michel, can I also throw something else in?

MARTIN: Well, I think we should move on just 'cause...

GOFF: OK. OK.

MARTIN: ...I don't know that it's that important. I just think that's...

GOFF: OK.

MARTIN: ...Something we should - I mean, you know, it's like...

GOFF: It's the most important story of 2014. I mean, obviously...

MARTIN: So far.

KUMAR: On day two. Awesome.

MARTIN: Well, all right, so let's switch gears. Again, this is one of those sort of questions, you know, 'cause these - we're always, I think, in our part of the business, kind of - how much of the celebrity culture? Do we fight it, or do we embrace it? Do we acknowledge it? Do we discuss it? You know, there's always this kind of tension here. And I'm not being - people might think I'm being disingenuous when I say that, but I'm not. I mean, it's one of those things that we constantly are debating for ourselves. And this is another story like that because, you know, Miami Heat star Dwayne Wade is in the headlines because he's now engaged to girlfriend Gabrielle Union.

But last week, he acknowledged that he's fathered a son by another woman during a, quote-unquote, break in that relationship. And in a pregame press conference, Wade said that Gabrielle Union knows has - knows about the baby. And he said his new son is a blessing. And the story's been all over social media since it broke. I mean, a lot of people are very invested in this couple and their lives. And, Keli, why - do you want to talk about - why don't you - I mean - Keli why don't you start there because...

JOHNSON: Are you invested, Keli?

MARTIN: Why am I, like...

GOFF: Well, I was going to say...

MARTIN: ...Stumbling all over this? Like...

GOFF: Well...

MARTIN: What do you think?

GOFF: Well, let me start by acknowledging...

MARTIN: The reason I'm asking you is - starting - is 'cause you start - talk a lot about the kind of the nexus between politics and culture and how much of that - particularly when it affects people in particular groups who are...

GOFF: Yep.

MARTIN: ...Often viewed a certain way...

GOFF: Yep, and...

MARTIN: ...You know...

GOFF: Well...

MARTIN: ...So, therefore...

GOFF: No.

MARTIN: ...Take it from there.

GOFF: I will say that - and I will totally take that bait because that is exactly kind of the lens through which I was viewing the story. I have to start by saying I'm biased 'cause I'm a big Gabby Union fan, and she's a lovely person. But I will say, Michel, that of course, you know, one of my first thoughts was kind of here we go again. How many times have I been on your show discussing a lot of the issues that plague our community and not in a good way, whether it's, you know, kids being born, you know, out of wedlock? But, for me, the larger issue really is in terms of disease. You know, black men proportionally have the highest AIDS rates.

And what was fascinating in terms of how - the reaction of the story is a lot of people on some of the black blogs, including Bossip, raised this issue of sort of when are these athletes going to learn that they're having all of this sort of unprotected sex, you know, because you're an athlete and a lot of people want to have unprotected sex with you. And people are acting as though diseases aren't out there, that, you know, the possibility of having - becoming a surprise father isn't out there. And so that's a concern.

The other thing I will say - and this is not to get into the whole shaming debate - but that, you know, the woman allegedly he fathered the child with has a number of children by wealthy men. And, you know, that's something I've also written about is sort of this idea that in our culture, we're perpetuating this notion that, why get a college degree when you can sort of just bypass all that and have a pretty lux life by having kids with someone wealthy? So I think there's stuff to talk about here. It's, you know, if we can get people talking about it by discussing celebrities, then so be it, you know, if that's the only way to do it.

MARTIN: Maria Teresa, what do you think?

KUMAR: Look, I think that, first of all, whatever happened between him and his fiance is incredibly - you know, it's private. But the fact that he owned up to the fact that he had a son, and he embraced the son, when you have so many - and you often find oftentimes when - politicians basically denying what they've done, denying their habits and everything. In this case, he actually - he manned up. He owned it. And it's - and, yes, it's fodder for us to have a conversation today, but more importantly, I think it's - he's setting an example. And he's promising to be a father to that child.

And he's demonstrated - with the way that he's actually raising his other children and a nephew. So in that case, I applaud that 'cause I think it's very, very difficult the - I can only imagine what Gabrielle Union is going through right now. But it's very, very difficult to have those private conversations so publicly,

MARTIN: Bridget, what do you think?

JOHNSON: Well, I mean, here's hoping that his responsibility with the children kind of washes over the obvious irresponsibility that he's showing, you know, in other regards. I mean, you know, they're on a break. He says he's dealing with injuries - hey, here's my therapist. You know, and it's, you know, and it's - so it was unfortunate what he did. You know, this is not, you know, the Wilt Chamberlain NBA anymore. You need to, you know, not be...

MARTIN: For people who don't know that reference...

JOHNSON: ...A player in that regard.

MARTIN: You're dating yourself here, and we all know what you're talking about.

KUMAR: But we all know what you mean.

MARTIN: What are you talking about here, for those who aren't aware of what you're talking about here?

JOHNSON: What was his number? Like, 1,000 women that he claimed to have slept with or...

GOFF: He claimed 20...

JOHNSON: Twenty, yeah.

GOFF: ...Actually, I read in Vanity Fair. But people say that that's not humanly possible. So, you know, who knows the number?

MARTIN: You meant 20,000 is what he said.

KUMAR: Right, right. Twenty-thousand. Right.

JOHNSON: I'm just, like, delving into LA Lakers legends here, so...

MARTIN: Well, yeah, I don't know if - I don't want to comment on whether I think it's humanly possible.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I will say this about that - can I just add one thing about this? As I was mentioning to - again, we were talking about this as a staff. I think a lot of people who are outside the world of celebrity would be surprised at how little celebrity one can have before one becomes bait to groupies of other - of lots of genders, to be honest about it. I mean, it's not just - I mean, I think the most common thing we are used to is the powerful man-woman scenario, where, you know, women who - hitching her wagon to the powerful man. But I covered the state legislature in Maryland - a part-time state legislature in Maryland for a number of years. They meet, like, 12 weeks out of the year. And you would - there were groupies there.

JOHNSON: Yep.

GOFF: Wow.

MARTIN: And I just think that people would be surprised...

GOFF: Wow.

MARTIN: ...At how little power and celebrity one needs to have before one becomes attractive to people for reasons that other people are not aware of. So I just - it's not to excuse it, but simply to say that this is something that a lot of people are navigating in ways that I think people are shocked by, but really perhaps shouldn't be. And I wonder why this is not more of part of the training and emotional training just like these guys get trained in nutrition and muscle and physiology and all these other things and playmaking. I just sort of wonder why that kind of personal and emotional discipline is not more of a part of the training. And I don't know - just - I just...

GOFF: Well, Michel, what's crazy...

KUMAR: What I think is...

GOFF: ...Is I actually read, in the last piece I did on reproductive coercion, that they actually have boot camps when you're a rookie in the NBA, and they train them on things like this. So I'm like, well, where's that training going then because, you know?

MARTIN: Again, that is too tempting, and I'm going to resist. I'm going to exercise my own discipline and not take the bait. And if you're just joining us, we're having our first visit of the new year to the Beauty Shop. With us are Keli Goff of The Root, Maria Teresa Kumar of Voto Latino and Bridget Johnson of PJ Media. So, you know, another topic that I want to talk about - talking about people's families - tricky business, family life, and MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry found out the hard way. She does photos of the year segment on her program and took a lot of heat for comments that she and her other guests made about a picture of the former presidential contender Mitt Romney's family photo of the year. And I'll just play a short clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY")

MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY: This is the Romney family.

DEAN OBEIDALLAH: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PANELIST: Right.

HARRIS-PERRY: And if - and of course, there on Governor Romney's knee is his adopted grandson, who is an African-American - adopted African-American child, Kieran Romney. Any captions for this one?

PIA GLENN: (Singing) One of these things is not like the other.

(LAUGHTER)

GLENN: (Singing) One of these things just isn't the same. And that little baby, front-and-center, would be the one.

MARTIN: That last voice you heard was from commentator Pia Glenn. And Melissa Harris-Perry and all of the people on the roundtable were thoroughly blasted for this by conservatives and some other journalists. And she later sent out a series of tweets apologizing for her remarks. Bridget, I'm going to ask you about this. There's a lot of interesting stuff around here about things that people have said, about things in others contexts that have kind of a racial overtone. What do you - what's your - how do you respond to this?

JOHNSON: How in the world did that get out of the planning...

KUMAR: Right.

JOHNSON: ...Meeting for that show? I mean, it was a segment called "Look Back on 2013 and Laugh." And so, you know, even if that somehow, you know, got through some producers, the host can put the brakes on it when it comes up and says, oh, wait, you know...

MARTIN: Tell us what's wrong with it, though, 'cause Dean Obeidallah, one of the other people on the show, said, look, I don't mean to be hurtful, but my comments were not about the baby. My comments were about - his comments were about, you know, this is the Republican Party's...

GOFF: The GOP.

MARTIN: ...Idea of diversity, and this is really a commentary on the Republican party and on his own kind of narrow worldview. So for people who don't agree with you, tell us what's wrong with it.

JOHNSON: Yeah, and they said that the kid was a political prop. Well, Romney hasn't been in politics since 2012. You know, his daughter and son, you know - son and daughter-in-law adopted this child. You know 40 percent of kids now are adopted into interracial families. It's not, you know, some sort of unusual thing to be lifting up. But it is a thing of, hey, it's good that a child in need was brought into a home that can care very well for him. And why is it something to laugh at?

MARTIN: Maria Teresa, what do you think?

KUMAR: Yeah, I think I agree...

MARTIN: Particularly, politicians are so - you know, it's so interesting how when kids are brought into the mix - I know that some of the disgusting comments that a particular conservative website that I'm thinking of made about the, you know, Obama children, which I will not repeat.

KUMAR: Right, well, McCain's adopted daughter.

MARTIN: McCain's adopted daughter. But, you know, so you think kids should just be off-limits, period, or what, even if they're saying what they were really commenting on was the politics of the GOP.

KUMAR: Well, I think that it has - I mean, this unfortunately crossed a threshold. And it became personal in a way that it didn't have to be because it was a beautiful photo. And again, any family that can provide a safe environment, hopefully, for a child, regardless of race, is loving and I think - I'm a huge fan of Melissa Harris-Perry. She's a colleague. And I think that this was just unfortunately something that was just - wasn't done appropriately. And you all of a sudden went for the jugular when you went for a baby in that case.

And I think that those are things that are off-limits. And I, you know - I applaud the way that Michelle Obama and President Obama have really tried to shelter their daughters and have been very, very straightforward to the media by it. And when the case has been that those lines have been crossed, they've gone after them. And that should be the same thing with this case, it's, like, it's private.

MARTIN: Keli Goff, final thought from you.

GOFF: Well, first of all I want to give Melissa props for doing something that very few in the public eye do now, which is actually giving a real apology, not an...

KUMAR: That's right.

GOFF: ...I'm-sorry-you-were-hurt apology, not a Chris Brown, you know, for-whatever-happened apology.

KUMAR: Right.

GOFF: So she deserves props for that. But I will say, I do think there's been a shift in the last couple of years, Michel, in terms of rhetoric, where everyone feels as though whether you're a blogger, a commentator, a host, you have to really flirt with the line in the hopes that your segment or your column will go viral, will get picked up, will this or that. And every now and then, you're going to cross the line. If that keeps becoming the standard, I think that's what happened here.

I think that kids should be off-limits, whether it's the NRA using the - going after the Obama girls or whether it's Mitt Romney's grandkids. But I think that in the current culture, where everyone is trying to get picked up on Twitter or on YouTube, people keep flirting with this line of what's good taste. This wasn't. She apologized, and I think that's a good thing

MARTIN: Is it - any putting the genie back in the bottle, Keli, just briefly, one word, yes or no - putting the genie back in bottle possible?

GOFF: I think no until something terrible happens.

MARTIN: Let's hope not. Didn't mean to end it there on that kind...

GOFF: Sorry.

MARTIN: ...Of a harsh note.

GOFF: Sorry. Sorry.

MARTIN: (Unintelligible) Looking at 2014, Keli Goff is a correspondent for The Root, a columnist for The Daily Beast, with us from our bureau in New York. Maria Teresa Kumar is a CEO and president of Voto Latino, a nonpartisan group that encourages civic engagement among Latinos, here in Washington, D.C. along with Bridget Johnson, editor for PJ Media. Thank you all so much for joining us. Happy New Year.

GOFF: Happy New Year.

KUMAR: Happy New Year.

JOHNSON: Happy New Year, Michel. Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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