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Tuesday
Jan282014

Raw

It's a sign of exactly how far the Earth has traveled, I guess, from January 28, 1986, that on this year's anniversary I feel compelled to have a sit-down with Beyonce Knowles about it. 

One of Ms. Knowles' new songs includes a recording of NASA Public Affairs Officer narrating the loss of Challenger after the fact: “Flight controllers here looking very carefully at the situation… obviously a major malfunction."  The man is named Steve Nesbitt and he is now the beginning of a Top 40 track entitled "XO."  One of the lyrics goes, "I love you like XO."  And then the next part goes, "You love me like XO."  Then there's a line that says "Baby love me lights out," and then it all ends with "You can love me lights out." 

There followed, as you might imagine, a controversy.  NASA wasn't happy.  Commander Dick Scobee's widow, June, was hurt and "disappointed." This guy decided it was all okay because other people have sampled this audio clip before and because Beyonce said "Houston rock it" in a previous song and sang another called "Liftoff" and besides she's from Houston and this one time recorded a wakeup call for shuttle astronauts, so leave Beyonce alone, everybody, as this is all very "trumped up." End quote. 

I waited to hear from Beyonce, and she said that "the songwriters included the audio in tribute to the unselfish work of the Challenger crew with hope that they will never be forgotten."  And I thought:  well, there you go.  "The songwriters." She was singing someone else's words and this was overlaid without her knowledge.  It's the songwriters' fault.  How old are they?  Do they remember? 

So I looked up who the songwriters were, and-- oh.  Beyonce was one of the songwriters.

So I thought, "Well, maybe in this newfangled autotuney samply new world we've got, somebody other than Beyonce put the audio in.  Maybe it was the producer's call.  Producers do the whole visiony, arts-o-rama thing, don't they?  Why would a producer do this to to such a talented superstar?" But I might have to hear from Beyonce some more, because she's listed as a producer, too.

Well, now I'm confused, because Beyonce said in her response statement that "(t)he 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." But then she also mentioned that the "XO" video shoot  "captured raw, fun and being in the moment."  Because if there are two adjectives this world associates with the loss of Challenger, it's "raw, fun."

The question here is whether or not this was exploitation or an actual tribute. The families of the people who died that day, I'm thinking, seem to lean "exploitation." The woman who sang and partially wrote/produced the song says "tribute."  NASA, which these days specializes in Above All Not Offending, says "exploitation." Trumped-Up Guy says "tribute," in part because the clip was played at the beginning of the song and then never referenced again, and... I'm not positive how that bolsters his cause, exactly, but he seems really sure about it.

What do I think?

At first I thought that it doesn't really matter what I think; I'm one of those dust motes floating through a shaft of sun, a person who for a living downloads student essays and types on them and then loads them back online, who occasionally pours apple juice for her nephews and considers it a productive day if she remembered to shower at least once in a 24-hour cycle. I walk the aisle of Wal-Mart, not the red carpet.  I was born in the cold in Ohio and I'm trying to write a good book and maybe if I do it well enough it will make some people pause or laugh or think; and, if I'm lucky, I'll write some more then I'll get old and then I'll die and, if I'm really lucky, a few very fine people will remember I was once here and say, "She was once here, and I'm glad of it."  The Super Bowl does not stop halfway through on my behalf, is what I'm saying.  So maybe I don't have any right to tell Beyonce what I think about a six-second audio piece that I didn't create moments after people I never met just died. 

I do know what I have a right to:  The fact that I do remember when Challenger was lost, and when the people I never met died, I was horrified, and shocked, and very, very sad.  It wasn't just because I was nine years old. Everyone else who was alive and sentient at that time, they were horrified, and shocked, and sad as well.  And they processed that information and those feelings and they absorbed it and when Columbia too was lost they were very, very, sad, but not quite so horrified and a little less shocked.  It wasn't that they felt the loss of the crew less; it was that we now lived in a reality in which astronauts climbed into a space shuttle and did not return alive. The blow, as a nation, had been cushioned. 

It certainly wasn't cushioned for the Columbia crew's loved ones, or for those of us in the NASA family, but if you ask anyone where they were and what they were doing when Challenger was lost, they will know.  They will always know.  They will remember the shoelaces in loopy bows on their feet and the hiss of the radiator.  If you ask the average American who was old enough to remember the loss of Columbia, they will, if they can even recall the moment, perhaps remember the sharp sadness, but not necessarily the shock, the horrible sudden rush of knowledge we did not want to have.  It is part of that folded-in, fully absorbed psyche of a nation.  I don't have to lose a President to assassination to know that losing a President to assassination can happen, and that it's terrible.  But I have inherited this awful knowledge without truly experiencing its cost. 

That is the easement those of us who were witness to Challenger passed on to people Beyonce's age and younger.  So for you, when Columbia was destroyed, it hurt, but it did not coldcock. You already lived in a world in which this was a demonstrated possibility. The Challenger crew had already bought that knowledge for you--and a thousand other greater purposes-- with their lives.  They bought that knowledge for you in the same way the Apollo 1 crew bought for me the knowledge of the dangers of a Moonshot. 

I say all this assuming that Beyonce has no memory of the loss of Challenger.  Maybe she does. She was four; I remember being four, and that what hurt as a four-year-old in many ways also hurt as a thirty-four year old.  Maybe Beyonce experienced all this in exactly the same way I did and this is her way of paying tribute, of reminding us to live in the moment of loving our dearests because we don't know if we'll have another.  Maybe the way she does that really, truly is to write a song to honor the crew that never mentions the disaster, and then star in a video of said song featuring closeups of her butt and images of fireworks and people screaming for her to wave at them.  Or maybe she doesn't remember a thing, but she still feels the phantom cultural weight of it all in the same way I feel the phantom cultural weight of the Apollo 1 fire.

But I don't think so.

I don't think so because she did not take ownership of her own art when it began to garner bad press.  Her liner notes say that she helped write the song.  That she helped produce the song.  That she knew words spoken in horror were laid over images of her smiling and dancing in an amusement park.  She did not say "I included the audio..." No, "the songwriters" did.  She did not say, "I recorded..." No, the song "was recorded."  Everything, everything in passive voice.  She who has no apparent need of a last name now hides behind the group project.  I have no way of knowing if Beyonce wanted this clip included for shock value, or because she thought it underlined the message of the song in a grim, ripped-from-reality kind of fashion.  I'm really not sure which is worse.

Beyonce has a right to create.  Beyonce has a right to express.  Me, I prefer not to mark the sudden deaths of seven people every 45 minutes during drive time between Pitbull and "Thong Song." Perhaps that was the aim of it all, to intersperse a constantly looping reminder of tragedy in the midst of a grocery run, but the problem with constantly looping reminders of tragedy is that they soon melt into background noise. In any case, the Challenger disaster doesn't belong exclusively to me any more than it belongs exclusively to her, or our parents, or the generations that will scatter the footprints of all of us.

As this story scrolled out of the newsfeed and I sat facing a wall off and on for a month wondering what I would write about it, I mostly dwelt on the fear, as I typed at the beginning of the post, that maybe I was alone in feeling this way.  Maybe 1986 was just too far away, and people my age are occupied these days with explaining to their nine-year-olds why a man with a gun killed 26 little kids right in their classroom, and the loss of Challenger is now fully lodged as a generational touchstone rather than this awful, real moment that happened, complete with the principals clicking in over the PA's and the news anchors cutting in on the late morning game shows.  And the only way anyone would talk about it anymore was if a pop star sampled the horrified words of a PAO struggling to do his job into an album she named after herself, her one-word self, no surname necessary.

And then I saw this story

It's not, really, a happy story.  It's about a man whose grandmother died, and, while looking through some family photos, stumbled across a set of prints that were his grandfather's.  They were of a space shuttle launch.  The shuttle launch was Challenger's last.  His grandfather was a former Kennedy Space Center employee.  It's likely the roll was shot, developed in a sense of shock, and, for obvious reasons, packed silently away.

This man--his name is Michael Hindes-- scanned them, put them online, wondered if anyone else would really care, and went to bed.

When he woke up, the photos had half a million views.  And comments... so many comments.  "This is how I learned about flags flying half staff." "I can remember being in the kitchen watching on the little Hitachi TV..."  "I still can't bear to see those images. I was in my 10th grade bio class..."

They all remember the context of that audio clip.  Michael Hindes says he's even heard from Christa McAuliffe's family.  That weight we all feel, it's not a phantom.  It's real.

But it's shared.

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