Beyoncé Knowles’ track “XO” from her new album Beyoncé begins with a six-second sample of NASA public affairs officer Steve Nesbitt’s commentary immediately after the space shuttle Challenger exploded in January, 1986. “Flight controllers here looking very carefully at the situation… obviously a major malfunction,” Nesbitt says in a monotone punctuated by the beep of a walkie-talkie. Then the song starts, never to return to that sample, or subject.
In the post-Christmas news vacuum, that brief sample provoked a trumped-up outrage. NASA press secretary Lauren B. Worley and June Scobee Rodgers, the widow of Challenger commander Dick Scobee, laid into Rodgers laid into Beyoncé for daring to refer to something that “should never be trivialized.” Beyoncé responded with a meaningless but suitably reverential statement that she and co-writers Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic and Terius “The-Dream” Nash “included the audio in tribute to the unselfish work of the Challenger crew with hope that they will never be forgotten.”
That’s one way to spin it, the sort of thing said to smooth ruffled feathers without having to explain context. It didn’t mention, for instance, that Beyoncé’s music has drawn on the language of space flight for years. As Forrest Wickman noted at Slate, Beyoncé includes a song called “Rocket,” she sang “Lift Off” on Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne, and she suggested her hometown relationship to NASA on 2011′s “Countdown” when she sang, London speed it up, Houston rock it. She even recorded a wake-up call for the crew of the final shuttle mission, STS-135
What the “XO” sample does isn’t irreverent, nor is it irrelevant to the rest of the song. It does what all samples do: It alludes, quickly, to something its ideal listeners are presumed to already know about. Nesbitt’s quote on Beyoncé doesn’t mention the Challenger or even the space shuttle: It makes no sense unless you know it’s meant to signify something terrible. Even the term “major malfunction,” which entered common parlance after Nesbitt’s broadcast, almost immediately drifted away from its context (notably, it popped up in the 1987 film Full Metal Jacket, set 20 years earlier).
“XO” is also far from the first time Nesbitt’s commentary has been sampled. The first instance was Keith LeBlanc’s “Major Malfunction,” a dance track recorded only days after the Challenger exploded and released shortly thereafter — with a video featuring images of the catastrophe.
LeBlanc previously had been in the Sugar Hill Records house band, which backed the label’s rappers in the early ’80s, often replaying grooves adapted from other artists. Before the mid-’80s, the parts of older records featured in hip-hop usually were scratched in from vinyl; early digital samplers were too expensive for many musicians and could only handle very short clips. The distinctive stuttering hook of Paul Hardcastle’s 1985 hit song “19,” sampled from an ABC television documentary about Vietnam veterans, came about because the E-mu Emulator could sample no more than two seconds of sound. (By the way, ABC’s Richard Richter told Billboard it was “totally inappropriate to take material as serious as that and put it in an entertainment form.”)
The Akai S900, released in 1986, was cheap enough to make sampling available to a wider range of musicians. Consequently, sampling soon became a much bigger phenomenon. Tracks like Steinski & the Mass Media’s 1987 landmark “The Motorcade Sped On”, a head-spinning collage revolving around samples of Walter Cronkite’s 1963 broadcast of the JFK assassination, would have been unthinkable just a few years earlier. (By the way, 23 years passed between JFK’s death and “The Motorcade Sped On.” Compare that to the 27 years between the Challenger disaster and “XO,” or, for that matter, the 32 years between the Hindenburg explosion and the burning airship’s appearance on the cover of Led Zeppelin’s first album.)
Steve Nesbitt’s “major malfunction” speech has been sampled a few other times. The Australian alternative-rock group Ratcat used it in “Getting Away (From This World)” in 1991. One year later, it turned up in the title track of GWAR’s America Must Be Destroyed.
Still, it’s obviously a different matter when a pop star like Beyoncé — who, incidentally, was four years old when the Challenger blew up — samples Nesbitt on the lead single from a huge album. Or is it? “XO” is a love song, but it’s a love song with the threat of mortality hovering over it; if you didn’t know the title, you might well guess from the song’s lyrical refrain that it was called “Lights Out.” In that context, the six-second clip of Nesbitt that begins it isn’t a non-sequitur or a trivialization. It’s a memento mori: a swift, understated and brutal reminder that everything can go horribly wrong before anyone understands what’s happening, and that the light could be extinguished at any moment.
Sorry about the first one, mods!