For a song that seems simple and repetitive, “Survivor” is rammed with hooks. Perhaps the least-remembered but most telling one comes a couple of minutes in, moments before Michelle Williams attempts to wrap a positive homily around the song’s unfettered will to power. “Whoa-oh” sings Beyoncé, and the other girls replicate it, and then pass little melismatic drills back and forth, repeating one another precisely. It’s a segment of abstract but perfect vocal choreography that works as a ritual of unity, a demonstration of the unbreakable closeness of Destiny’s Child. Which needs demonstrating, of course, since the song is generally taken to be a massive fuck-you to the band’s former members.
Its origins are the least attractive thing about “Survivor”. So far as we know, LeToya and LaTavia quit the group because they were sick of the dominance of the Knowles family onstage and behind the scenes. No doubt it pissed the remaining members off, but whether you frame the split as a bid for freedom or (as here) an act of sabotage, the departed pair were achieving no very great success afterwards. And once you know “Survivor” is about them, it can sound grossly disproportionate, a hellstorm of self-righteous fire unleashed for the pettiest of reasons. The song takes some pains to be transferable – “Now that you’re out of my life I’m so much better” could easily be aimed at a friend or lover. So could the rest of the lyric – most of it, anyhow: by the time Beyonce gets onto her sales figures the mask is slipping. And “Survivor”’s route to healing also fits a broken contract better than a broken heart. As the music falls away, we’re left with the backing vocals and their Stakhanovite chant: “WORK…WORK…WORK…WORK…”
As Laurie Anderson put it, when love is gone, there’s always justice. Not much justice here, you might say. But when justice is gone, there’s always force. And “Survivor” has force to spare. The track’s ever-cycling synth riff sets the tone – half church organ, half get-in-the-ring intro music. Behind it a newton’s cradle of snares is set in motion, an incessant, trebly, treadmill of percussion set over the beat. The impression is of relentless discipline, and the vocals confirm it. This era’s singles – “Independent Women” and “Bootylicious” too – are as churchy as modern R&B gets, building songs out of pulpit-ready rhetoric and aerobic call-and-response routines. “Survivor” is the finest example. The constant lyrical pattern, the chain of “thought I…but I….” is overwhelming. Even if a couple of the individual pieces lack inspiration (“Thought I couldn’t last without you, but I’m lasting”) it hardly alters the crushing effect. This is Beyoncé at her steeliest, her imperious side coming to full view. In future she’ll use it as part of her public persona, showing it on record only in flashes and glints. Here it powers the song.
What does this emergence mean for the other members of Destiny’s Child? They’re caught up in the flood: there is no space left by the vocals on “Survivor”, no moment to breathe, no gap for the beat. Kelly Rowland gets to play the superego to Beyoncé’s unleashed id, turning fury into deliciously insincere forgiveness. Her words are pure smarm – “Not gonna compromise my Christianity” – but the venom is all in the way she sings them, tight, purse-lipped runs of syllables punctuated by a barked “I’m better than that!” from her bandmates. It’s hilarious, and the contrast between Beyoncé’s wrath and Kelly’s poisoned graciousness is a perfect synopsis of how people act when they cut off a friend.
(Plus, it’s capped by the record’s funniest line. “Diss you on the Internet” sounded awkward then and now, but older media rarely manage to acknowledge newer media gracefully: besides, the Internet returned the compliment by turning the phrase into a meme.)
A point of comparison: for Gloria Gaynor, surviving was a decision you take, a positive choice in the face of abuse or adversity. For Destinys Child, survival is that too, but it’s also innate: a survivor is what you are, not what you do. The idea of “the fittest” hangs over the song (and not just because it’s becoming ever-clearer whose band this is). “Survivor”’s cyborg gospel takes this Darwinian impulse and wreaths it with an implied morality: Beyoncé survives because she is in the right. In this, the song reflects the emergent politics of its time as well as “I Will Survive” chimed with the liberation philosophies of the 1970s. You’re a survivor, because you’re gonna work harder. Survival is always deserved. As for the others? Let God sort it out.
Through that lens, “Survivor” is a horrible song. Sometimes it makes me flinch. But it’s also magnificent. There’s so much life to it, such drive – especially set against the will-this-do dreariness of British pop at the time. And that movement and life makes “Survivor” transcend its bitter inspiration and work not just as an intra-band kiss-off but as a cold blast against any false friend, liar or abuser who might cross your path. What pop does better than anything else does is to take feelings and situations, and crush and simplify them, making them immediate and thrilling and useful. It applies no moral filter. People feel self-righteous and wrathful, and so ultimately pop will product songs that are diamonds of self-righteousness and wrath. This is one of them: a church-inspired song that celebrates the dark joy of excommunication.