Oct 15


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#895, 28th April 2001

dc_survivor 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.



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  1. 51
    James BC on 28 Oct 2015 #

    Is this the first number 1 to boast specifically about record sales? It’s quite a hip-hop thing but I don’t think any of the few rap number 1s up to this point do it. RnB and hip-hop are well on the way to splurging together completely at this point anyway.

    I’m happy to confirm that in live performances, Beyonce has been known to update “nine million” to however many extra millions she’s sold at that moment. Not like Chas and Dave who have been singing Snooker Loopy about the same 80s players for 30 years.

  2. 52

    “i’m happy to report that beyoncé [blah blah], unlike chas and dave [blah blah]” is my new favourite mode of exemplary comparison :)

  3. 53
    Mark G on 28 Oct 2015 #

    I note that Beyonce was prepared to replace the members of Destiny’s Child when they dropped out or were pushed, unlike Chas and Dave who went into hiatus when Dave dropped out for a bit.

  4. 54
    Tommy Mack on 28 Oct 2015 #

    #53: Did they? I saw Chas and his band at Ally Pally (playing a beer festival, they hadn’t filled the place themselves!) during this period. Perhaps they were just fulfilling a contractual obligation?

  5. 55
    Mark G on 28 Oct 2015 #

    That would make it Chas. As opposed to Chas and Whoever.

  6. 56

    Chas-Tiny’s Child

  7. 57
    lonepilgrim on 28 Oct 2015 #

    O ahm a Serrrrr-vyffer! Oi!

  8. 58
    Tommy Mack on 28 Oct 2015 #

    #55/56: they were doing Chas and Dave songs obv. It wasn’t ‘here’s the IDM stuff I’ve been sitting on all these years’

  9. 59

    margates of delirium

  10. 60
    mapman132 on 5 Nov 2015 #

    As I often don’t, I had never really listened to the lyrics closely or known the backstory to this song, so after reading through this thread, I’m going to amend my initial 6/10 all the way down to 3/10. Punching down at your former bandmates just doesn’t do it for me.

  11. 61
    cryptopian on 19 Feb 2016 #

    This one’s hard work for me to listen to. For all that it is “rammed with hooks,” the aggression with which they come really grates. It feels like the songwriters had lots of musical ideas, and, rather than finding some way of focusing them all towards a sharp kind of aggression, just laid them out one after another and let them get in the way of each other.

  12. 62
    Erithian on 13 May 2016 #

    Hmmm … given today’s news that LeToya is to play Dionne Warwick in the forthcoming biopic, one looks forward to Beyoncé’s response. Probably not as slack-jawed as our collective response to the news that Cilla Black is to be played by Lady Gaga. This could get interesting.

  13. 63
    Cumbrian on 13 May 2016 #

    Well, I’m expecting Beyonce not to diss her on the internet, at least.

  14. 64
    flahr on 20 Jun 2016 #

    #8 update: playground version definitely contained the lyric “I’m a survivor / I found a fiver”

  15. 65
    Phil on 22 Jun 2016 #

    Anyone else mentally singing that to the tune of this? (Skip to 2:07 if patience-impaired – but really, it’s only two minutes.)

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