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. 31
    Ed on 18 Oct 2015 #

    I’ll see your Nathan Rabin and raise you a Greil Marcus. Here he is on Complete Control by The Clash, which is the closest precedent for Survivor.

    “Oddly, it’s about the Clash’s career, at least on a literal, lyric-sheet level: their label-sanctioned protest single about their label committing the atrocity of releasing an earlier single without the band’s permission. Big deal. Yet from this flimsy soapbox they leap musically to a dramatization of autonomy, community, personal identity and social contestation, and with a few scattered slogans (“THIS MEANS YOU!”) make those usually abstract notions as real, as dangerous, as any moment governed by love or money, hate or war. Across more than 10 years of listening to “Complete Control,” one reaction has always come first: disbelief. Disbelief that mere human beings could create such a sound, disbelief that the world could remain the same when it’s over.”

    That works pretty well as a description of my feelings about Survivor. There’s just one word you would need to take out: “community”.

  2. 32
    Chelovek na lune on 18 Oct 2015 #

    Basically the sound of intelligent and competent Texas Black Christian Thatcherism with an aggressive beat, unreflective self-righteousness, assertion of the will (but tempered by the Christianity) and demanding and in-your-face backing music. Just awesome. 9

  3. 33
    Phil on 18 Oct 2015 #

    #31 – closest precedent? There’s “me and the band say ‘screw you’ to our management and the label, and we rub it in by doing it on a single approved by the management and released on the label” – and then there’s “me, the band and the management say ‘screw you’ to the ex-members we’ve just kicked out of the band, and we rub it in by making $$$, bitches”. Bit different.

    Haven’t re-listened to this one yet, and right now I’m more inclined to listen to “Complete Control”.

  4. 34
    Mark M on 18 Oct 2015 #

    Re19: ‘or liked any hip-hop from Spoonie G to Jay-Z, how could you not respond to the same excitement here?’

    You’re making the contestable argument that what people like about hip-hop is the content of the words, not the beats, flows and hooks. And even then, the same basic notion (as noted ‘Despite what anyone claims, I’m fucking awesome’) can be expressed in ways that are charming or charmless, funny/bullying, original/hackneyed etc. Lots of ‘I’m the king’ hip-hop lyrics bore me, but sometimes they will grab me. When a friend of mine is having trouble with colleagues who try to undermine, I often send her a text encouraging her to be more like Jay-Z: ‘He who does not feel me/Is not real to me.’

    It’s more the survivor bit of the lyric that annoys me, anyway. Just what has Beyoncé overcome here? Very little. And I’m not inclined towards shouty survival songs, in general – I hate I Will Survive. Weary, just-hanging-in-there survival songs (e.g. Big Star’s Ballad Of El Goodo) are a different matter.

    Re30: For purposes of argument, Rabin appears to be attributing lines sung by Kelly – the ‘I’m too much of a lady to…’ section – to B (who may have written it, but that’s not what’s being claimed).

    And I’m enjoy the broad lyrical thrust of pretty much every song Rabin cites – apart from this one.

  5. 35
    Tommy Mack on 18 Oct 2015 #

    #33 Cruelly swiping at people you’ve kicked out of the band definitely more Mark E Smith or Morrissey or Beefheart than Clash. I suppose Joe Strummer did eventually kick Topper and then Mick out of The Clash but that was for being fucked up on drugs rather than for having qualms about his Dad managing the band. He was similarly unapologetic about it though.

    With Complete Control, I’d say the comparison is in petty beefs being extrapolated to something anthemic which transcends the circumstances behind the song: you don’t have to know about the Clash’s beef with CBS to get CC and it positively helps you enjoy Survivor if you don’t know its ugly backstory (I had no problem enjoying it back in the day when I couldn’t have named other members of DC though as I’ve said no-one seemed to rate it as much as IWpt1 or Bootylicious which I remember getting a lot more dancefloor action)

  6. 36
    Ed on 18 Oct 2015 #

    Quoting Greil Marcus, for the last time, I promise, he was fantastically scathing on the self-congratulatory use of “survivor” by 60s rock stars still working in the 70s:

    “These days such people refer to themselves and to those with whom they feel some political or cultural kinship as “survivors,” as if, for one with certain access to most of the privileges of white middle-class life (for that is the sort of person who regularly turns up as a “survivor”), merely to have made it into the mid-Seventies in any form other than that of a corpse or a vegetable is to have accomplished a feat so remarkable as to deserve the approbation of all men and women good and true. It is hard to imagine a more timid betrayal of the doomed, utopian spirit of the 1960s than that.”

  7. 37
    Chris Barratt on 18 Oct 2015 #

    I wanted to like this at the time, really I did. I’d bought the two DC albums, several cd singles and in terms of new stuff R’n’B/Hip Hop was, if forced to choose, my favourite genre. Albums, singles, compilations – all on almost constant rotation at home and in the car.
    The track is so contrived and joyless though, so full of steely-eyed platitudes and the rent-a-quote selfisms that would soon become de rigueur in pop & r’n’b (in lieu of charm and nuance) that I found it not only unlovable but, after it was playlisted everywhere for the next year or so, downright objectionable.
    Though DC would release a couple more decent singles in their time (not including their painful rendition of the Gibbs Brothers’ once delicate Emotion) and Queen Beyonce herself deliver the peerless Crazy In Love a couple of years later, though I didn’t know it at the time, what this represented was both a full-stop for Destiny’s Child as anything other than a springboard for a brand-heavy solo career and the beginning of the end for R’n’B as an edgy innovative mainstream musical force.
    Post-Survivor, the ‘brands’ took over and R’n’B (and, within 2-3 years, Hip-Hop) morphed into little more than formulaic focus-group cliches, meaning & tone substituted by the endless stream of nonsensical paeans to braindead consumerism that all but swamped pop music entirely by 2007 – so much so that the whole mess would lend credence to otherwise utterly preposterous tales of ‘Illumati’ skullduggery within the music industry emanating from Planet Internet.
    It’s hard not to see ‘Survivor’ thus as not only as the full-stop on Destiny’s Child but calling-time on the cross-genre constant progression of intelligent pop music over the second half of the 20th Century.

  8. 38
    mrdiscopop on 19 Oct 2015 #

    What I really remember Survivor for is that Destiny’s Child performed it as the opening number at the 2001 Brits, rendering the rest of the ceremony redundant.

    Yes, the song is brash and spiteful, but I find it impossible to hate. For the first time, the band go “full Beyoncé” – with a tidal wave of vocal riffs and OTT production. I’m a particular fan of the timpani that herald the first verse. Nothing about this record was supposed to be subtle.

    And yet, despite some previous comments, I think there is a moment of vulnerability in there – when Kelly sings “after all of the darkness and sadness, soon comes happiness.” To me, that’s a plea, rather than a fait accompli. It turns the song from a massive “fuck you” into a motivational speech. I *will* survive. I *must* survive. I am mecha-Beyoncé.

  9. 39
    pink champale on 19 Oct 2015 #

    Don’t let them do it to you, cause they’ll overdo it.

    I hadn’t realised the backstory to this until now, and it certainly does make it even less likeable. But Beyonce doesn’t need me to like her, she needs me to bow before her magnificance. And I do.

  10. 40
    thefatgit on 19 Oct 2015 #

    I don’t think I’m the first person to compare Beyonce with Ayn Rand, but judging by other people’s comments “Survivor” appears to be her Fountainhead.

  11. 41
    Tommy Mack on 20 Oct 2015 #

    Sounds to me like the girls are really shoehorning the words in on the verses. It’s almost MSP-like in it’s determination to weld awkward scansion to asymmetrical rhythms. Actually, to my ears it’s way more rhythmically intricate than anything MSP have done while it shares their brazenness (You Love Us) if lacking their dualism of meaning “I am an architect, they call me a vulture” indeed.

  12. 42
    Phil on 20 Oct 2015 #

    Bloody hell, that’s horrible. To put it another way, the backing track is brilliant, and specifically brilliantly relentless – the beats and the bass hitting a stuttering, syncopated rhythm whose name I don’t know (I was already too old when this came out) & absolutely nailing it, the endlessly circling synth strings like Wendy Carlos playing Pachelbel’s Canon. But everything about the vocals is just awful – the stupidly shouty chorus, the hamfisted rapping, the sheer aggressive unpleasantness of BK’s lyrics and the outrageous bad faith of Michelle’s. Please let me never listen to that again. I’ll give it a grudging 2, which is 7 for the track and -5 for the vocals.

  13. 43
    Adam T on 20 Oct 2015 #

    An album track that got promoted to a single because a TV show with the same name became a hit. 5/10

  14. 44
    Ed on 21 Oct 2015 #

    @40 Maybe if Rand had had Mark Feist as her musical director instead of Neil Peart, she’d be a lot more popular today.

    But seriously…. I can see why people say that, but surely Beyonce’s project – asserting her right to self-determination as an African-American woman – is a lot different from Rand’s ubermensch-worship. Isn’t it?

  15. 45
    Andrew on 21 Oct 2015 #

    #43 the song was written after the show; in fact directly in response to the media making jokes along the lines of “who’s going to be the next Destiny’s Child to be voted off the island?” Beyoncé has said herself that she used those jokes as fuel for the song (i.e. completely confirming that it’s about Luckett and Roberson).

    #38 it was Independent Women at the BRITS https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pRSPyb8khRg

    (and it’s Michelle who sings “after all of the darkness and sadness, soon comes happiness”)

  16. 46
    thefatgit on 21 Oct 2015 #

    @44 Yes, absolutely Ed. As far as fandoms are concerned though, the Beyhive is just as protective of their idol as the card-carrying Neolib objectivists that stalk the halls of Conservative Central Office are protective of theirs. Beyonce simply tells a better story than Rand ever could.

  17. 48
    The Arn on 21 Oct 2015 #

    Sorry, I’m going to completely Godwin the thread here. I don’t think Beyonce’s ‘fuck you I’m fabulous’ schtick is anything particularly objectionable, indeed the celebration of the ego’s powered some fabulous pop records of every stripe – it’s pretty much what powers The Wicked & The Divine for instance. Plus the theory that that’s *all* she’s about deliberately casts at least one future bunny as an anomaly. She’s a modern diva in the grand tradition of Bassey, Ross, Streisand, Carey and so on and pop always finds room for those.

    As for Survivor… well, this is where the Godwin bit comes into play. It’s bombastic to almost Wagnerian levels, seeking to persuade and ignore some maggoty nastiness at its heart by overwhelming rather than coercing. It’s a sort of pop Triumph of the Will in that respect – it’s genuinely impressive in artistic terms with the synth strings over the relentless rhythm and I’m a sucker for the vocal interplay Tom mentions. But it’s art in the service of a superstar punching downwards at bandmates who look shabbily treated., so we’re supposed to take the bully’s side. And the music reflects the lyric, the beat and strings pound at you relentlessly, trying to compel you to give in. Even with the line about surrounding herself with positive things it’s a titanium ego reinforcing and asserting itself. And it’s a bit terrifying that it’s so compelling, even if it’s probably the weakest single from the parent album.

    Mind you, if you count this as Destiny’s Child becoming Beyonce plus backing singers you can see it as an indication of her early imperial phase.

  18. 49
    weej on 22 Oct 2015 #

    There’s a good argument to be had about bad intentions and when they can spoil a song (and of course when they don’t matter) – pretty sure it’s been had round these parts somewhere but can’t put my finger on where right now. In this case I’m afraid it ultimately spoils it for me, there’s a certain lack of generosity here – the ‘survivor’ doesn’t seem to include the listener (but who knows what other people get out of it) and the bit about “I’m not gon’ hate on you in the magazines / I’m not gon’ compromise my Christianity” is shocking in its level of bullshit. And after almost a decade in China I’m also naturally suspicious of exhortations to “work harder.”

    There are positives, though. The production is of their usual extremely high standard (though it’s a bit too busy at the start), the harmonies two thirds of the way through are just wonderful and the “If I surround myself with positive things” reminds me Linda Jones’s desperate pleading on ‘Your Precious Love’, a rare thing to hear in pop music.

  19. 50

    This is an exhausting slog, and the sentiments leaves a sour taste in the mouth, but it’s the sound of Beyonce ready to take on the world and it’s great to have some genuine attitude in a rather bloodless year, the hooks and repetition beat you into the ground but in a good way, like going to Blackpool Pleasure Beach with your mate’s fit townie older sister with hoop earrings bigger than her head. I can push to a 7. It must be good if I loved a cover version of this on Planet Rock radio which might have been third-rate emo/screamo!

    I also have two great memories of this:

    1. Doing the Coast-to-Coast walk with my dad in August 2002, when after climbing up a sodden hillside in Kirkby Stephen thinking I was going to drown, yelling “I’m a survivor!”

    2. Writing a song (aged 18, exhausted after working a night shift at the A59 McDonald’s) called “Tony, Tony”, essentially about how Blair let the world down. I can’t remember the full lyrics, but basically, the chorus was like the verses of Survivor, and the verses were like the verses of, er, Slipknot – Wait and Bleed. I’ve never performed it live, but if anyone wants to take me up on this offer, you know who to call…

    Surviving lyrics:

    I remember back in 1997, dear God, had I died and gone to heaven?
    Great, good, great fantastic Tony, and Eurovision victory

    Nowadays it’s all “get pissed” and getting lucky
    I can’t do either very well, life’s fortune cookie
    Blur of an Oasis beaten to a Pulp now
    And we’ll never, ever pull out of the Gulf now

    I have it in my head as Black Sabbath meets the Supremes for the 21st century. Your mileage may vary.

  20. 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.

  21. 52

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

  22. 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.

  23. 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?

  24. 55
    Mark G on 28 Oct 2015 #

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

  25. 56

    Chas-Tiny’s Child

  26. 57
    lonepilgrim on 28 Oct 2015 #

    O ahm a Serrrrr-vyffer! Oi!

  27. 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’

  28. 59

    margates of delirium

  29. 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.

  30. 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.

  31. 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.

  32. 63
    Cumbrian on 13 May 2016 #

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

  33. 64
    flahr on 20 Jun 2016 #

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

  34. 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.)

  35. 66
    Gareth Parker on 28 May 2021 #

    Can’t take to this I’m afraid. I would echo much of Cryptopian’s sentiments (#61). I’m sorry but I just don’t get it and I can only go to a 2/10 here.

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