The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

No song, movie or show can escape the digital age’s revisionist urges

Today’s creative works are never ‘final.’ Beyoncé and Lizzo are only doing what Han Solo and Greedo taught us years ago.

(Matt Rourke/AP; Netflix/AP; Matt Sayles/AP; Charles Sykes/Invision/AP; Sunset Boulevard/Corbis/Getty Images; Emma Kumer/Washington Post illustration)

So far as we know, Eddie Vedder has never darkened anyone’s doorstep and demanded they give back their copy of Pearl Jam’s debut album “Ten” so he could continue tinkering with it.

When Rob Harvilla, music critic and host of the podcast “60 Songs That Explain the ’90s,” recently pictured that exact scenario, he couldn’t help but laugh. “It’s just wild to me to try to wrap my head around the idea of Pearl Jam bursting into my bedroom and being like, ‘Give me that. We’re taking “Jeremy” off the record,’ ” he said.

But in a way, he added, the digital equivalent of it is already happening as streaming services become our dominant means of listening to music and watching TV and movies.

Beyoncé made two changes to her long-anticipated album “Renaissance” after it was released on July 29: She removed a sample of “Milkshake” from “Energy,” after Kelis called the use of her song “theft”; Beyoncé also agreed to remove the word “spaz” from “Heated,” after fan outcry accused her of using ableist language. A few weeks earlier, Lizzo had responded to online protest and removed the same word from her song “Grrrls” — this too came after it was released.

Review: Beyoncé’s ‘Renaissance’ was made to last forever

Warner Bros. Discovery, meanwhile, spiked “Batgirl” — a movie already in postproduction, sending creatives into an existential panic as the studio also removed at least six movies it was exclusively streaming on HBO Max, including Seth Rogen’s “An American Pickle.”

“The Batgirl/HBO Max situation is why I spent my last day on set of Dickinson calling an exec at apple and *begging* for a physical recording of my show … they actually gave me one, I have the ONLY copy,” tweeted Alena Smith, the creator of “Dickinson,” an Apple TV Plus period dramedy. “People said I was crazy but dude, that’s ten years of my life.”

If all content is digital, then it is subject to being edited — or even erased — at the whim of anyone with controlling access to it. We live in an age of revision, in which art is impermanent, ever shifting, always on the precipice of being “fixed” or “updated.” The motivations for such changes can vary: online pressure from fans, or the perfectionist tendencies of an anxious artist, or a potential legal issue. It can all send creators and producers back to the originals to correct a perceived wrong. A network or studio or record label can update or delete its library to avoid offending consumers. The reasons are potentially unlimited. No art is ever considered final in the digital age.

“I always tell my students, if you really love something, buy it in hard copy, own it, have a DVD of it, a Blu-ray or a CD of it,” said Paul Booth, the associate dean of DePaul University’s College of Communication, who has extensively studied fandom. “Because if you only have a digital version, you don’t have a finite finished product. You’re renting a product from whatever service that you have.

Art has long been subject to alteration for endless reasons. In the 16th century, the Catholic Church began adding fig leaves on the genitalia of statues to avoid inciting lust in the masses. Four hundred years later, give or take, George Lucas infamously angered fans by continuously rereleasing both the original Star Wars trilogy and its prequels with significant changes, such as the addition of new characters and dialogue — simply because he wanted to and leaving an endlessly and contentiously unsettled debate about whether Han Solo or Greedo shot first.

Similarly, Steven Spielberg digitally altered “E.T.” for its 20th anniversary to replace the FBI agents’ guns with walkie-talkies, a decision he’s since said he’s “lived to regret.” “It was okay for a while, but I realized what I had done was I had robbed people who loved ‘E.T.’ of their memories of ‘E.T.,’ ” he said of the change. He restored the guns for the 30th-anniversary cut.

Lizzo and Beyoncé both re-recorded songs after fans called attention an ableist slur in each of their lyrics. The Post's Travis Andrews analyzes the trend. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

The list goes on. When Disney rereleased the original animated version of “The Lion King” in IMAX eight years after the film’s original release, it replaced some scenes and reanimated others. Disney Plus has routinely edited shows and films on its service. Sometimes, it’s (ostensibly) accidental, such as when Netflix unknowingly streamed a non-U.S. version of “Back to the Future Part II” that edited out the cover of a skin mag discovered by Marty McFly, according to screenwriter Bob Gale.

Plus, it’s only getting easier as deepfake technology grows more powerful. What was previously used to make fake — but shockingly believable — videos of celebrities like Tom Cruise is now being employed by major movie studios. Rather than reshoot the movie, Lionsgate recently hired an artificial intelligence company to remove the f-words out of its new action-thriller “Fall” to avoid an R rating.

Brent Cowley, a University of Oregon PhD candidate in media studies who focuses on media manipulation, said that editing media, particularly movies, is nothing new, pointing to sanitized versions made for airlines and network TV. “They’ve always manipulated language and so forth, but it was obvious,” he said.

“What’s changing now is the use of digital alterations where people would not know” that anything had been changed, Cowley added. “The cat’s out of the bag. It is cheaper to do it than ever before, and on top of that, it’s more accepted than ever before. People know what deepfake technology is. They’re kind of used to it.”

Fans told Lizzo a word in her song was offensive. She changed the lyrics.

As news of Beyoncé and Lizzo changing their songs circulated, another story was unfolding: “Stranger Things” co-creators Matt and Ross Duffer claimed in a June interview with Variety to have edited earlier episodes of the Netflix sci-fi drama. “We have George Lucas-ed things, also, that people don’t know about,” Matt Duffer said. “But it’d be hard for anyone to figure it out.”

“You do have the physical copies, though. The Blu-rays and stuff. You’d have to compare, but the beauty of Netflix is we can just drop [it in],” his brother Ross added. “Maybe I shouldn’t be saying this, but if you watched Season 4 the night it came out versus if you watched it one day later, Friday, it’s different. Some of the visual effects.”

The show’s writers later issued a denial, tweeting, “PSA: no scenes from previous seasons have ever been cut or reedited. And they never will be.”

So did they actually edit the show or not? Netflix has done it before, removing a graphic suicide scene from the teen drama “13 Reasons Why” in response to backlash. But in this case, nobody knows, and that’s the key. It’s not only easy to make changes to art in the digital age, it can be done without anyone noticing and perhaps with no definitive record of what originally existed. As Ross Duffer himself said, “I do like that we can just sneak stuff in.”

That would have been much harder in a world ruled by physical media. Sure, DVDs of “Stranger Things” exist, but they certainly aren’t the prominent format. And without physical media, the past can easily be rewritten or forgotten. Famously, for example, in 1971 the BBC planned to erase all the original tapes of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” to reuse them as a cost-saving measure. The only reason we have the show today is because Terry Gilliam bought them all.

So, will a physical copy of the original recording of “Renaissance” exist in five years? Or will Beyoncé's new version be all there is? “Technology allows you to do the ‘Men in Black’ memory wipe thing, like the old version never existed,” music critic and author Steven Hyden said.

Fans also play a complicated role in all this. They’ve always been a key part of artistic and commercial success (even in simpler times, when “Stan” was just the name of some guy), but social media has equipped them with a powerful and unified say in the product.

Before the social media age, fans “didn’t necessarily have a way to reach out to other fans who might be in other countries, but now you can,” said Booth, the DePaul professor. “So you’ve seen fans be able to mobilize the same way we’ve seen political groups mobilize. It’s not that fans didn’t want to change things, didn’t want to adjust things, didn’t want to have things different. There just wasn’t a mechanism for making those claims or those desires known.”

There were exceptions, he added. In the late 1960s, fans launched a successful letter-writing campaign to save “Star Trek” from cancellation. But, he said, “It’s not like the fans were asking for content changes. They were just asking for more.”

“Creators are needing to become more aware that fans’ investment in their work goes beyond just buying and enjoying their music or art. They may feel they have a greater say in the ultimate outcome, the ultimate creation, what it looks like and how it sounds,” said Seth Lewis, director of the journalism program at the University of Oregon.

Consider the infamous saga of “Snakes on a Plane,” the 2006 Samuel L. Jackson B-movie about, well, you know. New Line Cinema originally planned a PG-13 cut of the action thriller, but, thanks to that title, fanfare for the movie exploded long before it was set to hit theaters. Fans had one particular request: Have Jackson yell a certain explicit catchphrase in a very certain way. In what was then a fairly shocking move, the studio spent five days shooting new scenes after principal photography wrapped to accommodate the fans with a hard-R flick. “When the movie finally came out, it felt like it had been crowdsourced by the internet,” Harvilla said.

‘Snakes on a Plane’: The movie that was a meme before we knew what memes were.

It’s not difficult to imagine how this might play out in 2022: A PG-13 version is released on a streaming service. Quickly, fans wishing for a more explicit movie flood Twitter, and soon the studio kowtows to them, uploading a racier version and deleting the previous one.

“The future is likely to include more impermanence, not less. The work is out there, but it’s never fully formed or finished because it could always be edited with some degree of ease, if it only exists in some digital form,” Lewis said, adding that the initial release of a piece of art might become more like the beta test of a piece of software. Not only can it be updated, it very likely will be.

Booth envisions a world in which companies “hire fans to consult.” Perhaps Marvel grabs 35 fans at Comic-Con and asks them to take a look at the script for its next superhero movie. “I see that happening at the creation stage, almost like a focus group, rather than once the text has been finished, because it’s also expensive to change all of these things,” he said.

When you can consistently edit art, where is the endpoint? It’s a question people have been asking since February 2016, when Kanye West released his album “The Life of Pablo” onto streaming music services with the strange suggestion that it wasn’t actually finished. And it wasn’t. In the ensuing months, he repeatedly updated the record, swapping out different versions of songs and changing the track list — prompting a mixture of awe and anger from fans and critics.

“At what point is a record ‘over,’ and who gets to make the call? Kanye West is seeing how far he can stretch the point right now, in a way no pop star has ever quite tried: in real-time,” critic Jayson Greene wrote in Pitchfork at the time, adding, “West is testing the shifting state of the ‘album cycle’ to see if he can break it entirely, making his album like another piece of software on your phone that sends you push updates.”

“I think that was the moment that planted this idea in everyone’s head that this specific record is a living, breathing, mutating document,” said Harvilla, the “60 Songs” podcast host. “That really did change something fundamentally about the way people thought about and listened to music. … Now I think we are grasping more fully the reality that there is no stopping this from happening. There’s no stopping anyone from doing this.”

The idea of art changing in real time excites Harvilla: “The idea that the ground is shifting under your feet” can be thrilling as a consumer. On the other hand, he said, “It’s a paradigm shift that’s genuinely hard to wrap your mind around. And there are ugly, unpleasant applications of it.”

As with any emerging technology, the ability to easily revisit art and erase blemishes, sand out the edges — to “fix” it — can be something of a Pandora’s box. After Beyoncé agreed to edit “Heated,” Monica Lewinsky suggested via tweet that the singer should also edit the 2013 song “Partition,” which uses Lewinsky’s name to describe a sexual act.

The whole saga raises a key question: Should there be a statute of limitations on what an artist can edit? “Beyoncé isn’t flawless. She makes mistakes, and we should be reminded of that,” Hyden said.

“What if Eminem had a change of heart and was like, ‘I want to take out all of the anti-gay language I used in my early records?’ You can look at that as a positive thing, because he was using homophobic slurs. Who’s gonna defend that?” Hyden added. “On the other hand, that was part of the package who made him who he was in the moment, good or bad. So yeah, you’re taking out offensive language, but you’re also rewriting history. It would feel like sanitizing history.”

He suggested it’s worthwhile to be able to revisit an album filled with offensive content, such as Eminem’s “The Marshall Mathers LP” and “use that record as a prism to understand why this record was so popular in 2000. What was it about it that [the culture] embraced it so much? You need the vile stuff in there to help understand that.”

Then again, he added: “If you’ve grown up in a world where it’s always been digital, maybe this conversation doesn’t really make sense. Maybe this is an analog perspective, because that’s something I was raised with.”

correction

An earlier version of this article included a reversed photo, provided by a wire agency, of the original "Star Trek" series. A different photo has been substituted and the story has been updated.

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