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Beyoncé’s new album ‘Cowboy Carter’ is a statement against AI music

Beyoncé’s “Cowboy Carter” has been out for only a few days, yet it’s already obvious that we’ll be talking about it for years to come — it’s breaking records across streaming platforms, and the artist herself calls it “the best music [she’s] ever made.” But in the middle of the press release for “Cowboy Carter,” Beyoncé made an unexpected statement against the growing presence of AI in music.

“The joy of creating music is that there are no rules,” said Beyoncé. “The more I see the world evolving the more I felt a deeper connection to purity. With artificial intelligence and digital filters and programming, I wanted to go back to real instruments.”

Beyoncé rarely does interviews, giving each of her comments about the new album more significance — these remarks are among few jumping-off points fans get to help them puzzle through each element of the album, and how they all fit together. So her stance on AI isn’t just a throwaway comment made in conversation with a reporter. It’s deliberate.

The central backlash against AI-generated art comes from the way this technology works. AI-powered music generators can create new tracks in minutes and emulate artists’ vocals to a scarily convincing degree. In some cases, that’s because the AI is being trained on the work of the artists whose jobs it could end up replacing.

Large language models and diffusion models both require sprawling databases of text, images and sounds to be able to create AI-generated works. Some of the best-known AI companies, like Open AI and Stability AI, use datasets that include copyrighted artworks without consent. Even though Stability AI’s music model was trained on licensed stock music, that’s not the case for the company’s image generator, Stable Diffusion. Stability AI’s VP of Audio Ed Newton-Rex quit his job over this, because he “[doesn’t] agree with the company’s opinion that training generative AI models on copyrighted works is ‘fair use.’”

It’s no wonder artists like Beyoncé have strong feelings about this technology — too many AI models have been trained on artists’ work without their consent, and especially for rising musicians who don’t have the clout to buoy them, it will be even harder to break into an already ruthless industry. Beyoncé’s stance makes even more sense in the context of “Cowboy Carter” itself.

Though it does not explicitly discuss AI, “Cowboy Carter” already addresses the theft and appropriation of artworks without consent. On the album itself, Beyoncé is giving listeners a history lesson about how Black musicians formed the foundation of country music, which is too often assumed to represent Southern white culture.

Even the title, “Cowboy Carter,” is a nod to the appropriation of Black music for white people’s gain. Though “Carter” could reference Beyoncé’s married name, it’s also a nod to the Carters, the “first family” of country music — and those Carters took the work of Black musicians to develop the style we now know as country, which continues to exclude Black artists (just recently, an Oklahoma country radio station recently refused a listener’s request to play Beyoncé’s “Texas Hold ‘Em,” since Beyoncé didn’t fit their definition of a country artist). Beyoncé’s seemingly random stance against AI unearths a similar truth: Once again, artists’ work is being stolen without their consent and contorted into something else, leaving them without payment or credit for their cultural contributions.

There are a few moments on the album when ninety-year-old country icon Willie Nelson appears on a radio show called “Smoke Hour,” and its first appearance precedes “Texas Hold ‘Em.” The placement of the track takes on an extra layer of meaning in light of the Oklahoma radio incident, and Nelson makes a slight jab: “Now for this next tune, I want y’all to sit back, inhale, and go to the good place your mind likes to wander off to. And if you don’t wanna go, go find yourself a jukebox.”

This is Beyoncé’s world: The jukebox and the radio are back in style, Black musicians can make whatever kind of music they want, and no one’s art gets stolen.

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