Grammy Nominees 2017: The Twisted Fate of Beyoncé’s “Don’t Hurt Yourself”

The most unlikely nominee for best rock song started as a soundtrack and ended by sampling Led Zeppelin.
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2017 Grammy Nomination
Category: Best Rock Performance
Song: “Don’t Hurt Yourself”
Artist: Beyoncé featuring Jack White

In case there was any doubt, taking a look at this year’s Grammy nominations for Best Rock Performance, which include a 10-minute avant-garde track by David Bowie (“Blackstar”) and a mellow, piano-and-synth song by Twenty One Pilots (“Heathens”), confirms that rock music isn’t what it used to be. Nor is it made the way it used to be. Exemplary of that fact is Beyoncé’s unlikely teaming with one of the last remaining rock stars, Jack White. Speaking with long-time White collaborator and four-time Grammy-winning producer/mixer/engineer Vance Powell, we learned that White originally wrote and recorded the music for what eventually turned into “Don’t Hurt Yourself” about five years ago in his Third Man Studios in Nashville with Powell as the recordist.

“When we recorded it, there was no concept of it ever being a Beyoncé track,” Powell said. “It was for a soundtrack that Jack was working on that ended up not being used. It was this song we had on the reels that had no lyrics or anything other than drums, bass, guitar, a fantastic violin and [background vocals by] Ruby Amanfu. At that point, it just disappeared into the vault. Maybe a couple years ago Jack told me he had written lyrics to it and was pitching it to Beyoncé. Then it just happened.”

That original music was cut to 2-inch 8-track tape, the way Powell says White always does it. “It was a very cinematic. It was meant to evoke the dusty wild west or something,” Powell said. “It went on for four or five minutes and there were a couple of movements in it. Those two parts they just cut up and looped up and made into whatever it was.”

Plenty of additional production went into the final version of “Don’t Hurt Yourself.” Another frequent White collaborator and Powell’s former assistant Joshua V. Smith pitched in with additional overdubs and recording in Los Angeles. A 36-piece string ensemble was added. The members of Led Zeppelin even got a writing credit for the inclusion of a sample from “When the Levee Breaks.” All told the song racked up 60 people in its credits, and that doesn’t even include Memphis Minnie (Lizzie Douglas), the original author of “When the Levee Breaks.” At least if Beyoncé does the unpredictable and wins a Rock Grammy in the 21st century, it will pay some kind of karmic debt to an African-American woman (Douglas) born in the 19th century.

Three chords and a cloud of dust it is not, but “Don’t Hurt Yourself” reveals the strange state of rock music in 2016.