LIZZO IS THE STAR WE NEED RIGHT NOW
May 21, 2019
There are stars who achieve the type of success that affirms their individuality, and others whose success affirms ours. Some present themselves in a way that spotlights the long, hard journey to the big stage, an artistry that is a testimony to personal genius and perseverance, whose thesis is, “I’m the man.” (Think Jay-Z with his tales of rising up from dealing cocaine to becoming a wealthy MC.) But for other artists, it’s all about the audience, and the subtext of their career is, “You’re the bomb.” (Think Beyonce. Her happiness is our happiness, shining a message of self-esteem that radiates upon the audience as a beatific light that makes us all better.) Another artist whose stardom has become a sort of victory for the audience, is Melissa Jefferson, better known to the world as Lizzo.
Self-love is at the core of Lizzo’s artistry — it’s big, telegenic, and infectious as hell. When she’s onstage loving on herself, it makes me feel good about myself. When she smiles, I can’t help but smile. In a world rife with body-shaming and whack media concepts of beauty’s relationship to body-size, the plus-size Lizzo is not just happy in her own skin but ecstatic being herself, which feels triumphant for everyone in her proximity. This affirmation is a big part of why her rise feels like it’s about more than her. Her feelings of self-worth lead directly to anthems like “Juice,” whose chorus is a string of cute lines about how badass she is. “I was born like this, don’t even gotta try/ I’m like chardonnay, get better over time/ Heard you say I’m not the baddest, bitch, you lie.”
KRS-One once told me that rap songs are like confidence sandwiches — you put them in your mouth (i.e. you rap along with him, saying those words with the same braggadocio he put into them) and you feel his confidence radiating through your body. It’s true. The self-love of hip-hop songs is transferable; many Lizzo songs act exactly the same way. As a rapper, Lizzo’s a shit-talker, spitting game about how bad she is, constantly bigging herself up. “Mirror, mirror on the wall, don’t say it cuz I know I’m cute!” She’s the hero of her own story and when she sings about herself, she’s singing about us, too: “If I’m shining, everybody gonna shine.” Her rise is part of the popular notion that every woman is a queen. Every recording artist wants to be worshipped at some point, eventually they say “bow down” or shoot a video where they’re seated on a throne; but Lizzo’s majesty makes us all feel like royalty.
Lizzo is also comfortable in a variety of genres: “Juice” is pop-electro-funk, “Cuz I Love You” is a blues, “Boys” recalls early Prince. There’s an ease with which she shifts from singing to sing-rapping, while not making it obvious that she’s shifting. Lizzo owns just about any song she touches, a people’s diva who combines Beyonce’s ecstatic pop-R&B feminism, with campy disco-world shades of Donna Summer’s anthems of dignity and pleasure, plus the funky rebelliousness of Missy Elliot (who shows up on the wonderful track, “Tempo”).
I love her voice, her persona and her energy; yet the aspect of Lizzo’s work I love most is her smart songwriting. “Truth Hurts” is one of the best-written pop songs I’ve heard in awhile. It’s built on a jaunty little piano riff that grounds the song, while a funky little trap-beat dances over it. But it’s Lizzo’s witty lyrics that keep me coming back to it. “Why men great til they gotta be great,” could be a slogan for a generation. It’s pithy and poetic, a powerful statement that speaks to the lived-in reality of too many women. All the brothers I know are doing the best they can for their families, but we all know there’s a lot of men who don’t live up to their responsibilities — they’re great until it’s time to step up. Even as Lizzo indicts my whole gender, I can’t give her the tone deaf not-all-men retort, but applaud her as an artist for coming up with a dope line that’s filled with painful truth. (There’s a reason the song is called “Truth Hurts.”)
The beginning of the first verse is one of the baddest lines in modern pop history: “I just took a DNA test turns out I’m 100% that bitch,” which is bold, badass and t-shirt-ready, but the song goes to another level when she combines that epic line with, “even when I’m crying crazy.” It’s that admission of vulnerability, right after the boast of strength that makes the song truly powerful, and immediately touches both sides once more with visual, memorable writing: “Yeah, I got boy problems, that’s the human in me/ Bling bling, then I solve ’em, that’s the goddess in me.” This is a song where she’s celebrating herself for dumping a guy who treated her wrong and the chorus becomes a rollicking tale about the process of leaving. “Best friend sat me down in the salon chair/ Shampoo press, get you out of my hair/ Fresh photos with the bomb lighting/ New man on the Minnesota Vikings/ Truth hurts, needed something more exciting.”
In a world where the personal is political, Lizzo feels as political as a popularly elected President of American Pop Culture. She’s the instigator for your self-love and -empowerment. She’s an icon for freedom from body shaming and plus-size gorgeousness. She’s the new feminist queen of sex positivity, and the gay-straight alliance. She’s the star we need right now.