Popular Things That Suck: Lizzo

It’s no secret that we live in highly polarized times, and artists like Lizzo profit from the fractured “you’re with us or against us” nature of communication, especially online. A key part of Lizzo’s ascending fame is seen in the reality that, as a white man, if I’m looking to criticize her music or brand, I know I have to tip-toe very carefully and try to dodge landmines with every step (also, it’s important for me to acknowledge being a white man, which some will take as reason to disregard everything I say). One mistake and I’ll be branded as racist, misogynistic, fatphobic, prudish, or any other variety of insult that could result in me being “problematic” or “canceled.”

Lizzo’s brand is built to withstand criticism because she represents the admirable traits of self-worth, body positivity, sexual liberation, etc. Shrewdly, she has incorporated all of these positive themes into her persona, turning her art into a morality litmus test — to like Lizzo is equated with being a progressive person who holds the valorous, correct views on these subjects, which means hating her as an artist is now seen as akin to not being down with the cause. Complicating this is that, yes, if someone is a racist or misogynist or hates fat people, they are likely to also dislike Lizzo and raise a big stink about it, and those are often the most visible negative reactions to her. This means that even legitimate criticism of Lizzo only results in you being grouped in with an assortment of internet trolls and human garbage. The trick played here is one I’ve also been witnessing a lot in corporate public relations: associating your product with social justice allows you to frame any reasonable objections as the offensive ramblings of internet bottom feeders, which squelches dissent and assures the consumers that they’re “the good ones” who are part of a cause.

I find Lizzo to be the peak of this kind of noxious empowerment marketing, which makes her an artist I think about disproportionately to how much I actually interface with her work. My visceral skepticism with this seemingly well-meaning artist who has a positive effect on people has also led to me questioning myself: does my irritation at Lizzo make me one of those garbage people? I don’t know, maybe it does. But I think there are elements to her presentation worth analyzing and criticizing, and I’ve grown frustrated with the cheerleading portrayal of her in the media, especially locally in Minnesota where any artist from here who “makes it” (turns their art into a commercially successful product) is treated as if they just found a cure for cancer.

At the core of Lizzo’s whole positivity brand is the idea of “self-care,” which is personified in her music that is aggressively uplifting with themes built on her own confidence and disdain for anyone getting in her way of flaunting it. “Good as Hell,” her most inescapable song, celebrates the self in a way that obviously appeals to a wide range of listeners who relate to Lizzo or aspire to have her “no fucks given” attitude. Like all things Lizzo, this is a potentially beneficial concept that gets stretched to the point of irritation. Of course having confidence is great, and so is empowering others, but Lizzo’s music also encourages contentment and a refusal to work on or accept your flaws. The actual ethos of “self-care” was revealed last year, when she tweeted “PEOPLE WHO ‘REVIEW’ ALBUMS AND DON’T MAKE MUSIC THEMSELVES SHOULD BE UNEMPLOYED” after Pitchfork gave her a positive, but not suitably over-the-moon, review. Lizzo’s idea of self-care isn’t about growing and improving as a person, whether through internal reflection or criticism, but about embracing yourself as the flawless center of the universe and your skeptics as ignorant losers who must not understand your special gifts.

It’s a convenient position to hold for an artist whose success is more due to sociopolitical trendiness than talent. Part of Lizzo’s egotistical “self-care” lifestyle seems to involve ripping off other artists, as she has faced notable plagiarism accusations for using the line “I just took a DNA test, turns out I’m 100% that bitch” from “Truth Hurts,” for which her defense was that she simply “borrowed” a line in her song from a popular tweet. While this isn’t a horrendous crime or anything, it’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of someone’s talent that their lyrics are coming from Twitter. But nothing Lizzo does goes a whole lot deeper than a tweet anyways. Her entire brand is this surface-level, thoughtless positivity that cloys, and most of the music I hear of her sounds like the sort of corny “get happy, people!” sounds you could picture being played during a 7 a.m. workout class at a mandatory corporate retreat. I never sense any introspection in her work — there’s no need for it when you’re already perfect.

The more difficult to critique aspect of Lizzo’s presentation is in her sexually provocative imagery, which is mostly seen on her Instagram profile or music videos. Lizzo is proud of her body and shows it, which is (again) admirable and I suppose you could even say brave given that few people who look like her are in positions of celebrity. But Lizzo is also in a bit of a catch-22, where the whole reason for her success is because she’s “not like the other girls,” which gives her sexuality shock value. A lot of her audience, along with music writers, eat this up, acting like it’s completely amazing and stunning that a fat woman has sexual desires and isn’t ashamed of her body, similar to those old Susan Boyle viral videos where everyone condescendingly acted incredulous that an unattractive person could have talent. In this way, Lizzo’s presentation only reinforces stereotypes, and it benefits from the same collective prudishness that she thinks she is fighting against. To be fair to the artist, none of this is really her fault, but is more about the hysteric reaction to something that shouldn’t be a big deal. It adds to what makes her popularity grating when everyone is in utter disbelief over what is really no different than anything else from the old “sex sells” playbook.

There should be more body diversity and acceptance in media, and maybe Lizzo’s obnoxiousness is a price worth paying if it leads to that. The problem is that, despite her portrayal as an outsider who is different, she is succeeding in the same superficial way that every other pop star does, and there is nothing in her work that goes deeper than novelty. All of it is shamelessly commercial, and based on how often her music shows up in advertisements, it’s been a boon for corporations who want to commodify social issues while conveying that buying their product is in some way rebellious. There is a lot to think about and discuss with the intersection of body image, sexuality, and confidence in society, but Lizzo only addresses those potentially fascinating subjects in the most thoughtless, obvious way. Of course, this is why she is successful: her entire brand benefits from a culture that has no interest in considering these difficult subjects beyond the most feel-good and simple conclusions.

The Green Child Explore Our “New Dungeon”

Now that we’re months into this pandemic debacle, some of the first songs written during and about the experience are starting to surface. The Mexican Summer label has an ongoing singles compilation called Looking Glass that is focused on “the human condition as reflected through remote connection” and it includes this song called “New Dungeon” by The Green Child, a collaboration between Raven Mahon and Mikey Young that I raved about when their self-titled album was released back in 2018.

This song captures what I’m starting to think of as the mundane psychedelia of these times. I am living through what genuinely is one of the craziest things that has ever happened, but on a day-to-day basis the experience is surreally boring. Furloughed from my job and with my life basically on pause, there is plenty of time for the mind to wander while stuck indoors doing my various introvert hobbies like listening to music, writing, and watching old movies and crappy empty arena wrestling. With a certain level of privilege also comes guilt — as someone used to the shut-in life, this all feels like it’s easier than it should be. The titular image of the “new dungeon” summarizes this experience, as everyone is in this shared uncharted territory that feels like a prison for the mind. The song also gives the listener the key to escape it.

Like their cousin Cold Beat (another band formed from the ashes of Grass Widow with Mikey Young contributions), The Green Child’s music is subtle, maybe to a fault in terms of connecting with a wide audience or exciting most music hype people. But the quiet, reflective psychedelia of this track is exactly what I’ve been feeling lately. Singing over a repetitive taut synth part, Mahon’s lyrics (at least the ones I can make out) describe fairly dull experiences about exploring a new space, which take on a psychedelic tinge due to the sound and her distant delivery. She says it was inspired by moving into a new jam room in their house in Australia, when “self-isolation was exciting before it got weird.” This made me realize that pre-weirdness is kind of The Green Child’s thing. Their songs are psychedelic and strange, yet never quite tip over into the realm of being completely bizarre and incomprehensible.

That mix of weirdness and normalcy is at the heart of the current quarantine experience, as are the feelings of living in a world that feels like it’s about to change substantially in ways that aren’t really known yet. I’ve always valued psychedelic music that can take me somewhere else while also capturing feelings I have in a more abstract, intangible way. “New Dungeon” is the epitome of that, and it’s quietly one of the more powerful songs of the year so far.

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s “The Mosaic of Transformation” Offers Soothing Sounds in Troubling Times

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s new album, The Mosaic of Transformation, has the unenviable task of following, no joke, what I consider one of the greatest albums of all time in 2017’s The Kid. It will take some restraint not to turn this post into more gushing about that work, but suffice to say, it had a mix of childhood wonder and sophisticated pop songwriting that is shared only by a select few artists who I worship (Björk, Trish Keenan, that’s about it). Just to up the difficulty further, what made that album so remarkable was its execution of about the most ambitious concept you could try in music, which is telling the story of life. Where are you supposed to go after you’ve made an album that already captured everything? Such an album necessitates regrouping and trying something on a smaller scale, and that’s what Smith has done here, with a shorter series of songs focused around energy and the human body.

It’s a fitting theme for Smith, whose songs are made up of all these tiny interconnecting parts that combine to function against all reason. While on the surface her modular synthesizer noodling resembles new age background music (she did release an album specifically for yoga and meditation last year), it also appeals to obsessive types who enjoy being overwhelmed by little flourishes and touches that can be analyzed forever. One of the cool effects of The Kid was how all of her sounds that could feel random took on deeper meaning because of their connection to a narrative. A simple droning note and bird calls on “Who I Am & Why I Am Where I Am” became a moving piece on idly contemplating the self; the rapid percussion on “A Kid” brought to mind early childhood exploration and discovery as Smith seemed to be playing in her own musical sandbox. On The Mosaic of Transformation, her focus shifts from the evolving mind to something more physical; her bubbling, fluttery synth sounds now make me think of molecules or cells, and every song bursts with these little fragments of energy.

While Smith’s work recently has had her embracing more pop structure and melody, on The Mosaic of Transformation she dials back her voice and creates free-flowing compositions that use repetition to soothe the listener. The few lyrics on the album more resemble mantras than traditional storytelling, such as the refrain of “be kind to one another/we’re calming together” on “Remember.” The instrumental “Carrying Gravity” gradually piles on layers of strings and other sounds over its drones, creating a peaceful symphony of movement. The long closing track, “Expanding Electricity,” is the album’s densest song (and maybe the busiest of all of Smith’s songs in general, which is saying something), as all of the energy built up in the previous songs comes together to form a harmonious whole.

What’s missing for me on the album is any kind of narrative thread connecting the songs, which was such an important part of The Kid transcending its blippity-bloopity trappings. There is a high floor to Smith’s music because it is so creative and contains such thought and spirit, but without a central narrative, the multitude of sounds and flourishes start to lose meaning and it fades into the kind of background music that she expertly avoided on her previous two albums. The Mosaic of Transformation is also being released at a somewhat inopportune time: while its calming, peaceful sound provides some solace in this insane year, it also at times starts to border on being cloying and naïve, feelings that The Kid was able to harness because they fit its themes of wide-eyed childhood innocence. Smith’s unbounded positivity is admirable, but I’m beginning to wonder if there is a tipping point where it becomes too detached from the real world to be a valuable statement.

Those critiques come off harsher than I probably intend, only because I know how powerful Smith’s music is when she is able to connect her fascinating sounds with a fruitful story. She is still an expert at channeling her distinct charisma through her electronic tools, and this is another album that is identifiably hers and exists in its own musical space separate from what everyone else is doing. Just that alone makes this worthwhile in a blobby indie landscape that has fewer and fewer truly original voices. The Mosaic of Transformation is a step back for her, but it’s one that probably needed to happen. It still succeeds on its own terms and offers some serenity at a time when we could all use it.

“Warnings” is a Major Breakthrough for I Break Horses

While recently writing my albums of the decade list, my mind started connecting the dots between the records I enjoyed the most in the last ten years. A common link between many was that they sounded ambitious and vast, yet still maintained a sense of personality and intimacy. Albums like Tamaryn’s The Waves, Angel Olsen’s All Mirrors, and Bjork’s Vulnicura were three just from the top ten that came to mind as fitting into this framework. They all succeeded at scratching the itch I have for big, dramatic sounds, but also my desire to hear music that reflects an individual with distinct charisma, which tends to be my primary focus in the medium.

Warnings, the latest album by I Break Horses (the recording project of Swedish singer/songwriter Maria Linden), is a strong entrant into this class of album. Its release comes after a six-year hiatus since 2014’s Chiaroscuro; in the last year, I had coincidentally been revisiting her earlier music and wondering what happened to her, assuming the project had just ended without much fanfare. Her 2011 debut, Hearts, was the archetypical early 2010s electronic dream pop album that was very listenable, glossy, and chill, but didn’t have enough personality or originality to be more than a collection of solidly crafted, kind of forgettable pop songs. Warnings is a much more ambitious release that also feels personal and distinct, which is what makes it such a satisfying breakthrough.

The difference in Linden’s approach is obvious from the first song, “Turn,” which dispenses with typical pop lengths and breathes freely over the course of nine minutes, which are built around a repeated arpeggio and dense rhythms. The lyrics describe a tumultuous relationship that changes over time, so the song has a reason to go this long as it conveys her shifting emotions. The words don’t exactly jump off the page if you just read them, but they’re elevated by the whole sumptuous atmosphere the song creates, as well as Linden’s voice, which remains the biggest strength of her work. Beyond just the subjective “she sounds great” aspect, there is a sincerity in her delivery, and she can range from delivering soaring choruses to the quiet parts of this song that give it a sense of solitude and intimacy.

The release of Warnings was prefaced by a stellar run of singles that guaranteed I was going to love this album way more than anyone else who wastes time writing about music. “Death Engine” is in a similar vein to “Turn,” in that it uses length and space to tell a dramatic story about suicide and loss. “I’ll Be the Death of You,” “Neon Lights,” and “The Prophet” are pop songs from Linden’s old playbook, with earworm melodies, smooth production, and more straight-forward lyrics about relationships. But even those more traditional songs show further self-assuredness with her craft. They all take their time and the focus continues to be more on Linden expressing herself with her voice than just on cultivating a cool aesthetic. The album also sprinkles in some short ambient mood pieces, which help break up the pop songs while showing different sides of Linden’s creativity. The only real misfire on the album is the last track, “Depression Tourist,” and even that has less to do with the craft and more to do with me being a cranky music boomer about autotune. I will never understand why someone who has talent like Linden’s would mangle their voice with that sort of gimmickry, and it feels out of step with the rest of the album’s organic, soulful vibe.

That’s a small complaint when the rest of the album gives the listener so much, and it’s also a natural side effect of the ambition that makes the other songs so memorable. When announcing her new album after such a long break, Linden vowed that she wanted “to create the most intimate and sincere songs I felt I had in me.” Warnings delivers on that promise, and she didn’t have to trade off any of what made her previous music so appealing to get there. This album’s sound and its depth are on a different level, and few recent albums have had this combination of evocative singing and songwriting with addictive pop hooks.