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.