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.

Lana Del Rey’s New Album is an Overhyped Bore

There’s this popular and annoying Twitter account called So Sad Today that posts depressive “deep” aphorisms that are clearly engineered to be retweeted by people who are feeling vaguely down and can’t articulate why — stuff like “i love when i’m not awake” and “just got a terrible feeling that I exist.” The account is run by Melissa Broder, an educated woman who is married, lives in LA, and has published four books. I don’t question the validity of her experience with mental illness, but I do find the way this account portrays depression to be rather distasteful. It’s this cutesy, faux-self-deprecating tone that many use on the internet, and it glorifies depression by turning it into a blandly relatable performance that doesn’t contain any real truth.

Lana Del Rey is the So Sad Today of musicians. Her new album,  Norman Fucking Rockwell, appeals to the same audience of disaffected young women, and it taps into very contemporary feelings of nostalgia and anxiety about the future. It’s a huge, ambitious album, and it has an undeniably appealing sound with its piano plus string arrangements and Del Rey’s vocals, which are gorgeous and full of longing, similar to Hope Sandoval’s. Despite these obvious positives, and some good songs like “Mariners Apartment Complex,” I find myself loathing this album because everything feels so fake and performatively sad.

Admittedly, this might be my contrarian instincts kicking in in response to the wave of hype surrounding this album, which has frankly been preposterous. But I can’t buy into this material, which is presented with such seriousness while taking on this silly and cliché 50s Americana aesthetic. Del Rey can sing and back herself with good production, but it never becomes anything to me other than some vapid tunes done in a style that has been performed by countless much more interesting artists. This nearly 70-minute album does not contain a single original thought or sound, yet it’s presented as this majestic, novel commentary on American life.

Norman Fucking Rockwell is so transparently ambitious and trying to be a Great American Album that it becomes unbelievably tedious despite its beautiful sound. A song like “Venice Bitch,” for instance, has no real reason to be nine minutes long except that this is an epic album that needs epic songs. Its long instrumental section tries to be mesmerizing and psychedelic but is really just some pointless noodling– it’s length for the sake of length. That song ends up being a microcosm of this album’s entire contrived self-indulgent vibe. Del Rey now believes she is an artist who has Something to Say about America and culture and everything else, so the album drags on and on with samey songs that are full of banal observations about how great things used to be, how she has no fucks to give, etc. There isn’t really poetry or depth in these lyrics, most of which sound like they were algorithmically generated to maximize likes on Instagram. Anyone pretending that these songs are some really deep exploration of the American Dream is out of their mind. I’ve read fortune cookies that had more insight.

What is maybe most frustrating about this album is that it’s totally in my musical wheelhouse as someone who really likes this type of nostalgic, emotive pop. It irritates me, probably irrationally, that Lana Del Rey is the artist being celebrated for this style when she is bringing nothing new to the table. Widowspeak’s Expect the Best did everything this album is trying to do in half the length and I might have been the only person to chart it on my year-end list. Fiona Apple makes music that is somewhat reminiscent of this album, but she puts authentic feeling and experiences into her songs. When Del Rey sings, I don’t get that — it all feels like a character and a performance, and she’s singing these lyrics because she knows people will relate to them and like them, not because she feels them. This entire album is such a surface-level exploration of subjects that have been covered so much better by other art. You could probably re-read most of The Great Gatsby in the time it takes to listen to this thing and be much better off.

I guess I shouldn’t be shocked that this is the album people have decided is the greatest thing ever in the social media era. When people are brought up on the idea of likes and popularity being equal to quality, it makes sense that they all go wild for pandering middlebrow nonsense like this. And when writers and listeners are all desperate to seem positive about pop music to show how not-snobby they are, they convince themselves that Lana’s vacuous lyrics about walking on beaches in California are the pinnacle of the form. Meanwhile, the music that really does have something to say often goes ignored in this social media driven cultural monopoly held by mainstream pop. Norman Fucking Rockwell being a boring album isn’t what bothers me so much: it’s that it represents a tipping point in our culture where every big pop album with some hype behind it is lapped up uncritically by maniacal fans and celebrated for accomplishing the bare minimum artistically. Our standards should be much higher than this.

Bury Our Friends: On the New Sleater-Kinney and Being a Fan

When I last checked in on Sleater-Kinney, my once-favorite band, I despised their single “The Future is Here” and had pretty much divested myself emotionally from their new album, the ironically-titled The Center Won’t Hold. Since then, the band has embarked on one of the oddest, most comically disastrous album hype cycles in memory: they had a boring performance on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon after which longtime drummer Janet Weiss quit the band, citing the obvious “change in direction” I pointed out, leaving Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker to promote the album themselves. They’ve spent the last three weeks grimacing while giving “no really, this album is great, we totally love it” interviews while the release date lurked ahead like an oncoming apocalypse.

Now that the future actually is here, it’s hard for the music to live up to all of the drama and speculation surrounding its release. In the end, The Center Won’t Hold is what I expected from the early singles: it’s poppy, corny, and probably the most disappointing album I’ve ever heard given how big a fan I was of all the people involved.

But before I bury this thing and pretend it never happened, I want to clear up some of the spin I’ve seen from other fans and writers. Disliking this musical direction does not make someone a misogynist or a bad fan. It’s insulting to the members of Sleater-Kinney, who are grown women who have been in the arts scene for over two decades, to uncritically pretend their art is great and to attribute any criticism to sexism as if they’re children who can’t take the heat. Given Weiss’ departure, I also think it’s outright delusional to pretend everything went great here. If some fans do like this album, then all power to them — but they must have been enjoying Sleater-Kinney for much different reasons than I did.

What made Sleater-Kinney a great band was that every song felt like it mattered to them and it gave their music a sense of urgency and originality. Most of the credit for that goes to Weiss and Tucker — Weiss’ thundering drums added a level of intensity to every song and Tucker had a voice like no one else’s, a sort of banshee wail that filled the room and jolted any listener to pay attention. Brownstein was never a third wheel by any means and is a great guitarist, but the Tucker/Weiss core is what defined Sleater-Kinney to me and was the backbone of most of my favorite songs by them.

There are a lot of theories on what is going on with The Center Won’t Hold that caused the new sound and look and the eventual departure of Weiss. Let’s just say that anyone who speculated that it was a result of Brownstein bigfooting the band will feel vindicated by this record. She is by far the most prominent member on this album, taking a frontwoman role on most songs while Tucker is left in the background and Weiss barely even registers. This is part of why The Center Won’t Hold barely sounds like Sleater-Kinney — Brownstein, as talented as she is, was never the reason people listened to this band, but she seems to think that’s the case. The unique group dynamic and chemistry is totally missing here with little interplay between Brownstein and Tucker and uninspiring drum parts for Weiss. This isn’t the band evolving or growing; it’s the band becoming something entirely different, something decidedly lamer and less interesting to listen to.

If someone is a fan of Metallica, it’s probably because they play those crushing metal riffs that can fill an arena. If Metallica became a solo Lars Ulrich project where he played the accordion, their fans would stop enjoying the band because it would lack the qualities that made them fans in the first place. People wouldn’t say “I guess those Metallica fans just hate change because they’re not down with this Lars Ulrich accordion album.” My dislike here isn’t out of nostalgia for the good old days. I wanted Sleater-Kinney to change things up, to try new things and push the boundaries, like they did on The Woods. That’s part of what made them a great band. But this album does not fit into that framework because it doesn’t even feel like Sleater-Kinney anymore.

I suppose to some people fandom is this ride-or-die thing where you have to support everything the artists do. And I do think fandom is more than purely transactional — you gain a respect and admiration for the artists over time and want to support them even when their work isn’t connecting with you like it once did. But it’s also up to the band to meet the expectations of the fans, who have grown attached to their work being a certain way, and I imagine one of the great difficulties of being in a band is figuring out how far to stretch those expectations before reaching a breaking point for some listeners.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that the members of Sleater-Kinney had to know the cost of doing business with this album, and so I don’t feel particularly bad that I hate it. I think they knew this would upset some “purist” fans and were prepared for this outcome. But let’s clear up another thing: I’m not even opposed to the idea of Sleater-Kinney making a poppier album, and I like pop music a lot more than most people I know. The problem is that these aren’t very good pop songs. What ultimately is most alienating about the album is that it lacks any sense of vitality or purpose, the traits that used to define Sleater-Kinney. Usually when a band enters into a new musical space, it energizes them (like it did on The Woods), but everything here feels flat. A lot of this comes down to the sound and production by Annie Clark, which has buried the band’s intensity and emotions under a layer of glossy sheen.

This album still has its moments, usually involving Corin, like “Reach Out” and “Ruins,” but even on those, I often find myself fighting to enjoy the band through the production and gimmickry. The new style also doesn’t really fit their lyrics, which admittedly were never amazing, but usually the band was kicking so much ass that I could look past the occasional awkward line. Now the heavy-handed lyricism is very noticeable and it drags down the songs, which already need all the help they can get since the sound is so generic and unengaging. “Can I Go On,” for example, pretty much sounds like children’s music or a commercial jingle. “Bad Dance” is another attempt at a Carrie-fronted dance-pop song that is trying so hard to be upbeat and zany that it’s embarrassing to listen to. The sing-along chorus on “The Dog/The Body” is sickeningly sweet, and one of the many moments where the band tips into being maudlin. The overall sense I get is that the band and Clark are putting in an inordinate amount of effort to try to make Sleater-Kinney sound like mediocre artists who could never make music as great as Dig Me OutOne Beat, or The Woods. Why one of the greatest bands of all-time would do this instead of being themselves is the vexing mystery of The Center Won’t Hold.

On “Entertain,” one of the highlights of The Woods, Brownstein mocked backwards-looking unoriginal bands with a venomous delivery:

You come around looking 1984
You’re such a bore, 1984!
You star child, well you’re using it like a whore!
It’s better than before, oh it’s better than before!
You come around sounding 1972
You did nothing new, 1972!
Where’s the ‘fuck you’?
Where’s the black and blue?
Where’s the black and blue?
Where’s the black and blue?
If your heart is done, Johnny get your gun!
Join the rank and file, on your TV dial
All of these criticisms can now be applied to The Center Won’t Hold and it’s part of why it’s so dismaying: a group that once stood for defiant, individual rock music has become another in a sea of generic pop-aspiring bands. Sleater-Kinney was never about riding waves or trying to be trendy, but that’s what this album feels like more than anything else. Worst of all, it’s not even all that good at doing the bad thing they were trying to do. The harsh reality is that this album isn’t even a particularly fascinating blow-up — this beloved band came undone over some forgettable pop songs.