Lizzo Backlash Raises the Question: Who Gets to Make Joyful Music?

Save ArticleSave Article

Failed to save article

Please try again

This article is more than 4 years old.
Lizzo performs at Outside Lands 2018 in San Francisco. (Estefany Gonzalez)

Long before Lizzo made headlines with her a cappella Coachella performance, collaborated with Missy Elliott and hit No. 1 on the iTunes charts with her new album, millions of Americans already knew her voice.

The liberatory, soulful refrain of "Water Me" ("I am free, yeah, yeah!") accompanied ads for Acura and DIRECTV; her kiss-off to online haters, "Let 'Em Say," soundtracked a Target commercial. And, to her body-positive fanbase's frustration, her sexy, self-empowerment anthem "Worship" pumped up dieters in a Weight Watchers commercial. (While I researched these, YouTube's algorithm also fed me a low-cal margarita ad with Lizzo's 2019 single, "Juice.")

With music sales in decline and streaming royalties estimated at a fraction of a cent per play, musicians have to make strategic moves, once seen as selling out, to survive in today's market. Given that the entertainment industry favors the thin, the light-skinned and the barely legal, the odds were stacked against Lizzo's mainstream ascent as a 30-year-old, plus-sized, dark-skinned black woman. Licensing her music for commercials ensured that Lizzo would get paid for her creativity, while many others who look like her don't.

That advertiser friendliness, however, has complicated the way listeners and critics receive her ultra-positive and inclusive new album, Cuz I Love You. The image of Lizzo as a brand-aligned hashtag-feminist permeated Rawiya Kameir's controversial 6.5 Pitchfork review, where the writer likened her to this generation's Natasha Bedingfield (ouch), whose nice but toothless girl-power bop "Unwritten" could play in "any given rom-com or yogurt commercial."


There's room for critique of Cuz I Love You, but it's unfair to dismiss the content of Lizzo's work because of its commercial appeal. (John Legend sold Pampers, and Cardi B peddled Pepsi at this year's Super Bowl, and no one seems to take their creative output any less seriously.) It's even more unfair to criticize it for what I think the Pitchfork review was really going after: its feel-goodness.

Indeed, Lizzo has an important role in the music ecosystem. In a world filled with unresolved trauma, where we see daily violence, corruption, racism and sexism amplified in our social feeds, Lizzo offers the perspective of someone who has, against all odds, accepted and moved past her pain into sunnier, more optimistic terrain. She has an abundance mindset in a world of scarcity, and is stubbornly positive in a media climate that thrives on black trauma.

Trauma is big business. Music about unhealthy coping through drugs, consumerism and violence rules the charts. Black musicians who excavate the depths of racial trauma become lauded as Serious Artists, while those who make uplifting music, with uplifting lyrics, are often scoffed at as corny. (This trend drives media consumption as well: as an editor, I often notice that KQED Arts' stories highlighting injustice perform astronomically better, traffic-wise, than our stories about solutions.)

Pop artists who do the difficult work of giving voice to social injustices, like Kendrick Lamar, Beyoncé and Solange, deserve all the praise they're getting. But it's clear that Lizzo doesn't get permission to be joyous and carefree in the way that white peers such as Carly Rae Jepsen and Taylor Swift can—easily, profitably and without skepticism.

There are many stages of healing, and many shades of human emotion. We need songs that give voice to our bad impulses, our grief and our frustration at broken systems. But we also need to dance it out in the mirror sometimes, and that's why self-love anthems like Lizzo's "Juice" and "Soulmate" matter too—whether we hear them in a low-cal margarita ad on YouTube, while getting dressed in the morning or in a club with hundreds of strangers searching for connection, understanding or escape.