Finally, after years of consistently amazing work, Lizzo is having her day in the spotlight. Her single “Truth Hurts”, with the amazing hook of “Why men great til they gotta be great” is climbing the Billboard Hot 100 chart. She’s the subject of memes about self-esteem and has started her own internet campaign to play Ursula in the new Little Mermaid movie. She is, in her own words, “One hundred percent that bitch” and we love her for it.
“Do you remember the first time we ever really saw Lizzo?” my husband asked me after I told him I was working on this piece.
“No…I mean, I remember hearing about her lots of places and really getting into her last summer.” I replied.
“Yeah. But I think the first time we really knew who she was came from her appearance on-“
“Samantha Bee!” I finished, as the memory snapped into place.
It was November 2016, just a day or so after the presidential election. On Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, the staff writers and producers had clearly planned a post-election show for a different outcome, with balloon drops and fanfare…and Lizzo, prepared to bring the girl power for an anticipated glass-ceiling-breaking moment.
After nearly half an hour of election debriefing, Samantha Bee introduced Lizzo. She performed a soulful rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and then transitioned into the joy of her biggest hit at the time, “Good as Hell.” Even though the tone of the episode was so different from what the Full Frontal writers likely planned all week, Lizzo gave the performance her all, encouraging the audience to celebrate in the face of everything.
It was an incredible moment: one of visibility, of positivity, of hope in the face of uncertainty.
A couple of years later, I stumbled on Lizzo’s video for her new single, “Boys.” It’s a song with a catchy beat that anyone can enjoy, and lyrics all about appreciating all the different kinds of “boys” that she can meet and appreciate in a sexual way. The song is boundary-pushing enough with its embrace of feminine sexuality, but it’s the video’s imagery that truly won me over to Lizzo as a person and an artist.
At one point, Lizzo turns around and dances, emphasizing her jiggling thighs to the camera. One simple thigh jiggle and my world was changed forever; Lizzo had danced her way into my fat girl heart and was there to stay.
It feels like I could write an actual dissertation on Lizzo, her skills, her persona and her cultural impact, but none of us have time for that…so let me just boil down my feelings to this:
Our culture needs Lizzo and responds to her so strongly right now because we are hungry for her brand of self-love and acceptance. Her influence is truly radical. And not radical in a “cowabunga, Dude!” sort of way. Radical in a “dismantling patriarchy one good feeling at a time” kind of way.
If you aren’t familiar with Lizzo yet, here are a smattering of lyrics from songs that showcase her can-do spirit:
Like A Girl:
“Woke up feelin’ like I just might run for President
Even if there ain’t no precedent, switchin’ up the messaging
I’m about to add a little estrogen”
“If I’m shinin’, everybody gonna shine (yeah, I’m goals)
I was born like this, don’t even gotta try (now you know)
I’m like chardonnay, get better over time (so you know)
Heard you say I’m not the baddest, bitch, you lied”
Good As Hell:
“Come now, come dry your eyes
You know you a star, you can touch the sky
I know that it’s hard but you have to try
If you need advice, let me simplify
If he don’t love you anymore
Just walk your fine ass out the door”
Beyond all of these lyrics that scream self-love, Lizzo also has the ability to be silly. One of her earliest songs was all about having lost her phone after a wild night of partying. Her Instagram is full of genuine happy faces and time spent with friends and bandmates on tour. She’s amazing at playing the flute, and has used that skill to jokingly re-create the jazz flute scene from Anchorman.
Funny enough, I think this silliness is also part of the radical work of change that Lizzo gifts to the world. It’s one thing to write rah-rah songs with messages like, “You know what? I’m the best!” Plenty of pop stars have played around with that to varying effect.
In Lizzo’s case, her messages of self-love work because we can’t help but get glimpses of the real self behind the lyrics. The woman who “just might run for president” is also the one who seems to have made a separate Instagram account showcasing the adventures of her flute (@sashabefluting). Lizzo infuses her lyrics and online persona with a joy that’s contagious and keeps us coming back.
It’s for all of these reasons that Lizzo and her work are radical and empowering—words I do not choose lightly to describe anything.
In our culture, empowerment has become a popular shorthand for anything that makes us feel powerful. Sure, that can explain the way anyone reacts to Lizzo and her body of work. However, I think her work transcends that feeling and actually manages to change the status quo, thereby helping people embrace power by embracing themselves.
Lizzo’s persona and her song catalog tell us all, “If she can love herself, then maybe I can, too.” I call her work empowering because it stands up in the face of numerous systems that say we aren’t good enough for x, y or z reasons. Buying into those messages a little bit less and into Lizzo’s a little bit more means that we can slowly but surely dismantle systems of racism, sexism, homophobia, sizeism and ableism. It’s not empowering music just because it feels good. It’s empowering because that good feeling on a wide scale helps us reclaim power and turn the tide on years of marginalization.
By her own admission, if she’s shining, everybody’s going to shine. And our world is made better, because Lizzo shines so bright.