How Lizzo is Breaking Conventions of How Women Should Be Perceived in the Music Industry (Essay)
Since Cuz I Love You debuted earlier this year, Lizzo has commanded public attention and respect in America, seen when Terry Gross interviewed her on Fresh Air. Commenting on the album cover which depicts her sitting fully nude in a non-flattering pose that exposes her curves and rolls while staring at the camera sassily, Gross commended Lizzo for “breaking the mold of what beautiful is.” Lizzo bounced back with “Yeah, but are you only saying that because I'm fat?” Throughout the interview, she continued to assert that women, for countless years, have been taught to believe that their bodies should be catered for solely a male gaze. She mentioned that if she was “slimmer,” people would not admire and respect her for “representing everyone” because she is “big.” 4 In the R&B genre, being a heavier artist has not been an issue compared to hip-hop, where instead there is a clear precedent for how a female rapper should look. On the contrary, men have the freedom to appear visually any way they please and still manage to succeed in the music industry. When there is still a struggle for women to be seen as equals to men in today’s society, a feminist rap star who promotes empowerment is necessary. Lizzo embraces this market in a different way than her female predecessors such as Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj. Inspired by these artists, Lizzo not only repurposes their ideas but takes them a step further by both presenting and celebrating her “imperfections.” As a result, she appeals to a mainly female teenage, millennial, generation x and even baby boomer market. Lizzo is breaking conventions of how women should be perceived through celebrating body positivity. Perhaps Lizzo’s most well-known single, “Truth Hurts,” gained major traction earlier this year. Despite being originally released in 2017, it was nominated this year for Song of the Summer at the MTV Video Music Awards and Teen Choice Awards. The anthem became the longest-leading number one rap single by an unaccompanied female artist on the Billboard Top 100, eclipsing Cardi B’s three-week reign with “Bodak Yellow” in 2017, and currently, the song still lives within the top spots of Billboard’s chart. Lizzo has additionally been nominated for a plethora of other awards from shows like the Teen Choice Awards to the Q Awards, including nominations for Best New Artist at the MTV Video Music Awards and Album of the Year for Cuz I Love You at the People’s Choice Awards. She also recently performed at Coachella in April and starred in the 2019 film, Hustlers. Although Lizzo confidently promotes body positivity today, it cannot be forgotten that she struggled with her body image for most of her life—from experiencing difficulties fitting in during middle school to even when she began to become popular as a musician breaking into the industry. Growing up, her classmates called her “too white” for the clothing she wore, to which she now replies with: “But, like, Lil Wayne also wore Uggs.” 3 She later attended college as a classical flute studies major, but later dropped out after feeling the effects of her imposter syndrome and decided to channel all of her energy into making her own music; something to which she could always return to feel passion and comfort. When she started to develop herself as a solo artist, she immediately realized that the industry was overwhelmingly dominated by “white dudes,” and it was more difficult to break through as a woman of color. 3 However, after working hard on her solo material, Lizzo finally broke through, and she was signed by Atlantic in 2016. Lizzo’s feminist rap star persona is nothing that the industry has not seen before—her predecessors and contemporaries are women such as Missy Elliot, Beyoncé, and Nicki Minaj. Missy Elliott, most popular in the late 1990s to early 2000s, was the original portrayal of a female rapper who does not have a typical media-praised slim body. Lizzo directly spoke on Elliot’s influence in her life during an interview with Nylon, saying she “wanted to be just like her” when she was younger. Lizzo proceeded to say that when she got the opportunity to collaborate with Elliott on “Tempo,” she doubted herself in comparison to Elliott, who taught Lizzo that she indeed was “worthy” to work with her, and in life. 10 However, body image was not at the forefront of the discussions that Elliott inspired through her music and she wore more conservative clothing onstage, such as hoodies and sweatpants. Lizzo, however, blatantly posed on her debut album cover completely nude and wears revealing clothing during performances, revolutionizing body positivity in a more overt manner. Among Lizzo’s other predecessors, Beyoncé supports the ideas of confidence and loving oneself, as she maintains a conventionally “flawless” appearance, flaunting her curvy figure, traditionally attractive face, and perfectly wind-blown hair in concert. Lastly, Nicki also has an unauthentic hourglass figure, but she constantly calls attention to her body through her lyrics and music videos, such as in “Anaconda,” when she repeatedly raps about her rear, saying “he love my sex appeal,” thus objectifying herself and supporting the idea of catering to the “ideal body type” for the male gaze. Beyoncé and Minaj intentionally sell sex and consequently set a high expectation for how women should be perceived while Lizzo completely lets go of that mentality and instead promotes self-love—a subsection of that being body positivity. Part of what attracts fans to Lizzo is her ability to acknowledge her predecessors’ ideas and twist them to appeal to her projected market. Lyrically, in her song “My Skin” from 2015, her lyrics reflect Beyoncé’s mantra “I woke up like this” from “Flawless” in 2013, as the main hook repeats “I woke up in this.” While both women encourage having self-love for one’s natural appearance through these lyrics, Lizzo takes Beyoncé’s original idea a step further by specifying that she loves her natural skin color, allowing fans of color to especially embrace their body image. Her song “En Love,” “rewrites Whitney Houston’s ‘Greatest Love Of All’ for our times” with Lizzo belting “I think I’m in love...” and ends the sentence with “with myself!,” which is another example of how Lizzo took inspiration from those before her and simply tweaks it. 2 Lastly, in her hit “Crybaby,” Lizzo sings “Big girls gotta cry,” which sounds awfully familiar to Fergie’s hit “Big Girls Don’t Cry” from 2006, stimulating women to express their emotions without shame. Visually, it is easy to compare Lizzo to Nicki Minaj in her music video for “Juice,” which parallels Minaj’s famous “Anaconda.” In both videos, the artists appear to be exercising in work out attire, but where the shots of Minaj are extremely sexualized due to the focus on her rear, Lizzo and her backup dancers are instead shot from angles that are not conventionally flattering, all while confidently posing to show off their curvier bodies. Lizzo takes the ideas of the artists before her and repurposes them to fit her music’s market of women who need to hear this message of loving one’s body and oneself for their own independence, not for the sake of sexualization for men. Lizzo stands out from her predecessors and contemporaries not only because of her image, but also because of the narrative she conveys through her lyrics. The idea of promoting self-love of one’s body through music is not original, but Lizzo quirkily reinvents these concepts. In her hit “Soulmate” from Cuz I Love You, she embraces the thought of being one’s own soulmate. In the verse and chorus, she raps: They used to say to get a man you had to know how to look
They used to say to keep a man you had to know how to cook
But I'm solo in Soho, sippin' Soju in Malibu It's a me, myself kinda attitude 'Cause I'm my own soulmate (Yeah, yeah)
I know how to love me (Love me) I know that I'm always gonna hold me down
Yeah, I'm my own soulmate (Yeah, yeah) No, I'm never lonely (Lonely) I know I'm a queen but I don't need no crown
Look up in the mirror like damn she the one Lizzo is the living embodiment of self-love as heard in “Soulmate,” which is extremely marketable to women of all ages and races. When asked about her non-Black fans in her interview with Nylon, she explained that her fan base was originally indie and that her audiences reflected that. In the past, before her fame, she did not have as many Black people coming to her shows as she does today, and that it was because of her newfound “exposure and...different privileges.” 10 Since her indie festival days, Lizzo’s fanbase has grown exponentially to mostly women of all races, and in the interview, she gushed that her message is all-inclusive for the purpose of celebrating one’s individuality. On Twitter, fan langley (@wonderlanding) tweeted “how is it possible that I listened to the great @lizzo tell me how important self-love is and I still somehow hate myself like that’s just not right,” 7 to which Lizzo replied “It’s because loving yourself don’t happen overnight.. self-hate is years of internalized programming from external influences... sometimes self-hate is chemical & effects ya mentally/emotionally.. give your growth time— it took me 10 years and I’m still not 100% there.” 8 Lizzo is needed in this time of patriarchy when women are still not treated as equals to men, specifically seen in the music industry when female and male musicians are perceived differently by their expected visual appearances. Therefore, women experience insecurities which can help become diminished through her promotion of self-love in music. Her intentions are to completely lift up her audience through her own image of imperfection. While Lizzo promotes nothing but positivity to her fans, she has been accused of being a sellout. Azealia Banks made an extensive Instagram post in early September of this year bashing Lizzo and “Truth Hurts,” calling her a “fat girl joke,” ranting that “the song is not good, nor is the dumpy fat girl spectacle live set she does.” She continued to call Lizzo a “millennial mammy,” then compared her to Queen Latifah, whom she believes represents larger women without being a “minstrel.” 5 Lizzo received additional criticism in mid-October of this year through a tweet accusing her of having two white male songwriters who were the masterminds behind all of her music. Fan Jason @EscaflowneClown defended her, tweeting back “This targeted campaign towards Lizzo is exhausted and tired. She will continue to win and y’all will continue to be a bunch of miserable corny troglodytes that harass a Black woman.” 6 Despite the hate, Lizzo has continued to successfully inspire her fans, from her Twitter fan Langley, to the accomplished recording artists Sam Smith and Kacey Musgraves, who completely gushed on social media after meeting her. There is no doubt that Lizzo is inspiring the next generation of musical artists. Because Lizzo knows how to sell fun, loving, silly, and even comedic content to women, her market is expanding each second, and hopefully future artists will do what she herself has done—use another artist’s ideas and extend the reach of that market. Lizzo’s schtick is her ability to demand respect through her upbeat communication of self-love through body positivity. Her challenge will be to keep her aesthetic fresh to prevent these ideas from becoming old, without being outshined by new talent. Depending on what happens in America’s political and cultural climate in the future, Lizzo might be able to provoke even more topics of discussion by observing our country and its citizens. Because there will always be a market for selling positivity, based on her current path she can be successful as long as she finds a way to revise and improve her message through her music. ________________ 1 Ring, Deborah A. “Lizzo 1988—.” In Contemporary Black Biography, edited by Margaret Mazurkiewicz, 79-81. Vol. 143. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale, 2018, Gale eBooks
(accessed October 14, 2019). https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/CX3655400034/GVRL?
u=new64731&sid=GVRL &xid=c3cd2d46. 2 Empire, Kitty. “Lizzo: Big Grrrl Small World Review -- Feminist Self-Affirmation and Braggadocio.” The
Observer, December 13, 2015, ProQuest. http://proxy.library.nyu.edu/login?
url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/17485 16151?accountid=12768. 3 Davis, Allison. “It’s Just a Matter of Time Till Everybody Loves Lizzo.” New York, February 4, 2019,
http://proxy.library.nyu.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/2187591745? accountid=12768. 4 Jefferson, Melissa Vivianne. “Lizzo On Feminism, Self-Love And Bringing ‘Hallelujah Moments’ To Stage,” interview by Terry Gross, Fresh Air, NPR, May 23, 2019, ProQuest.
accountid=12768. 5 Kaye, Ben. “Azealia Banks Calls Lizzo “Millennial Mammy” in Unprompted Instagram Tirade.”
Consequence of Sound. September 4, 2019.
https://consequenceofsound.net/2019/09/azealia-banks-lizzo-instagram-tirade/. 6 Jason (@EscaflowneClown), “This targeted campaign towards Lizzo is exhausted and tired. She will
continue to win and y'all will continue to be a bunch of miserable corny troglodytes that
harass a Black woman,” Tweet, October 16, 2019,
https://twitter.com/EscaflowneClown/status/1184515866697850880?s=17. 7 langley (@wonderlanding), “how is it possible that i listened to the great @lizzo tell me how important
self love is and i still somehow hate myself like that’s just not right,” Tweet, September 15,
2019, https://twitter.com/wonderIanding/status/1173460352232808448. 8 Feelin Good As Hell (@lizzo), “It’s because loving yourself don’t happen overnight.. self-hate is years
of internalized programming from external influences... sometimes self-hate is chemical &
effects ya mentally/emotionally.. give your growth time— it took me 10 years and I’m still not
100% there.” Tweet, September 15, 2019,
https://twitter.com/lizzo/status/1173462172262944769. 9 Tufena, Mongol. “Lizzo.” Fact Mandu, August 27, 2019. 10 Bowen, Sesali. “Lizzo Talks About Her Hot Girl Summer And Her White Girl Fans.” NYLON, September 4, 2019. https://nylon.com/lizzo-interview-2019.