A few weeks ago, one of our hourly time-wasting micro-controversies erupted when Lizzo brought a crystal flute belonging to James Madison onstage in Washington, D.C. and delightedly shook her exposed behind as she fluttered the keys of the fourth president’s prized instrument, which hadn’t been played in nearly 200 years. Certain conservatives alleged this was a kind of humiliation ritual aimed at American normies, in which Lizzo openly trivialized the country’s rich history. But American normies barely know who James Madison is.
Lizzo’s flute stunt was distasteful for an entirely different reason—indeed, for almost the opposite reason. It’s not that she showed too little respect for authority but far too much, reveling in her chance to fill a cultural space that previous American power cults have left undisturbed. Even a vibrant democracy like Britain has the BBC to model the establishment’s ideal of how the citizenry should process reality. Until recently, the connection between what Americans see and hear and what our would-be rulers want us to think was much less direct, and for that reason more organic, than it is in much of the rest of the world. That’s starting to change. American media is now at the mercy of large tech platforms that respond to the directives of the White House and federal bureaucrats, and our former sense of an independent cultural life is eroding.
Witness the new if so far unofficial position of American Establishment Pop Star, a role that Lizzo herself currently fills. Most popular American musicians present an open challenge to the social order: A majority of popular rap songs consist of boasts about criminal or sexual prowess delivered in the language and style of a dispossessed American underclass. To take one of many examples, the populist high poetry of the Los Angeles rapper Kendrick Lamar is a cry from far beyond the safe and prosperous American mainstream, and his personal beliefs, which merge both the existential and the Black nationalist, elude and often reject all major political agendas. The leading country songs are usually about trucks that America’s elitists will never buy, and places they never go or even think about.
Lizzo campaigned for now-President Joe Biden in October of 2020, but it wasn’t always obvious the establishment pop crown would be hers. Billie Eilish, America’s depressive teenage sweetheart, performed a notably downbeat song at the 2020 Democratic National Convention. But she exudes a hyper-ironizing contempt toward everyone and everything, and is too skeptical and too self-aware to be trusted, in the long-run, with the mantle of Establishment Pop Star.
Lizzo is a different story. The proudly corpulent female singer comes from a lineage spanning Will Smith, Justin Timberlake, The Black-Eyed Peas, and finally Beyoncé, stars who motion toward a generic, unchallenging, undisruptive flavor of upbeat social unity. The ideal establishment star is a family-friendly actor-rapper who doesn’t curse, or a white R&B singer with little actual sex appeal, or maybe a mega-celebrity married to a billionaire whose social justice commitments are indistinguishable from those of the Democratic National Committee. No one of any importance feels unsettled by them, and liking them is an effort-free way of signaling one’s own enlightenment and tolerance.
Lizzo’s music is bouncy but derivative of better and harder stuff. Still, as an evangelist of body-positivity belonging to traditionally oppressed racial and gender categories, she embodies several establishment fetish objects simultaneously. In doing so, she is an ideal avatar for the ultimate fetish of America’s current elite: the cult of cost-free personal empowerment.
In its current usage, “empowerment” refers not only to one’s progress toward some individual destiny, but to the idea that there is a core dignity to the disadvantaged, the violation of which, even in the form of well-intentioned minor criticism, is an offense exceeding even physical violence. A wealthy overweight woman is in need of immediate emergency empowerment, not judgment. On the other hand, a penniless male rural opioid addict is ineligible for empowerment, his problems being the (deserved) punishment for his sinful and retrograde personal characteristics.
It is easy to see why this idea of empowerment might appeal to any national establishment. Empowerment is a convenient tool for the people who think they’re the empowerers. Political and business leaders can define virtue and promote and distribute its limited blessings to the groups and people whose fealty it would like to command. At the same time, empowerment creates an easy heuristic for identifying and punishing one’s opponents. The enemies of empowerment are everywhere, and they will not go down easily—which is why the powerless many need the powerful few to protect them.
Lizzo’s music simulates the empowerment mindset without exploring it or critiquing it. “I just took a DNA test and found out I’m 100% that bitch,” she says in her most famous song, an instant catchphrase that Hillary Clinton has tweeted, and words that might actually have meant something if they’d come from a more elusive or ironic artist, a Solange Knowles or a Nicki Minaj. In “About Damn Time,” her monotonous chart-topper from over the summer, we learn Lizzo is “way too fine to be this stressed,” and has “been so down and under pressure” since we last heard from her, lines she screeches over the millionth disco guitar riff American music consumers have heard since the Pharrell-led Nile Rodgers revival of a decade ago. In the case of the recent single “Grrls,” a soft satire of the Beastie Boys’ “Girls,” which it directly samples and quotes, Lizzo publicly bowed and repented following claims that in using the word “spaz” she had propagated an ableist slur against the mentally ill. The “spaz” controversy was more revealing of Lizzo’s artistic mission than anything in the actual song: She is here to give everyone a comfortable and comforting time, herself included, within limits that nobody really questions.
Not all pop stars want this. Even today, most major American acts aim for some level of discomfort. When Puerto Ricans took to the streets to oust their widely despised governor in 2019, Bad Bunny halted a concert tour to join them. It is impossible to imagine Kendrick Lamar gushing over any personal possession of any U.S. political figure. America’s cultural imagination is populated with figures who likely considered power itself to be stupid and lame. Would Kurt Cobain or Nina Simone publicly cherish some moldy Presidential relic? Even when Elvis visited Richard Nixon, it wasn’t part of the pageantry of leader-worship but a moment of transcendent camp that immortalized the essential absurdity of two mad American icons.
The punk rock move would have been for Lizzo to smash James Madison’s flute over her thighs, or stick it between her glutes and twerk against the object itself while its two handlers from the National Archives gaped in horror. Better still, she could have just said “no thanks” to the septuagenarian Potomac priests and priestesses who brokered her handling of a minor piece of the national patrimony. But her job isn’t to question the cult. She is a key participant, someone whose job is to validate an elite that dreams of the wildness of the larger American public sphere being safely under its control.