Lizzo doesn’t make songs – she makes billboards. Hits such as “Truth Hurts” and “Good As Hell”, although undeniably massive, felt lab-designed to propagate the idea that the Detroit-born, Los Angeles-based singer and rapper is The Celebrity We Need Now: a relentlessly upbeat, proudly body-positive pop star whose doctrine of self-love and self-acceptance is a necessary corrective to an increasingly hostile and alienated modern world. The music is more functional than artful, designed to remind a listener that they’re “100% that bitch” or looking “good as hell” or “crazy, sexy, cool, with or without makeup”. The music is secondary to the message, and, as any Etsy search for “100% that bitch” will tell you, the message is tremendously saleable.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this career model but building a brand around being a paragon of virtue has its drawbacks. Lizzo, like anyone, is fallible and a handful of slip-ups in the years since she first rose to mainstream fame have made her an easy target for her many critics, who see her merch-friendly sloganeering as purely cynical.
Some of these blunders – such as the time she inadvertently doxxed a delivery driver who she accused of stealing her food – seem to have been classic cases of a newly famous star not realising the size of their platform. Others, like a recent video that showed her telling Chris Brown he was her “favourite person ever” and posing for a photo, seemed more nakedly off-colour. It’s not hard to see Lizzo as a kind of pop music Sophia Amoruso – a #Girlboss whose values are more slippery than they might seem on paper.
All of this hand-wringing about Lizzo’s politics – about how real the perceived earnestness of her message is – shouldn’t really matter. Many of the best pop stars, from Lana Del Rey to The Weeknd, have slightly questionable politics that are ignored because of the consistency and vitality of their art. But Lizzo’s music leaves a lot to be desired. Listen to Cuz I Love You, her 2019 breakthrough album, and you’ll likely find that there’s no there there, nothing to meaningfully engage with beyond the catchphrases and the consistently sunny veneer. It’s far easier to dig into the nuances of her politics and persona because they – not the songs – are the real products. It’s a profoundly modern mode of pop stardom: the music promotes the personality, rather than the other way around.
But maybe, like the rest of us, Lizzo got a little bored with all that girlbossery. Special, her fourth album and first since the monstrous success of Cuz I Love You, is more modest than its predecessor. It feels a little less branded and a little less craven – even though Lizzo spent much of the album’s promotional cycle telegraphing how radical and how necessary it is – which makes it easier to accept on its own merits. Although many of the songs on Special are merely fine and a few border on unconscionably naff, a lot of them – particularly those that pastiche old-school disco and soul – are endearingly rigorous and well crafted. They’re never mould-breaking or particularly transgressive but they effectively showcase Lizzo’s songwriting talent.
The best songs on Special are the least showy. Rather than getting bogged down in clunky bad bitch-isms or empty sermonising, they simply identify a universal feeling and dig in. “2 Be Loved (Am I Ready)” finds Lizzo poking holes in her own ethos, admitting that she knows she doesn’t need a romantic partner but wants one anyway (“I did the work, it didn’t work / That truth, it hurts, goddamn it hurts”) as an effervescent, ’80s-indebted aerobics beat races beneath her. Where so many Lizzo songs take an easy path from point A to point B – the solution to self-doubt, for example, almost always being “love yourself” – “2 Be Loved” stews in hesitancy, the song’s beat equal parts panicked and peppy. The strutting “Break Up Twice”, a kind of Motown joint redone in minimalist tones, finds a similar driving force in unease. Over horns and the dusty tick of a drum machine, Lizzo addresses a trifling partner: “It would be a shame to not see this through / Who gon’ put up with your Gemini shit like I do?” Unlike some of the other gratuitous samples and interpolations on Special – flips of songs by Coldplay and the Beastie Boys among them – the interpolation of Ms. Lauryn Hill’s immortal hit “Doo Wop (That Thing)” in the chorus of “Break Up Twice” feels earned, like an invocation of relationship wisdom passed down from one generation to another.
These songs, as well as ballads such as “If You Love Me” and “Naked”, reveal Lizzo as a pop A-lister decidedly out of step with modern pop trends – not just aesthetically, but lyrically. It is now de rigueur for pop stars to write almost exclusively about being pop stars: Olivia Rodrigo sings about how her ex is dating another actress; Billie Eilish boasts about making one-night stands sign non-disclosure agreements; Harry Styles and The Weeknd write odes to their movie-star girlfriends. We are living amid the autofictionification of pop music, a trend that was initially fun in a dishy, voyeuristic way, and which has now resulted in some of the most purely boring big-budget pop albums of the past decade.
Even if Lizzo’s music can feel conceptually thin when compared, say, with the music made by Eilish or The Weeknd, it’s nowhere near as solipsistic. These songs hark back to an era of pop music that was more interested in capturing an audience through the evocation of universally relatable feelings rather than gossipy subtext. In that sense, many of the songs on Special are a breath of fresh air – a welcome respite from the intense individualism of mainstream music in 2022.
This new side of Lizzo’s music hasn’t precluded her from giving in to many of her worst impulses. As with Cuz I Love You, Special has a tendency to grate, frequently. Any album that opens with the lines “Hi, motherfucker / Did you miss me? / I’ve been home since 2020 / I’ve been twerkin’ and makin’ smoothies” will tend to do that. A lot of the lyrics on this album read like tweets – “Is it your birthday, girl? ’Cause you lookin’ like a present”; “That’s my girl, we CEOs / And dancin’ like a CE-hoe” and “Don’t need that energy, bitch, I’m a Tesla” are three of the most egregious examples – and it’s hard to imagine their respective songs having any place in the world other than hen’s nights and the changing rooms at H&M.
On the whole, the moments of depth that make songs such as “2 Be Loved” interesting are few and far between on Special. “I Love You Bitch” is pretty much all filler. Lizzo sings the title phrase 16 times and, somewhat jaw-droppingly, can still only manage clunkers such as “Yeah, you are the most special-est … You water all your plants and eat your veggies / I’m obsessed with it” in the verses. “Birthday Girl” similarly revolves around a few cloying, repeated lines and is so conceptually and lyrically thin that you wonder if the entire thing is just an attempt at engineering TikTok virality. And the album’s title track, like so much of Cuz I Love You, feels like the kind of rap that might be performed on Sesame Street, blocky and wholly prosaic lines such as “Woke up this mornin’ to somebody in a video / Talkin about somethin’ I posted in a video” underscoring a blithe tastelessness that runs through much of the record.
As is often the case, though, tastelessness can occasionally lead to greatness. “Coldplay”, the album’s final song, is a sweet, humid ballad about a romantic breakthrough Lizzo experienced while listening to, of all things, Coldplay’s suffocating, still-omnipresent 2000 hit “Yellow”. Built around a sample of underground New York rapper Quelle Chris’s “Sudden Death” as well as a small, disembodied snippet of “Yellow”, “Coldplay” is effusive but unburdened, pithy but nowhere near as overwrought as many of the songs on Special. In fact, it’s kind of unshowy, zeroing in on the kind of small, intimate moments that rarely have a place on Lizzo records. It’s the kind of song that Special could have used a lot more of – a track written not for TikTok or Twitter but for Lizzo.
MUSIC My Self in That Moment
The Substation, Melbourne, July 27-30
LITERATURE Corrugated Lines
Venues throughout Broome, Western Australia, July 29-31
FESTIVAL Winter Blues
Venues throughout Echuca, NSW, July 28-31
BALLET The Australian Ballet’s Regional Tour: Ballet Gala
Theatre Royal, Hobart, July 29-30
CIRCUS Blanc de Blanc Encore
Twilight Electric, Brisbane, until September 18
FESTIVAL The Other Art Fair
The Cutaway at Barangaroo Reserve, Sydney, until July 24
PHOTOGRAPHY World Press Photo Exhibition
Brisbane Powerhouse, until July 24
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 23, 2022 as "The marketable self".
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