In February 2019, the folks over at The Cut made a prediction: “It’s just a matter of time till everybody loves Lizzo.”
They were right. A few months later, in May, Lizzo’s 2017 single “Truth Hurts” made its debut on the Billboard charts, and continues to find popularity more than two years after its release. Soon, Lizzo had gone from an artist with indie buzz to a household name, a highlight of the MTV Video Music Awards, and a Billboard Hot 100 record-breaker, headlining two sold-out, nationwide tours. At the end of 2019, she collected more 2020 Grammy nominations than anyone else — eight, including nods in each of the four major categories.
Lizzo had become more than an acclaimed musician by the time she received those Grammy nods: She was an icon. Beloved for her emphatic positivity, Lizzo cultivated a brand on her bold sense of humor and tireless self-love. She was a heavyset black woman, and she had no shame in saying so — or in flaunting her pride in herself.
“Truth Hurts,” coupled with Lizzo’s dynamic performances, propelled her to star status; she received waves of praise for embracing her sexuality in showing off her black, female, plus-size body. Plus, she was a ridiculously talented flutist, of all things — a flutist in pop music! Your fave could never.
But she seemed to attract just as many critics as she did fans of her unabashedly proud and at-times brash social media presence — especially on Instagram and Twitter, where she’s known for posting risqué selfies in support of body positivity and clapping back at anyone who dares to pick a fight. Self-described health-conscious figures made fatphobic comments and voiced “concerns” over her weight, while other detractors complained that Lizzo was overly hostile toward critics. Some people accused her of peddling a white-consumer-friendly version of blackness, or even misrepresenting her genre at the expense of other black artists vying for awards recognition.
In a sense, all big successes end up polarizing audiences: “It ain’t my fault that I’m out here making news,” as Lizzo herself puts it in her hit song “Juice.” The criticisms she’s faced since she rose to fame have taken on racial, social, and even economic dimensions. And she has not ignored or kept silent in response to any of them. While Lizzo broke out as an aspirational, self-loving queen of the charts, she’s certainly not infallible. The truth is that Lizzo is a powerful role model whose power isn’t always well-received.
More than anyone, it seems Lizzo is well aware that she can be polarizing. But in keeping with her public persona, it hardly seems like the callouts will keep her down.
Lizzo became one of 2019’s most explosive, and inspiring, stars
The 31-year-old Lizzo, whose real name is Melissa Jefferson, has been recording and releasing music for more than five years. But 2019 saw her go from a darling of the indie music scene — which is primarily composed of white artists and listeners, as Lizzo herself has noted — to a mainstream success beloved by a more diverse fan base.
In January 2019, she released “Juice,” a single championed for its message of self-love and quirky, Jheri curl-laden music video. It became her first song to break through to the mainstream, landing on the Billboard Hot R&B Songs chart. The momentum of “Juice” carried through to April, when Lizzo dropped her major-label debut album, Cuz I Love You. Both commercial and critical success followed.
Then came the meme-ification of “Truth Hurts,” a song originally released in 2017 that reemerged last spring, both on TikTok and in a key scene during the Netflix movie Someone Great. Thanks to its hooky opening refrain, “I just took a DNA test / Turns out, I’m 100 percent that bitch,” the track became a cultural phenomenon — a rallying cry for the sort of catchy self-appreciation that other song-memes like “Hot Girl Summer” continued to popularize throughout the year.
Audiences loved the emphatic pride of Lizzo’s lyrics, especially coupled with her image. Lizzo is a black woman and self-described “fat bitch,” as she said to singer Sam Smith in an April 2019 V Magazine interview. In an age when Western beauty standards continue to privilege the thin and pale, Lizzo was immediately lauded as a beacon of body positivity. It’s a role she wore proudly after what she described as years of judgmental, negative self-talk. She’s been open about the work she’s put into finding peace with herself, from regular therapy sessions to putting self-care above tour dates as needed.
“I felt this [frustration] with how I was being perceived all through high school, and for much of my life,” Lizzo told Smith in April. “Until I was like, fuck it. I just need to be undeniable. It’s not about me being big. It’s about me being me. Y’all are going to get this bad bitch. You are going to get these bops and get this show. And you are going to get your life by receiving it.”
Lizzo’s “bad bitch” energy — or, rather, her commitment to authenticity — is made plain by her social media presence. On Instagram, she posts clips of her dazzling live performances amid professional photo shoots and sexy selfies. Her fans gush over all of her social media content, but especially the pieces that reflect her love for herself: one photo set of beautiful, tastefully censored nudes garnered more than 1.1 million likes on Instagram; a tweet where she kisses her own mirrored image has 40,000 likes.
Her catchiest lines have popped up everywhere, from more than 500 shirts and stickers on Redbubble to baby onesies to inspirational Instagram captions. The Kidz Bop crew reworked “Truth Hurts” for its family-friendly hits collection. (“I’m 100% that kid,” the preteens sing.) Lizzo has even been a go-to artist for the campaign playlists of notable (and mostly white) Democrats like Hillary Clinton, Pete Buttigieg, and Kirsten Gillibrand.
What I really mean when I say I love myself pic.twitter.com/Pfv1g50Ff9— Feelin Good As Hell (@lizzo) August 22, 2019
Her commitment to self-love hasn’t come without challenges, however. Lizzo has said that some of the body-positive labels assigned to her have made her feel as though her body is being politicized more than celebrated.
She explained her take this month, as part of Rolling Stone’s cover story that also featured lavish photos of her reveling in her full-bodied glory.
“I’m so much more than that. Because I actually present that, I have a whole career,” she said of the body positive label. “It’s not a trend.”
Every Lizzo cover is iconic but this? This is ART.— Megan (@bodyposipanda_) January 23, 2020
It's doesn't always have to be about her body (she's so much more than that), but seeing a magazine celebrate the body of a fat black woman the way it DESERVES to be is world-shifting.
All hail @lizzo for @RollingStone pic.twitter.com/1hM4O2nKZh
But this sentiment, too, has typically played well with an adoring public, taken by Lizzo’s honesty. She loved herself and her body, even before anyone saw her as the face of a movement. Her music communicates that best: “’Cause I’m my own soulmate / I know how to love me / I know that I’m always gonna hold me down,” she sings in “Soulmate,” a track on Cuz I Love You. Those lyrics are, in essence, Lizzo’s MO: love thyself before anyone else.
Critics have gotten under Lizzo’s skin before, but she hasn’t always taken the high road
Lizzo’s particular brand of positivity hasn’t sat well with everyone. For as much as some people have embraced her unabashed self-pride, others have dismissed it as egotistical, even defensive.
When Lizzo released Cuz I Love You, it was met with near-universal praise. But the notably stodgy music publication Pitchfork rated the album a 6.5 out of 10, noting its “overwrought production ... and ham-handed rapping.” In response, Lizzo tweeted in all-caps that “PEOPLE WHO ‘REVIEW’ ALBUMS AND DON’T MAKE MUSIC THEMSELVES SHOULD BE UNEMPLOYED.”
Lizzo’s fans took her side, galvanized by their beloved’s apparent outrage. And the moment more broadly stirred up debate over what qualifies a critic to review an artist’s work. Lizzo’s attack on critics prompted such defenses as “Shut the f*ck up about music criticism” and “learn to take criticism a little better.” Twitter became a battleground where Lizzo’s fans could be weaponized against her critics, a power dynamic that left the critics on the losing side of the brouhaha.
“The swollen significance of artist narrative and stan culture suggests that the only way a culture journalist can avoid obsolescence,” wrote Kieran Devlin in i-D following the incident, “or Lizzo’s recommendation of unemployment, is through buying into the shrieking love-in, to effectively participate as a stan, an obliging cog in the PR machine.”
Lizzo later tried to make amends by tweeting, “THIS IS AN INVITATION TO ALL MUSIC JOURNALISTS TO KICK IT IN THE STUDIO WITH ME FOR MY NEXT ALBUM! I’d like to understand your world as much as you can understand mine.” But by then, there was recognized tension between the artist and those who dared to cross her.
“Look, I’m new,” she recently told Rolling Stone. “You put two plates of food in front of people, [and] one is some fried chicken. If you like fried chicken that’s great. And the other is, like, fried ostrich pussy. You not gonna want to fuck with that.”
Lizzo has also taken heat for her outfit choices, which are often revealing. In December, she made headlines by wearing a dress that prominently displayed her thong while sitting courtside at an NBA game. (At one point, she even twerked on camera.) The look made waves for its salaciousness at a “family-friendly event,” as some outraged observers framed it. At the same time, defenders argued that those same observers probably would not have reacted the same way had the same outfit been worn by been a white, thin celebrity.
“Lizzo, who has now crossed into mainstream hyper-visibility, has to deal with the hypercritical gaze that both her fatness and black female identity draw onto her image,” the Daily Beast said in a piece on how the thong incident spoke volumes on how blackness is perceived in media. Lizzo’s size became a topic of debate again in late December, when the fitness celebrity Jillian Michaels said that celebrating Lizzo’s weight was a damaging part of the body positivity movement. Michaels’s comments were met with backlash, but they are proof that fatphobia around Lizzo’s image persists.
Lizzo’s blackness, however, has also been called into question in a controversial manner. Azealia Banks, herself an incendiary rapper, called out Lizzo for being a “millennial mammy.” “She looks like she is making a fool of her black self for a white American public,” Banks wrote in a September Instagram comment, in reference to Lizzo’s penchant for tight outfits and her heavily white fan base.
Banks is not the most reputable of critics. But she is not alone among people of color who have scrutinized how Lizzo’s image resonates with white audiences. Lizzo is unquestionably popular within the white mainstream; as BuzzFeed’s Tomi Obaro has noted, “Lizzo fans have become synonymous with a certain kind of white person who likes to post selfies with her lyrics as captions and who comment on all of Lizzo’s Instagram posts with ‘Yassssss’ and ‘WERK’ and ‘KWEEN’ — signs of a certain waning black credibility.”
This issue came up again in November, when Lizzo won the Soul Train Award for Album of the Year. The artist won the title over a contemporary, Ari Lennox, who is well-known in the soul genre. Lennox called her loss a “snub” in a series of emotional tweets, prompting fans to call out Lizzo as an unworthy winner. Lizzo’s music was neither as soulful nor as “black” as Lennox’s, the argument went.
Lizzo “makes pop music for white girls who have live laugh love tattooed on them,” read one popular defense of Lennox, speaking to the mainstream pop audience’s embrace of her image and work. After all, when your song makes it onto a Kidz Bop album, it’s hard to argue that it hasn’t penetrated white culture. (“Yeah, there’s hella white people at my shows,” Lizzo acknowledged to Rolling Stone. “What am I gonna do, turn them away? My music is for everybody.”) Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that Lizzo’s popularity with a diverse audience has been accompanied by a debate over whether she panders to the white listeners who accepted her when she primarily played for indie crowds.
But other people of color have taken pains to break up that argument. “Lizzo is here now, unapologetically fat, unapologetically black, and unapologetically thriving,” Obaro wrote for BuzzFeed, summing up the more popular read: Lizzo is an icon of positivity, her sartorial choices or the thoughts of voting bodies be damned.
Will the Grammys make or break Lizzo? At this point, does it matter?
The awards voting body that has taken the most notice of Lizzo in the past year is the Recording Academy, which has handed her eight nominations for the 2020 Grammys. Yet Lizzo kicked off the year by announcing she would be taking a break from Twitter, her most active social media platform. She cited “too many trolls” as the reason for her departure; “I’ll be back when I feel like it,” she said.
Since then, she has remained off the platform, with tweets to her account signed by her management and strictly focused on promoting her performances and tour dates. It’s a surprising turn of events for someone with 1.5 million followers who’s posted more than 20,000 tweets — a power user by any measure. Yet Lizzo does remain active on Instagram, where she continues to show off her body, make jokes, and talk about her happiness to the delight of her 7.5 million followers.
An Instagram post from January 16 nails the Lizzo motto, even amid her Twitter blackout, the fatphobia she is forced to endure, and her occasionally caustic online persona: “I love you. You are beautiful. You can do anything.”