Lizzo is definitely in her bag right now. She has a tour that’s selling out, a spot in an upcoming film, a new album Cuz I Love You, mass media coverage, and an unapologetically passionate fanbase. For better or worse, it’s what every artist wants in 2019.
The 31-year-old has taken pride in challenging the narratives of who can own their confidence, body image, and sexuality. There’s never been a better time for public figures who challenge conventional standards and can build ground-up support by doing so. It’s a narrative that’s accelerated the rise of Cardi B in hip-hop, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in U.S. Congress, and many more.
Like Bardi and AOC, Lizzo leans into her broader brand. That’s why she has no problem twerking in public or posting loud and confident soundbites on social media. It taps into the power of authenticity—a concept that I wrote about last year with Cardi B.
Lizzo also understands how to create popular music that’s nostalgic. Her single “Juice” is the type of song funk bop that has made Bruno Mars dumb rich. The song’s music video has a throwback feel that Whitney Houston would have been proud to see. It’s that “How Will I Know” Whitney we all grew up with.
Cuz I Love You sold 41,000 album-equivalent units in its first week. 24,000 were pure album sales. In comparison, Quavo’s October debut solo album Quavo Huncho sold just 6,000 pure albums out of its 99,000 total units. A high ratio of pure album sales to album-equivalent units (which is mostly streaming) indicates a few things:
- Lizzo has a strong fanbase that’s willing to spend money in an era where anyone can just go to Spotify or YouTube to listen to music for free
- She might have underinvested in marketing. Lizzo’s album was widely available everywhere, but more people would explore her music via streaming outlets if awareness was raised
- Nobody was checking for Quavo’s album (and I explained why last year)
Artists who have passionate fanbases and challenge conventional norms have sparked an ongoing struggle for writers who critique said artist’s work. Two weeks ago, Pitchfork wrote a fairly nuanced take of Lizzo’s album, which Lizzo clapped back at. Earlier this week, Kieran Devlin wrote a great piece for Vice on the relationship between journalists and stan culture. Here’s a segment:
Another key development in the changing nature of criticism is that there is arguably now greater pressure to focus on the narrative behind the artist, rather than critiquing the art itself. With the growing frequency of releases across the majority of artistic mediums, each album, film, book or exhibition needs a compelling, distinguishing hook to grab the attention of the press or casual fan, which will be sculpted by the PR, agent and management into a coherent narrative behind something’s release. This is then reflected by a fanbase naturally happy to buy into the heartwarming arc, but historically it’s been the journalist’s responsibility to see past the narrative and interrogate the art as art.
Agreed! I had an interesting conversation last week with two journalists from a well-known hip-hop media outlet. We chatted about the media’s hesitancy to take critical positions on a particular megastar that has a rabid fanbase. As someone who has a nuanced perspective in most Trapital articles, I believe that these perspectives need to be heard— even if it challenges an artist whose brand and narrative we personally identify with.
This topic will keep coming up, but that’s a good thing. It forces us to have these conversations in a more constructive way. But it also means that Lizzo (and artists like her) have been doing their thing! And that’s something most of us can get behind.