BLAME IT ON HER FLUTE BABY: Madonna, Lizzo, and Self Love
By Sarah Jasem
It’s the BET awards: Lizzo stands in front of pop royalty like Rihanna, shades attached to a white veil standing on a three tiered wedding cake embroidered with her stage name. Singing ‘Truth Hurts’, surrounded by dancers of colour wearing sport bridal wear, you would expect her body positivity to wake the audience up. Oddly enough, other than the excitable standing front audience, something seems to be lulling them asleep. A confident black woman preaching body confidence and performing confidence in her own sexuality, a pop diva surrounded by dancers. Is there uneasiness about something they know all too well? Has self-love become too performative, too shown? This is 2019.
Take that relative silence, the white noise of a room with many quietly uncomfortable people, and take it all the way to Radio Music City Hall. It’s 1984 and Madonna wears a wedding dress, starting her performance of ‘Like A Virgin,’ also on a three- tiered wedding cake. The same silence is there because of the audiences shock to see her decked in white, crawling down from her three-tiered classy wedding cake to slowly writhing around the stage floor like hungover Cinderella. Her manager was just glad she wore pants this time, as the stage fog did not hide her legs slightly splayed as she folded over and lay on the stage as a finale.
Madonna was lazily hypersexual, claiming the provocative display as the result of a lost stiletto. Accident or not, after this performance it became the standard to provoke on stage. So why is it that when Lizzo yells ‘Do you want cake?!’ to which the answer is always yes, with her perfect breath control, hair flying big and beautiful, surrounded by girls of different sizes, hair textures all dancing and twerking to a sex positive, body positive, cussing splice of life for a self-loving woman does the audience respond in silence? And why do I feel uneasy?
Whilst Madonna’s silence was because of the unpredictability of her performance for the time, the casual sexuality of it, this silence, even though it’s at the BET awards with an audience anticipating Lizzo’s brand of black girl magic, is there because it borders on being too predictable, the sexuality too standardised. Lizzo is known for being fully comfortable and open with her body, preaching self-love, but the self-love phenomenon has, as always, trickled into a new capitalist technique to sell toothpastes as emotionally as possible. The audience of musicians are all too aware of the potential for exploitation of women’s bodies, stereotyped ‘thick,’ women’s bodies all the more, by mainstream culture. We’re acquainted with the highly controlling producers of the music industry, so much so that the critique has become a part of entertainment culture itself (Ashley O in Black Mirror, Lady Gaga in A Star Is Born). We know that there’s a standard routine underneath the energy, a binding contract that links female visibility with potential exploitation.
But mid mass twerk something happens and everything changes.
She turns around and brandishes something which really does not belong in the performance, an instrument that isn’t even used in the song. Not a drum which would add to the dancing beat. She plays a classical instrument, which she was trained in during her school years, whilst twerking. It’s a flute! The audience wakes up from their commercial self-love performance induced slumber and into Lizzo’s controlled chaos.
Lizzo playing the flute created the staple moment of her performance, but she has done this before. Classically trained in the flute and from a highly musical family, Lizzo’s use of her classical skills in a popular culture performance works on many levels. On the one hand, bringing a classical instrument into a popular song and performance which really doesn’t warrant it, diminishes the class and race barriers which cling to classical music. Lizzo playing the flute whilst twerking and shouting ‘Bitch!’ is nothing you would ever see on a classical music stage, one trodden and worn by the triple whammy-white, privileged men. Lizzo isn’t playing for that audience either, she is playing for people and not their privilege. Her self-love driven performance is shown by the motivation of the wedding theme, as they ‘marry themselves.’ It is however the turnaround point of unpredictability- that little window of chance where she goes from twerking to also playing the flute- where the self- love message goes from potentially exploitative to organic, simply because the self-expression feels rule breaking in its highly individualised chaos.