The Twerking Flutist That Shook The Internet
Lizzo, James Madison, and a crystal flute...three words I never thought I would see together
The interwebs have been gasping for air since the video of a twerking Lizzo playing James Madison's, never before played, 200-year-old flute came out. There have been A LOT of keys typed about this, in basically all the ways you'd expect.
I think the historical relevance is much ado about nothing. Some say it was a YAS KWEEN moment; you're fighting white supremacy. Others say it was an off-putting, spit-in-the-face display against the memory of the author of the US Constitution. Was it in poor taste? Sure. But considering what else is occurring today, I can't get too upset about it. However, I think there is an interesting angle here, which I have not seen addressed, and speaks to a meaningful, more significant societal problem we have.
Before I get too far into this, let me provide two caveats. First, before about twelve hours ago, I could not name a single Lizzo song. Not one. I listened to a couple of her songs last night, but I know very little about her aside from the fact that her music is extraordinarily popular (she is currently the 91st most popular artist on Spotify, with nearly 30 million monthly listeners), and she is, proudly, obese..
Second, as little as I know about Lizzo, I know less about playing the flute. Now that I've informed you, I don't know anything about the two main topics I'll address here; let's get into it…
After her performance, two videos were released of Lizzo practicing with the flute in the Library of Congress prior to her show.
It seems clear in both of these videos that she knows what she's doing. Again, as someone who knows fuck-all about the flute, her playing sounds beautiful. And, as it turns out, there is a good reason for that…Lizzo is a classically trained flutist.
So why did she do this at her concert (fast forward to 30 seconds in)?
Here is a clearly talented woman who insists on a) making a spectacle of herself while displaying her talent and b) doesn't show the audience her actual ability. Why? Here is my speculation…
Let's play a "what-if" game. What if Lizzo got on stage with the James Madison flute, legitimately displayed her ability, and left out the twerking? What if she decided to play part of a flute sonata which demonstrated that she didn't just learn a couple of notes for the sake of her show but that she knows what she's doing and is genuinely talented with the instrument? And left out the twerking.
Not only would much of the criticism have been muted (of course, there would have been some), but for those who chose to criticize the performance, it would have had to have been purely on ideological, culture-war grounds. It would have been hard for them to argue she defiled a piece of Americana in that case. And in fact, you likely would have had people (myself included) saying it is significant that an immensely successful black woman was the first person to play it. But, I suspect it is for these exact reasons she didn't do that.
Lizzo (or someone close to her) decided the way to go was to diminish her skills and, I suspect, intentionally drum up this criticism. Why? Two reasons.
First, this is better for business. The sad thing about America today is that if she had done what I proposed in the "what if" game, she would have received less attention, both from the YAS KWEEN and culture war crowds. And attention is, almost literally, all that matters in entertainment today. As long as you aren't garnering attention for committing sexual assault or kicking puppies, all other attention is good for the bottom line.
Second, it makes her less relatable to her audience, here's why. Her music is certainly catchy (there's a reason she's so popular), but with its over-the-top production value, it sounds like anyone with a decent voice could make it. Lizzo is the face, but likely any multitude of people could make the same music, including many of her fans, which makes them feel that she is "one of them" who made it to the big time. I am willing to guess many of them think if Lizzo brought them up on stage, they could do exactly what she does (whether valid or not).
However, if she had played the flute to her ability level, that belief would have been shattered for many in her audience. Whether implicitly or explicitly, the amount of time and dedication required to obtain that level of proficiency at any instrument would have been on full display for everyone. That would have made it clear to them that they can't be her without the requisite dedication to a craft.
Based on what we know about young people in America today (I know I sound old), what percentage of time do her fans spend trying to perfect something (a sport, an instrument, etc) vs. playing video games, watching Youtube to TikTok, etc.? In fact, it is heavily weighted towards the latter. And this is not a comment on Lizzo's fans, per se, but rather what we know about young people in the US.
According to the time study of 15-17-year-olds conducted by Pew, if we consider only waking hours, they spent 41% of their time on "leisure" activities. The "socializing" subset of leisure includes parties, going to sporting events, and all extracurricular activities. Let's assume 50% of that time is spent perfecting some skill, as noted above. That means they spend, on average, just over 30 minutes per day working on some non-school-related ability. Is that sufficient to become, let's say, a classically trained flutist? Unlikely.
Therefore, her playing to her level of ability erects a wall between her and her fans, which is death to a performer in the days of social media.
I hope that more people with Lizzo's stature can get past the need for clicks and have the positive impact on young people's lives that they could. That starts with showing young people that success doesn't just come from dumb luck, making an ass of yourself on TicTok, or leaking a porn tape of yourself…it comes on the back of hard work and discipline. Until that is the driving force for more of our entertainers today, their place in society should, rightfully, be reviled.
So next time Lizzo…just play the damn flute.