She’s up for eight prizes at the 62nd Grammy Awards in Los Angeles on Sunday night, and she could very easily sweep the top four categories: song, record and album of the year, plus best new artist. That would be a grand-slam for the history books, but it wouldn’t feel like a surprise. It’s hard to imagine a pop star who meets today’s cultural needs with such aggressive hospitality. In an era when we’ve been encouraged to invest in self-confidence, self-care, feminism and sex positivity — all while reinvesting in the utopian dogma of pop itself — Lizzo’s lyrics check each box with a glitter pen.
Still, there’s subtlety in her pop-craft. She knows how to make herself sound like she’s pushing toward the edge without really getting near it. She knows how to make “just fine” sound like “just right.” Her songs want to help you, but they also want to flatter you. This is good music with a good message and you might even feel like a good person for liking it.
What kind of person is Lizzo? Many wondered as the singer found herself flying through social media turbulence last year, first for throwing an all-caps tantrum after receiving a non-glowing Pitchfork review, then for blasting a Postmates food-delivery employee by name on Twitter after a botched order. These little digital kerfuffles seemed to push her fans and her skeptics even further apart, all while keeping Lizzo at the center of a dizzying digital conversation — little of which seemed to address the reason anyone cares about her in the first place.
Go ahead and expose your retinas to every pixelated headline ever written about her, but the rest of your body will remind you that Lizzo ultimately makes music.
For all of the body talk on Lizzo’s lyric sheet, it makes perfect sense that her two most persuasive songs are the ones that ask to be felt with all of your corporeal being. The feel-good-isms that she foregrounds in her lyrics are impossible to miss, but it’s far more satisfying when you can feel the messages stowed away in her sound.
Take “Truth Hurts,” a chart-topping, kiss-off track that’s up for song and record of the year on Sunday night. (Originally released in 2017, it’s somehow eligible, according to the Grammy rule book fine print.) “Yeah, I got boy problems, that’s the human in me,” Lizzo sings in the opening verse. “Bling-bling, then I solve them, that’s the goddess in me.” Lyrically, she might only be blending yoga poetry with yesteryear’s rap slang, but set the mixture to music and it generates a waterfall of genuine feeling.
The song’s downward melodies tumble hard, like that worthless dude Lizzo is dumping. By the time she reaches the refrain, you can feel the weight falling off her shoulders. And you might feel it falling off yours, too. The chorus concludes with a nonverbal “bom-bom-bi-dom-bi-dum-bum-bay,” but those syllables are far from meaningless. It’s the sound of her burden bouncing around on the floor.
Where “Truth Hurts” obeys the laws of gravity, Lizzo’s other standout hit, “Water Me,” defies them. The song appears on the deluxe edition of her album-of-the-year-nominated “Cuz I Love You,” and it’s built around a disco-paced bass line that keeps ascending, ascending, ascending. Lizzo follows, cheering herself on at the top of her voice: “I am my inspiration! I am my inspiration!” The bass eventually plummets downward, only to rise again. No matter how Grammy night shakes out, prepare to hear this song for the rest of your life.
It’s already out there. Dance to “Water Me” at a wedding reception, and you can feel the facts of life settling on tipped scales, the ups outnumbering the downs. Pedal along to it in a spin class, and “Water Me” can motivate you to power through the ups and downs of a simulated bike ride. You’re not going anywhere, but you feel like you are. An encouraging pop song can be eternally useful in an everyday purgatory like that.
And that’s probably what the Grammys are best at measuring, really. Not excellence, but utility. Our most omnipresent pop songs aren’t just invisible decorations hanging in the air. We want them to infuse our surroundings with an aura of purpose, and Lizzo’s biggest hits do just that. They propel us through time at the gym, the grocery store, the ballgame, the dentist. And when they aren’t scoring our daily lives, they’re scoring our nonstop commerce. When you hear that “Water Me” bass line going up-up-up in the context of a Walmart commercial, it sets a different kind of esteem-building in motion. The song becomes an ode to consumer confidence.
This is where the one-size-fits-all cordiality of a massive pop hit begins to feel disorienting. The good news is that it fits you. The bad news is that it fits inside a Walmart commercial, too. And what does that say about you? Maybe you shouldn’t worry about it. Maybe the only way to truly hear a Lizzo song is through that thing you share with no one else: your own body.
Because when Lizzo makes music about loving the entirety of her physical being, she’s asking us to listen with the entirety of ours. The value of her music doesn’t come down to whether her lyrics land like sacred mantras or quote-a-day calendar aphorisms. It comes down to how the bass touches your bone marrow, how the melodies guide your musculature.
In a culture that’s constantly telling us our bodies are deficient, music reminds us what they’ll always be good for: listening to each other.