The singer Lizzo is in the news at the moment, for less-than-savoury reasons. Every time I see her mentioned I’m reminded of this great post from 2019, by Matthew Perpetua who was then at BuzzFeed.
His thesis is that content that goes viral is often content that fulfils a specific need in its audience’s lives. Sometimes that’s a happy accident, a pleasant side-effect of authentic content made with integrity. But sometimes, when people become aware of the mechanisms of this virality, it’s a more cynical creation, the result of “cultural cartography”, a process of mapping out people’s needs and desires and working backwards from there:
“Lizzo’s music is perfectly engineered for all of this, to the point that it can seem like it’s already gone through extensive A/B testing and optimization. It’s glossy and immediately accessible, but signals some degree of authenticity and soulfulness. It’s aggressively sincere and every song is clearly about a particular statement or relatable situation. It’s all geared towards feelings of empowerment, and given how many ads, shows, and movies want to sell that feeling, her songs are extremely effective and valuable…
“I can’t hear Lizzo’s music without recognizing her cultural cartography savvy. A lot of music can achieve these goals without contrivance, often just as a natural side effect of an artist intuitively making resonant work, but Lizzo’s songs all sound very calculated to me… Lizzo has a good voice, and her songs range from ‘pretty good’ to ‘undeniable banger’ but I have mixed feelings about all of it because I know the game being played rather well, and because I’m uncomfortable with this self-consciously audience-pleasing approach to content creation becoming the primary mode of pop culture. I appreciate the value of empowering art… but fear mainstream culture further devolving into nothing but shallow exclamations of self-affirmation. We’re more than halfway there already.”