Twerking with Crystal Flutes: What Kind of History Is Lizzo Making?

What Kind of History Is Lizzo Making?NBC - Getty Images
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When I learned that Lizzo would perform at the Grammys, I knew what to expect: high energy, dramatic choreography, dazzling and revealing outfits. But when I found out she was going to take the stage at the Library of Congress, playing a few of their 1,700 flutes— including a crystal one that had belonged to James Madison—I didn’t know what to expect.

As a classical musician myself, I know that my audience has certain expectations about my performances: that I should dress a certain way (no T-shirts, shorts, or flip-flops), play at a certain level, conduct myself in a serious manner that reflects the forum I’m playing in. I learned to keep my tattoos covered, dress in a suit or a tuxedo, and use proper musical etiquette—bowing at the appropriate moments, acknowledging the audience, and so forth. I learned that it’s my responsibility to give the audience exactly what they’re expecting. Especially because I’m Black.

Before the 1950s, many people thought Black people weren’t capable of meeting their audience’s expectations: We were too uneducated, too uncivilized, to be allowed to participate in a formal concert. This perception wasn’t limited to just music. It was baked into sports, medicine, entertainment, education, and into just about every other medium imaginable. Think Tiger Woods when he walked into his first country club, or the Williams sisters stepping onto their first tennis court.

Now we all realize that, no matter what his skin color, Jackie Robinson was crazy talented. He dismantled people’s preconceived notions to show the world that ability isn’t based on skin color as he hit home run after home run. People didn’t expect him to do as well as he did.

Back to Lizzo. As an entertainer, she’s phenomenal. Terrific voice, amazing songwriting skills, and a true flair for showmanship. Keep in mind that the Library of Congress invited Lizzo to play, not another flutist. But because she was going to the Library of Congress, many viewers—including me—expected her to give a performance as if she were in the Library of Congress, a hallowed space critical to our uniquely American culture.

As soon as she stepped out onstage, Lizzo shattered my expectations. She wasn’t dressed the way I’d expected—and once she started playing, she wasn’t acting the way I expected, either. For her first performance, she wore jeans and a midriff-length black sweater. For her second, a very revealing sequined outfit.

In both cases, though, her musicality was exceptional when she played President James Madison’s crystal flute. Lovely tone, very precise technique. Exactly what you would expect from a classically trained flutist.

But then she started twerking while playing that flute.

So much went through my mind at that moment: incredulity that she was twerking at the Library of Congress; depression that she was playing into the stereotype and setting back the progress that Black classical musicians have been making in performing at serious venues; and a sad acceptance that the cult of personality often takes precedence over the music itself.

It’s not just me who was taken aback. The internet’s gone bananas over it. On the Right are those who believe that she disrespected the institution of the Library of Congress. She disrespected James Madison’s priceless and fragile instrument. She disrespected musicians—particularly Black musicians. Right-wing influencer Matt Walsh wrote that her dancing was “a form of racial retribution, according to the woke Left.”

The Left’s been equally disturbed. The View host Sunny Hostin, for instance, cheered that the flute that had belonged to slave-owner James Madison was now being played by the descendant of slaves—and this fulfilled “the promise of America.”

It’s been a couple of weeks since her performance, and as time has passed, my perspective has changed. Now I think we need to all take a step back and think hard about Lizzo: about what she wore, what she played, and how she performed.

The Library of Congress should have expected exactly what they got—Lizzo being Lizzo. Doing what she does, the way she does it, and being true to her own way of expressing herself. That’s art.

And yet, just like the Williams sisters, or Jackie Robinson, Lizzo is also stretching our preconceived ideas of what is appropriate. She’s showing people—Black, brown, white, and every other color—that classical music can be fun, accessible, and entertaining. Is that a bad thing? Is decorum always absolutely so critical?

Our world has never been so polarized. People have divided into camps—now it’s twerkers versus non-twerkers. As a music teacher, I always strive to show my students how utterly awesome, how incredibly transporting, how truly life-changing music can be. It’s a language that will allow different races and nationalities to communicate, bond, connect.

And Lizzo showed us that, too.

When I was 9, I started playing violin through a public-school music program. I am thoroughly convinced that this actually saved my life. Friends I grew up with are today sitting in jail. When they were out running the streets, I was in rehearsals. When they were breaking into people’s houses, I was practicing Dvorak and Mozart. My violin opened the door to opportunity, and I ran through it.

Through music, I developed a work ethic that I now try to instill in my students so that they too can encounter the joys of what music can do for us all. Not everyone will go on to become a world-famous musician, but everyone can learn to appreciate and love music— and to find new ways of communicating. Music is a gift we should always offer to children and adults alike: It is never too late to experience or to appreciate it.

And that, too, is what Lizzo showed us. And that’s really what’s important about this controversy.

No doubt, before Lizzo, thousands of children and adults had never heard of the Library of Congress. They didn’t know who James Madison was. They had no idea that the development of the fingering system of early flutes and of modern flutes are completely different. Because of Lizzo, search engines were buzzing with keywords like “Library of Congress” and “James Madison.”

And hopefully, too, some people started thinking about learning how to play the flute or the violin—or maybe just tuning into a classical music station for the first time in their lives.

Personally, if I were playing on a violin that belonged to Mozart, twerking is the last thing I would consider. If I were performing at the Library of Congress, I’d showcase the hard work and energy it took for me to learn to play. I’d try to set an example for the young people who might look to me for inspiration. But I’m not Lizzo. Her methods are different from mine.

Sure, Lizzo’s twerking ruffled feathers. Maybe she went too far and her dancing reinforced some people’s stereotypes and preconceptions.

But maybe, just maybe, some little inner-city kid, or some rural farm kid, or maybe just some middle-class kid in the suburbs who never thought of classical music before will see Lizzo online dancing as she plays a crystal flute—and that image will light a life-changing spark in them, too. Maybe seeing Lizzo’s twerking will lead that kid into opportunities, and connections, and possibilities that otherwise would never have existed.

Maybe Lizzo’s performance wasn’t damaging as much as it was an awakening.

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