Meditations on… the problem of using black female pop stars as self-care mascots
The rise in popularity of black female pop stars like Lizzo and Megan Thee Stallion has coincided with a worrying trend to transform them into self-care mascots for a generation. Here, Stephanie Phillips considers the downsides of using black women as our personal positivity cheerleaders.
In many ways, pop music has always been the perfect vehicle for positivity. The combination of relatable lyrics, an unquestionably catchy beat and an iconic artist to deliver them can inspire ordinary, timid pop lovers to work up the courage to dump a useless significant other or tell their boss where to go.
It is why Whitney Houston’s saccharine but nevertheless enduring 1985 self-love anthem The Greatest Love of All became such a guilty pleasure, and why Christina Aguilera’s 2002 ballad Beautiful blared out of the bedrooms of noughties teenagers who were attempting to navigate their identities. Pop music makes us feel like a better version of ourselves.
Confidence-boosting hits aren’t going anywhere soon. Our culture’s full-on love affair with self-care has resulted in a new wave of self-aware pop stars whose public personas have become synonymous with personal improvement, inspiring their legions of fans in the process.
Stars like Lizzo, whose self-love and body positive message saw her third album Cuz I Love You peak at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 charts last year, and Megan Thee Stallion, whose catchphrase “hot girl summer” became the affirmation on the lips of every girl hoping to not succumb to basicness, have taken over the pop world. Their success is fast becoming a model for how pop stars can make themselves accessible to their audience by following an influencer career trajectory – a trajectory that opens up every aspect of your life and personality for monetisation.
And, no matter how often I bop my head along to Juice, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that these triumphs come with added pressure for black female artists. This all came to a head when I saw Lizzo’s performance at Glastonbury last year. During the introduction for her song Good as Hell, Lizzo ushered the crowd to repeat affirmations back to her, declaring: “I love you, you are beautiful and you can do anything.”
As she looked back out to the crowd, an endless sea of white festival-goers gawped back at her in awe. I realised I had seen that look before: on friends’ faces who, after having watched Lizzo perform, were left with an almost religious devotion to her message. Rather than just leaving black female stars to create, it seems audiences have become accustomed to treating them like their personal therapist and the sassy black best friend they never had, all rolled into one.
Though pop stars can build a brand for themselves within the gilded cage these boundaries allow for, a cage is just that. There is no room for growth or experimentation when working with these definitions and it has already led to blowback for some artists. Global superstar Rihanna is an icon to millions, as much for her music as her effortless cool and free-spirited approach to life. When a throwaway comment Rihanna made suggesting her next album would arrive in 2019 did not materialise, her fans erupted into uncontrollable hysteria, devastated they couldn’t hear the music they believed was owed to them.
This unhealthy fandom renders black women as mere workers, here to act as gateways to black culture for others who want to dip their toes but never fully dive into. It also tears any humanity away from black women, as the audiences looking for support rarely stop and think that their heroes might need it too.
Perhaps, as our society as a whole shifts towards the right and racism continues to rise, conscientious listeners want to course-correct by consuming the works of black women more. It could also be that our culture has regressed, legitimising the cultural stereotype of the clapback-ready, always-devoted-but-never-focused-on-their-own-problems black girlfriend. Someone that can be there to stroke their head when Donald Trump says something mind-numbingly gross or when Friends gets taken off Netflix again (it will come back, it always comes back). Nevermind that black women are most likely to be affected by the worst our society has to offer. Shouldn’t any joy best be reserved for uplifting themselves?
For pop fandom to make the change necessary to support black women it will take a devoted fan to look around and consider, ‘What am I truly getting from this relationship?’ Even though an artist might be your everything, taking a step back and remembering why the art was created in the first place can make a huge difference. As Lizzo explained to Rolling Stone, her songs were written for a particular ear: “I’m making music that hopefully makes other people feel good and helps me discover self-love. That message I want to go directly to black women, big black women, black trans women. Period.”