Music

No One Makes Hits the Way Lizzo Does

“About Damn Time” shows how the star creates coalitions of young and old fans to patiently work her songs up the charts.

The pop star Lizzo stands on a stage singing into a microphone.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images.

About damn time, indeed.

For 10 of the last 15 weeks, boy bander–turned–pop hegemon Harry Styles has been commanding Billboard’s Hot 100 with his dreamy ditty “As It Was.” Styles would only step aside momentarily, either for his solo-male chart rival Jack Harlow or for perpetual chart disruptor Drake (Drizzy slipped in both on his own and with rapper Future). More than halfway through the summer, Harry already seems to have the Summer 2022 competition all sewn up. But whatever the merits of the contemplative “As It Was”—I for one enjoy a hot-weather hit that’s broody and moody—we needed a summer song that sounded like a Song of the Summer, a serious jam, one that struts, preferably with female energy.

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Beyoncé may still get there in a week or two, but for now, Lizzo to the rescue! Harry Styles, a big Lizzo fan, has already sent flowers to celebrate the ascendance to the top spot on America’s flagship chart of the woman born Melissa Viviane Jefferson, her flute, and her army of zaftig disco dancers.

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“About Damn Time” is resolutely on brand for Lizzo, music’s reigning queen of You Go Girl self-empowerment feminism. The lyrics are a parade of self-love bromides ready for Instagram-caption immortality: “It’s bad bitch o’clock”; “It’s thick-thirty”; “Feeling fussy, walkin’ in my Balenci-ussies”; “Tryna bring out the fabulous”; and of course the sparkling refrain, “I’m way too fine to be this stressed, yeah.” These bon mots are paired with equally glittery music, twirly ’70s-into-’80s–style dance-pop that’s right on trend with the postmodern-disco revival Dua Lipa and Doja Cat have been flogging for the last two-plus years. In a throwback to the disco-jazz classic “Dazz” by Brick, Lizzo even throws in a flute solo. It all combines into a ’20s take on Diana Ross’s “I’m Coming Out,” a classic pop song that both announces and embodies its own queenliness.

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But that on-brand-ness didn’t guarantee “About Damn Time” a rise to No. 1. When I last wrote about Lizzo for this No. 1 hits series—back in 2019, when she rang the bell with the equally memetastic “Truth Hurts” (lest we forget, the instigator of “I’m 100 percent That Bitch”)—I said Lizzo had achieved the unorthodox task of crossing over from adults to teens, a reversal of the usual pattern for a rising pop star. Three years later, as she reaches the top spot for the second time with the official lead single from her new album Special, my thesis on Lizzo hasn’t changed. For all her internet savvy—in particular, her sharp co-opting of a TikTok dance trend—the late-blooming 34-year-old is not an explosive, out-of-the-box Zillennial star like Ariana Grande, BTS, Olivia Rodrigo, or Harry Styles. She has to earn it on every single. This only makes her success that much more remarkable, because—with occasional hiccups—she keeps pulling it off.

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Speaking of earning it: “About Damn Time” took 14 weeks to climb to the Billboard Hot 100’s penthouse. In the prior four months, literally every No. 1 hit has debuted on top; you have to go back to late winter and Glass Animals’ historically slow-moving “Heat Waves” to find a No. 1 that took longer than Lizzo’s. Once, a three-month chart climb wasn’t remarkable; in the pre-digital era, the average run to the top of the Hot 100 took anywhere from to five to a dozen weeks. But in our instant-hot-take, streaming-fueled media culture, hits tend to come predigested, from Taylor Swift to Lil Nas X.

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Lizzo herself tried to play the hot-take game last summer, with what could have been Special’s first single: Remember “Rumors”? A one-off track Lizzo recorded with rap queen Cardi B and dropped last August, “Rumors” was just what its title implied, a response to haters who’d piled on Lizzo since her rise to fame, spreading scuttlebutt about everything from her diet to her wardrobe to her lawsuits. Predictably and depressingly, when its fatphilic video dropped (Cardi even showed up abloom with child, flaunting her pregnant belly in a skimpy outfit), Lizzo experienced no small amount of fatphobic bullshit. A savvy review by Vulture’s always sharp and sensitive Craig Jenkins ripped into Lizzo’s haters and praised “Rumors” as “message of solidarity for women of color and women who are made to feel bad about their bodies”—while also confessing the tune was only “pleasant,” with “too slow of a build.” Agreed on all counts.

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“Rumors” revealed what does and doesn’t work with the Lizzo business model. Thanks to the inevitable media attention, “Rumors” debuted high on the Hot 100, all the way up at No. 4, fueled largely by digital consumption by the insta-curious. This was highly unusual for Lizzo; her singles tend to debut low on the charts, then climb. After that promising launch, “Rumors” dropped like a stone: It was out of the Top 40 three weeks later, off the Hot 100 entirely in seven. Frankly, if you are the sort of person who gets your new music from the radio rather than online, you might’ve missed “Rumors” entirely. It was only a moderate airplay hit, peaking just outside the Top 20 of Billboard’s Radio Songs chart, a component of the Hot 100. “Rumors” is now so forgotten that less than a year later, Lizzo didn’t even put it on Special, which debuts on the album chart this week at No. 2.

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I support Lizzo getting “Rumors” out of her system. But the difference between “Rumors” and more successful, more enduring Lizzo hits is one of not just relatability but broad applicability. You Go Girl feminism in music works best if it can apply to any feminist, and “Rumors” was about Lizzo first. Whereas the truly clever thing about “Good as Hell,” “Truth Hurts” and now “About Damn Time” is that each song burnished the Lizzo persona while generously offering any person—most especially any woman, any Black person, any queer person, any fat person—esteem-building, catharsis, or just a party.

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That kind of mass adoption takes time. All of Lizzo’s classics found their audience over a period of months, even years. “Truth Hurts” dropped in 2017 but didn’t become a hit until 2019. “Good as Hell” made landfall in 2016 and only climbed to No. 3 on the Hot 100 at the very end of 2019, after “Truth Hurts” broke Lizzo on the charts. Lizzo is a true mass appeal artist, and it takes a while to convince multiple generations to attend the same party.

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Not that Lizzo isn’t smart enough to take advantage of a TikTok trend that blows her way. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that, since May, “About Damn Time” has been the subject of a mega-viral dance meme. Lizzo herself did not spark the dance, which was originally choreographed by TikTok star Jaeden Gomez and spread like wildfire on the video platform through the spring. But then Lizzo herself took full ownership of it. Brilliantly, she did this by scolding TikTok for not doing the dance right, which is either a total old-person move or some shade-throwing genius. (Probably both.) “I’m tired of seeing it!” Lizzo reprimanded her TikTokkers, admonishing them for their lifeless moves and emphasizing that each turn in the “About Damn Time” dance requires high energy: “Some of y’all be going, ‘Pump me up.’ No, bitches, it’s: ‘Pump! Me! Up!!’”

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The same week Lizzo issued her rebuke, “About Damn Time” became the top dance on TikTok—which Lizzo trumpeted on Instagram—and a week later, the song skyrocketed 41 spots on the Hot 100, from No. 60 to No. 19 in a single bound. The week after that, as the dance was peaking, “Damn” vaulted another 10 spots into the Top 10. So, yes: It could be argued “About Damn Time” was led by the TikTok generation. But as I often remind my readers, TikTok consumption data does not count toward the Hot 100; it has a knock-on effect on the factors that do count, especially streams and download sales. As the TikTok dance cooled, the song never had a week that explosive again. Over the following two months, “Damn” rose steadily, a couple spots at a time, as the song bloomed at radio, that slow-moving, older-skewing medium.

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In other words, after her buzzy TikTok breakthrough, Lizzo returned to cross-generational form. If she was going to get to No. 1 on the Hot 100—which blends streams, sales and airplay—it would be radio that got her there. And that’s exactly what happened. On the Streaming chart, “About Damn Time” has never ranked higher than eighth. But “Damn” has had America’s largest radio audience for weeks now; it got to No. 1 on Radio Songs in early July, three weeks ahead of its rise to No. 1 on the Hot 100. In general, once radio programmers cotton onto a Lizzo song, they play the bejesus out of it—both “Truth Hurts” and “Good as Hell” reached No. 1 on Radio Songs in 2019. Programmers do pay attention to TikTok trends, but they’re most interested in what’s going to keep a listener tuned in. Lizzo’s TikTokability may wax and wane, but her ability to produce drive-time opioids for the masses seems more consistent.

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Which doesn’t guarantee that Lizzo will follow this hit with another one, but her team is reportedly preparing the similarly catchy “2 Be Loved (Am I Ready)” as her next single. It trades “About Damn Time’s” ’70s disco vibe for a perky ’80s pop-rock style, but it traffics in the same inspirational “empowerment pop” that may not impress some critics but sure keeps the Lizzo fanbase coming back. Yes, Lizzo has a shtick, one that will grow tired if she doesn’t find enough musical permutations. But when I consider the uphill battle Lizzo seems to face, reassembling a coalition for each single, I can cut her some slack for sticking to what works. Worrying about where her next hit will come from? She’s way too fine to be that stressed.

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