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The ‘Lizzo Playing James Madison's Flute’ Controversy: A Blogger’s Analysis
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The ‘Lizzo Playing James Madison’s Flute’ Controversy: A Blogger’s Analysis

Gold, I tell you.

As my second week as a staff writer at The Dispatch comes to a close, I need to confess. I’m … not really a writer.

Some of you will have already noticed.

Jonah Goldberg is a writer. Kevin Williamson is a writer. I’m a blogger. Bloggers have different talents than writers.

We value writers for their prose and their insight. We value bloggers for their speed, their efficiency at curating news, and their ability to formulate strong political opinions—“takes,” we might more aptly call them—about literally anything that might turn up on the Drudge Report or in the average news junkie’s Twitter timeline.

Like Liam Neeson in Taken, I have a very particular set of skills. Skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you, if you happen to be someone who esteems careful well-informed analysis over dashed-off screeds about whatever the outrage du jour might be.

Can a blogger successfully transition into a writer? The Dispatch evidently thinks so. I guess we’ll find out!

But in the meantime, as I sit here in my chrysalis straining to turn into a butterfly, I should make a second confession. I’ve been watching with growing jealousy this week as a controversy plays out on social media over the pop star Lizzo playing an antique flute that once belonged to James Madison.

That’s not the sort of story which The Dispatch would normally stoop to cover. One would never ask Kevin, say, to waste his rhetorical scalpel on a matter so trivial. And one certainly wouldn’t assign our news team to the subject on a day when matters of grave international import are playing out abroad.

If an episode as dumb as the Lizzo controversy is to be covered, it requires someone with a very particular set of skills.

And as someone with those skills, let me tell you: If I were still blogging for a living, I would have been all over this story like white on rice. From day one. Within the first hour that people began whining about it on Twitter.

Before I explain why, let’s back up and sift through the facts.

As a gentleman of a certain age, I’m not so old that I’ve never heard of Lizzo but sufficiently old that I can’t name any of her songs. It’s enough for our purposes here to know that she’s a singer and rapper with a huge following. She held a concert on Tuesday night in Washington, D.C., and stunned the crowd at one point by bringing out a surprise special guest. Kanye West? Jay-Z? Drake? 

Even better: the Library of Congress. And they brought with them an instrument with a singular provenance.

That flute is more than 200 years old. It was made in France in 1813 by Claude Laurent and presented to Madison as a gift on the occasion of his second inauguration. It’s made of silver and crystal, an unusual material that Laurent believed produced superior pitch and tone to traditional flutes made of wood or ivory.

But what was it doing at a hip-hop concert?

Before she was a rap star, Lizzo was a classically trained flautist named Melissa Jefferson. She studied the flute first as a child and then more intently in college. Per the New York Times, she considered training at the Paris Conservatory and has played (virtually) with the New York Philharmonic. This wasn’t a case of a priceless artifact being thrust into the hands of someone who didn’t appreciate it. To the contrary, you can see in the clip how nervous she was to hold it, playing just two notes before handing it back.

As for how the Library of Congress came to be involved, they sensed a good PR opportunity when they saw one. Last Friday, knowing that she’d soon be in town, they invited Lizzo publicly to come check out their enormous flute collection. She agreed and dropped by the day before her concert, giving the library a rare bit of viral social-media exposure.

The promotion continued at the concert after she’d played the Madison flute. “Thank you to the Library of Congress for preserving our history and making history freaking cool. History is freaking cool, you guys,” she told the cheering crowd.

To the untrained eye, all of the above is barely worthy of comment, a charming curio about pop culture intersecting with American history in an unlikely way.

But to the blogger’s eye, this is gold. Gold, Jerry.

The Daily Beast has a useful roundup of populists lamenting The Desecration Of Our Heritage in the Lizzo episode but this clip from OAN will give you the flavor if you’re not inclined to wade through an article about it.

Why is this story so appealing to bloggers, TV doomsayers, Twitter “influencers,” and others whose clout and paycheck depend on a steady supply of hot takes? Well, I’ll tell you. It starts with the fact that it’s easy to understand.

It’s hard to explain to someone who’s never worked at a content mill how relentless the pressure is to generate new material rapidly. The best I can do is ask you to think back to the blue-book exams you took in college. You’d be given four hours and asked to choose three out of, say, eight topics to write on. Blogging is like that. Except that instead of three topics in four hours, my old job involved writing on seven topics in nine or 10 hours.

A 10-hour “final.” Every day.

The good news with blogging is that your topics aren’t limited, as they are in an exam. You’re free to write about anything you like. But when you’re asked to hit seven topics in 10 hours, you need to be shrewd about how you invest your time. You could spend 45 minutes reading up on the Jones Act and then another 30 hastily scribbling something semi-coherent about it, knowing you won’t be 1/1,000th as informative on the topic as Scott Lincicome would be.

But wouldn’t you rather invest five minutes watching videos of Lizzo playing a Founding Father’s flute? Your opinion on that will form quickly and it’ll be just as valuable (or worthless) as anyone else’s. And it’s a cinch that the Lizzo post will do more traffic than a post on the Jones Act would. After all, readers also prefer topics that are easy to understand. Not all readers: Some read blogs to be educated on subjects about which they know little. But the average person reads for pleasure, whether to be entertained, to have their political priors affirmed, or to get their daily fix of outrage heroin. A thoughtful post about maritime commerce won’t check those boxes.

A quickie take about a hip-hop star defiling the grave of James Madison, though? That’s pure candy.

Another reason the Lizzo story is bloggy gold is that it has obvious “us and them” potential. “Us and them” is the subtext of all political commentary, including here at The Dispatch. Broadly speaking, we define “us” as classical liberalism and “them” as illiberalism of all stripes. But the concepts don’t need to be drawn so philosophically, and usually aren’t. They can be based on less ethereal distinctions—class, sex, race, culture.

To a certain type of right-winger, the spectacle of a black woman treating one of James Madison’s heirlooms as a stage prop is a deliberate racial humiliation of “conquered” whites by their nonwhite “conquerors.” And when you strip away the inflammatory alt-right framing, there’s a grain of truth in that: It wasn’t lost on observers, including the Times, that Lizzo getting to play a priceless instrument owned by a slaveholder was a demonstration of racial progress, a political act in a small sense. Although if you found yourself bothered enough by that to deem it an affront or “humiliation,” you should maybe take some time and think about why.

I suspect the racial angle is overdetermined. Some conservatives who complained about the incident doubtless would have been fine with a black woman, including Lizzo herself, playing Madison’s flute in a more dignified setting like an orchestral concert. What they object to is the cultural milieu. If we’re going to bring an artifact of the Founding Fathers out of storage for someone to use, the recipient should treat it more reverently than to play it while twerking, bare-cheeked to the world.

Then again, there’s no reason to think she or the Library of Congress intended to denigrate Madison. As noted above, Lizzo handled the instrument respectfully. She was dressed the way she was not because she meant to give offense but because that’s what you get at a Lizzo concert. She thanked the Library of Congress by celebrating “our history.” At worst, she’s guilty of negligence, not the sort of deliberate desecration that might understandably produce the hair-on-fire reactions we’ve seen on social media.

But we needn’t overthink this. Underlying all of it and making it solid culture-war fodder are various “us and them” presuppositions that typically aren’t spoken but are widely understood. I don’t know Lizzo’s politics but I do know that black women vote overwhelmingly Democratic. Fans of hip-hop are also more likely to support liberal than conservative candidates, it’s safe to say. Meanwhile, Republicans tend to be older, whiter, male, and conservative. And they believe, not without reason, that they’re more patriotic than liberals are and more grateful to the Framers for the country they bequeathed to us.

There’s a lot of intrinsic “us and them” potential, in other words, in a story about a black woman failing to show proper respect to a Founding Father. A blogger hungry for content would immediately run it up the flagpole, knowing that an activist readership will salute.

Now, be honest. Had you heard of Madison’s flute before Lizzo played it?

I hadn’t. I’d heard of her but not it. It was she who lent celebrity to the instrument, not vice versa. You may find that dispiriting, although I’m not sure why any of us should have baseline knowledge about a random gift given to James Madison that played no meaningful role in American history. Me, I’m thrilled to have learned about it via this episode. A crystal flute! Made for the father of the Constitution! Played for the first time in 200 years by a celebrity—totally randomly! It wouldn’t surprise me if it turns out to have magical powers and Lizzo has now been possessed by Madison’s ghost.

Which, if so, would make her next concert a must-see.

But I digress. The last reason this story is instant blog fodder is because, per the foregoing, it’s quirky as all hell.

Blogging can be dreary. Sometimes the news is slow and you’re forced to write on topics which you know the readers won’t be interested in, like whether Glenn Youngkin stands a chance of becoming president or whether Russia’s neighbors should accept its draft dodgers. Other times the news cycle is humming but events don’t lend themselves easily to provocative opinions. What’s the “hot take,” for instance, on Hurricane Ian grinding up the state of Florida?

Often the news is interesting and amenable to opinion but involves a learning curve so steep that it’s impossible to write intelligently on it, at least at first. That’s why you haven’t seen anything yet in this newsletter, ostensibly devoted to populism, on the victory in Italy by right-wing Giorgia Meloni and her Fratelli d’Italia party. Is she a fascist? She doesn’t sound like a fascist. But the left keeps saying she’s a fascist! I simply don’t know enough about her yet to form a thoughtful opinion. And it’ll probably be awhile before I do, which means anything I undertake to write will be safely bland and noncommittal. Who wants to invest 10 minutes in reading a “this guy says this, this guy says that” summary of how different political observers view her?

When the blogging gets dull or difficult, you look for a story with an irresistible hook. One whose premise will suck the reader in without any effort on your part. Think UFOs. Or pirate treasure. Or something something Elon Musk. Or Trump offering to broker a settlement between Ukraine and Russia, coincidentally at the very moment the Ukrainians seem to have Putin on the ropes. 

Some stories sell themselves, you see. Like, say, Lizzo playing a flute that might just open a portal to the afterworld, and which wouldn’t be out of place as the prized MacGuffin in an Indiana Jones movie.

If you blog for a living and you stumble across a hook like that, you grab it with both hands and you don’t let go. No matter how dumb your take on it is, that’s an hour well-spent in the day’s blue-book exam. Even if you don’t blog, if instead you’re the sort of guy who whiles away his productive hours on Twitter periodically tweeting “they hate you and want you dead” to a group of alt-right chuds, this is the sort of arresting where-my-country-gone content that you’re forever on the hunt for. One day they’re letting Lizzo play Madison’s flute, the next day they’ll be letting Beyonce execute conservatives by bludgeoning them with James Monroe’s oboe. Which way, Western man?

Perhaps someday The Dispatch will have a proper blog, one where hot takes can be planted and bloom instead of growing like weeds in the valuable soil of newsletters. Rumor has it that opinion on that subject is divided among the powers that be. The risk of starting a blog here is that our otherwise thoughtful and careful site will sink into intellectual quicksand, consumed by pressure to generate ill-informed knee-jerk insta-reactions to everything that happens in the news. In the wrong hands, blogging can be dangerous business.

It requires a very particular set of skills.

The benefit of having a blog, however, would be that the next time some celebrity desecrates a dead president’s banjo or whatever, you won’t have to wait more than an hour to hear about it.

Let us know in the comments what you think about that. And please take advantage of the 20 percent discount on an annual subscription if you haven’t yet, as it’s due to expire in 48 hours. Where else will you get your “Lizzo playing a flute” news?

Correction, September 30: Due to an editing error, the photograph that originally accompanied this article was not Lizzo but Nzinga Imani. A name search of the Getty photograph database surfaced the incorrect image as Lizzo. Imani was properly identified in the caption, however, and we missed that. We regret the error.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.