Music

Pop Psalms: Lizzo's "Truth Hurts"

Chad Ashby

Editor's note: This essay is part of a forthcoming Pop Psalms ebook. Sign up to receive TC emails and you'll be notified when the full ebook is available.

No one could have predicted it: the summer of 2019 belonged to a rapping flautist.

The artist known as Lizzo enjoyed a record-breaking run atop the Billboard Hot 100 as her carefree, boldly embodied persona captured the attention of the world. Equal parts tears and self-confidence, Lizzo’s debut album Cuz I Love You is anchored by the smash hit “Truth Hurts,” an earworm that kick starts with this painful truism: “Why are men great until they gotta be great?”

Simply put, “Truth Hurts” is a breakup anthem. From Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable” to Adele’s “Someone Like You,” Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” breakup anthems have been wildly popular since the dawn of the pop era. Why is it that we all know these songs by heart? And why have we all belted them at the top of our lungs at some point? Because pop artists like Lizzo aren’t the only ones who process pain through song. We all do.

Between repetitions of her opening thesis, Lizzo spends the verses of “Truth Hurts” enumerating her methods for getting over the men who never fail to let her down. Trips to the salon. New bling. Revenge pics on Instagram: “Fresh photos with the bomb lighting.” Claiming she’s better off alone: “I put the ‘sing’ in single / Ain’t worried ’bout a ring on my finger.” Passive-aggressive digs about other romantic interests: “He already in my DM.” All shameless attempts to rub in what these men “coulda had.”

It’s curious that Lizzo would want to sing about being dumped via text and “crying crazy” over “boy problems” in front of thousands of strangers. Perhaps even more curious is the fact that an adorning public would want to join in. Yet this is the paradoxical reality born out in our human experience: healing and hope are found where gathered people sing the painful truth.

The Bible is filled with these kinds of songs—psalms of lament. Often, they don’t present a tidy solution to our problems. Rather, they give God’s people words to sing the truth. The truth about their pain. The truth about their suffering. The truth about the state of their hearts. The truth about their feelings toward God. And the truth hurts.

Can we sing songs of lament with swagger?

Psalm 44 is a prime example. The song begins by acknowledging that the glory of the people is their God and King, the one who fights their battles: “Through your name we trample our foes.” However, the present is not characterized by glorious victory. Its contours are heavy with pain: “But now you have rejected and humbled us.” The verses lament becoming a taunt, a byword, a disgrace, a laughingstock, a shame. The truth hurts, particularly because it makes no sense: “All this came upon us, though we had not forgotten you; we had not been false to your covenant.” The psalm comes to no comforting resolution. Wave after wave torments God’s people, precisely because they faithfully cling to their God: “Yet for your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” The song ends with unanswered pleas: “Awake! Why are you sleeping, Lord? Why do you hide your face? Rise up; come to our help! Redeem us!”

We naturally associate laments like Psalm 44 with the downtrodden, the cheated, the oppressed—not the victor, the triumphant, the conqueror. But maybe it’s both.

In the New Testament book of Romans, the Apostle Paul spends eight chapters patiently building toward a climax. As he nears the summit, he evinces a chest-thumping braggadocio. Flush with imminent victory in Christ, mid-crescendo Paul can’t help but sing the song of Psalm 44: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

Hold on. What?

Being killed? Sheep to be slaughtered? Of all the songs, of all the anthems, of all the psalms that could have sprung to Paul’s mind in that moment, he chooses a line from Psalm 44? Surprisingly, this psalm of lament doesn’t kill his vibe; it perfectly embodies it. It’s his “hair toss, check my nails” (from Lizzo’s “Good As Hell”) before the rush of an undefeatable chorus: “No, in all these things, we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

Can we sing songs of lament with swagger? Apparently Paul could. It comes naturally to Lizzo, too. “Truth Hurts” begins with jaunty keys similar to Beyoncé’s vicious “Hold Up,” the kind that puts a strut in your step. By the time the boom bap lands, Lizzo’s infectious confidence has already taken firm root. She woops and scats her way through the pain of rejection, being treated as second choice, and heartbreak: “We just keep it pushing like aye, aye, aye!” These are badges of honor. This is the essence of the breakup anthem: lament with swagger.

“Truth Hurts” is not defeatism, nor is it truly Christian lament. This is not a song of a beaten people. But it is a battle song of one who is bent and broken, yet who nonetheless fully expects to swagger across the finish line. So it is for the Christian. Through him who loved us, we will not barely manage to survive—we are more than conquerors. There is an air of triumph when God’s people “lift every voice and sing,” despite whatever oppression, pain, or struggle may currently surround us. On the seventh day, we know the walls of Jericho will fall. Truth hurts. But when Christians join our voices in singing the truth, what was meant to hurt us becomes the anthem of our eternal victory.

Topics: Music