As the world burns around them, American right-wing commentators found disgruntlement in the unlikeliest of places last week; Lizzo playing a flute. After the international pop star and trained flautist played a 200-year old crystal flute on stage while twerking with enthusiasm, a minority became enraged. The flute was once gifted to James Madison, a US founding father, former president and more interestingly, not a flute player. Accusations of “desecrating American history” and calls for all involved to “be deported” soon abounded within an evidently embittered, nationalistic and racist cohort. In spite of the instrument’s very existence being news to most people prior to the incident, it quickly became a symbol of traditional American values with Lizzo’s use of it viewed as reflective of an anti-patriotic mindset prevalent in the country.
While Lizzo was the target of much criticism, the rancour felt by her detractors seems to have been less about how she played it or that she played it and more about that it was played at all.The flute ordinarily “lives” in the Library of Congress and the outcry seems to suggest that many view the flute as having transitioned from “instrument to be played” to “artefact to be observed”. This is a logical stance to take; as instruments age, they become increasingly fragile and if they are rare or unique, it is common sense that they should be preserved to prevent further damage. An incident on the set of Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (2015) in which Kurt Russell unknowingly destroyed an 1870s Martin guitar believing it to be a prop prompted the Martin company to impose a blanket ban on lending out vintage instruments. The story serves as a dark reminder of the risks inherent in giving access to historically significant instruments. The curator of the Ashmolean Museum which boasts a large collection of Stradivarius violins described the possibility of allowing their violins to be played as “unthinkable”.
While preservation is noble and wise, it can lend itself to a fear-induced form of gatekeeping. Unlike a statue or a painting, an instrument is a utilitarian object designed to be played and one could argue that not playing a historically significant instrument is a far greater disservice to its legacy than playing it. Lizzo claimed to be the first person to ever play the Madison flute and we cannot help but ask why.What is an instrument for if not to be played? Anyone with a degree of instrument knowledge will tell you that as long as an instrument is routinely serviced and maintained, the best way to preserve it is to play it. Despite this, Mozart’s pianos lie in museums and in private collections just like Louis Armstrong’s trumpets, Jimi Hendrix’s guitars and James Madison’s neglected flute. This need not be the case as evidenced by instances of vintage instruments being passed onto new musicians. To use a domestic example, legendary uilleann piper Liam O’Flynn passed away in 2018 and bequeathed his two sets of early twentieth-century uilleann pipes to Na Piobairí Uilleann (the national body for the promotion of the uilleann pipes). NPU has given the sets to two deserving pipers on “lifelong loans”. Rather than being locked away, music will continue to flow through these historic instruments for years to come.
The powerful if unintended message delivered by Lizzo’s performance was this; instruments which are aesthetically beautiful and of historically significant origin hold obvious value when displayed but hold far more value when played. Such is the nature of the internet that the performance incited impassioned debate about race, patriotism and historical revisionism. Once the hype and hysteria is stripped back however, it is clear that the flute stunt was entirely innocuous; no grand political statement was made and no harm was done to the instrument. If Lizzo achieved anything, it is that she raised questions around whether instruments of significant historical origin should be treated like any other “artefact” and be locked behind a glass case for all eternity – or remain, well, instruments.