Ethics Quiz: The Crystal Flute

The strange episode has everything: history, a President, music, bad taste, fat-shaming, historical ignorance, and more.

Lizzo, the defiantly obese pop singer, rapper and all-around musical whiz who is also a classically trained flutist, was permitted to entertain her Washington, D.C. concert audience this week by playing a crystal flute that a French craftsman and clockmaker had made for President James Madison in 1813. She was handed the sparkling instrument from Carol Lynn Ward-Bamford, a curator at the Library of Congress, then, as described by the New York Times, “played a note, stuck out her tongue in amazement, and then played another note, trilling it as she twerked in front of thousands of cheering fans. She then carried the flute over her head, giving the crowd at Capital One Arena one last look, before handing it back to Ms. Ward-Bamford.”

“I just twerked and played James Madison’s crystal flute from the 1800s!” Lizzo told the crowd. “We just made history tonight.”

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day is...

Was that an appropriate and ethical use of the historical artifact?

The flute is engraved with Madison’s name, title and “1813. “It became a family heirloom and an artifact of the era,” the library said. Many believe that Dolley Madison,  rescued the flute from the White House in 1814 when the British were about to burn down the mansion during the War of 1812, but this remains just a theory. Lizzo told her cheering fans after she played the instrument, “Thank you to the Library of Congress for preserving our history and making history freaking cool. History is freaking cool, you guys!”

Several conservative commentators, predictably, didn’t think the use of Madison’s flute was “cool” at all.  Ben Shapiro said that Lizzo’s performance “speaks to the, sort of, gentility of America’s founders being brought into a context that is vulgar. It’s the vulgarization of American history.” Greg Price  said that Lizzo’s stunt “degrades our history.”

It’s relevant, I think, to show how Lizzo was costumed for the interlude: the video above is from the rehearsal at the Library of Congress:

“Jezebel,” being “Jezebel,” thinks “Let’s just take a moment to remind ourselves that Madison owned more than 100 slaves” is a justification for Lizzo’s act. Irrelevant. James Madison’s historical significance is that he was substantially responsible for our Constitution, and that critical contribution to our nation should guarantee him respect in perpetuity whether he was a slave-holder or a pot-holder. Jezebel’s reporter Rodlyn-mae Banting conveniently demonstrates her ignorance (and the incompetence of her teachers) by also writing that Madison “originated the three-fifths compromise that refused to recognize Black Americans as whole people.” Moron. The compromise was engineered by the non-slavery states to prevent the slave-holding states from dominating Congress and national policy; it was crucial to ending slavery.

Boy, am I sick of that Big Lie….

Was letting Lizzo play the flute half-naked and twerk in the process intended to insult Madison or to make Americans aware of a rare artifact that has been seldom seen or publicized? Was Carla D. Hayden, the first African American and first woman to lead the Library of Congress, being slyly political, or just creative?





19 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: The Crystal Flute

  1. When I saw this on my Facebook feed I resorted to my usual comment. The world would be a better place if more folks would look in the mirror before they leave the house. We no longer have any self-dignity in the entertainment or political realm.

  2. Maybe both.

    In and of itself, I don’t see a problem with a trained flutist playing the instrument since she certainly knows how to play and handle it. If I were going to pronounce history “cool” as I am wont to do with anyone who will read what I’ve written or listen to me, I probably wouldn’t have twerked with it.

    I can definitely see someone wanting to stick it to that slave-holder Madison by having a black woman play his flute and parade around stage with it.

  3. Re: Is Lizzo’s Treatment of Madison’s Crystal Flute Ethical?

    Yes, and her onstage costume is irrelevant – that is what she does and if anyone is surprised that she wore that outfit, they haven’t been paying attention.

    I am not a Lizzo fan and I don’t follow her career at all but I have seen videos where she has played other wind instruments besides the flute with the talent, skill and ability of a classically trained musician. She treated the instrument with respect. Listen to the crowd’s reaction as she walked around the stage with the instrument held high in hand. Pronouncing history “cool” is simply admirable as she is talking to a relatively uninformed audience; besides, she didn’t say something stupid like, “Hey, Slaver Madison: Fuck you!”

    Shapiro and Price are wrong. She didn’t degrade or vulgarize history anymore than any of the lyrics to her songs. She performed in her standard attire. I don’t like it and I think it is boorish, but hey, I am a Rush fan, so what do I know?


  4. Shapiro also said and I think I agree, it was intended to be controversial, perhaps with the purpose of getting the response received. This does seem to be happening more and more lately. I saw both the practice and the performance and while I think the practice was fine, I think the performance is more ick than unethical. However, if Shapiro’s right about intent, then that would be unethical.

    Isn’t there something about intentionally provoking people?

  5. I’m fine with her playing the flute. I think she should. Great for awareness… but ONLY at the library of congress in the more dignified event. Actually, that should have been the main event for the flute. Taking it to the concert was offensive.

    In the first video, the flute and flutist are equals in a demonstration of both craftsmanship and musical talent. Something that is both admirable and enjoyable. When used in the concert the flute – which should be treated as the historical artifact and symbol it is – was just a prop in a show. Undignified at least.

    • Why would the setting matter? If she only played it at a show at the Library of Congress or the Kennedy Center, wouldn’t that lend itself to questions of elitism? Would the result be the same if she played a Stradivarius at one of her shows (assuming she can play a violin)? What about Alex Lifeson’s Gibson ES355 “Whitey” he used on every Rush album since 1976? Or Jimi Hendrix’s Strat he played at Woodstock? Or, Gary Moore’s Les Paul? What about Mozart’s harpsichord? Why would/should the proverbial Holy Grails of musical instruments have to be played only in a “respectful” theater to an appreciative crowd?

      I don’t like Lizzo’s music. Tons of others do and think she is the cat’s pajamas when it comes to contemporary music. Yet, she is a gifted musician and handled Madison’s flute with care. She also gushed that she was (possibly) the first and only person to play it. THAT would be cool for any musician – imagine a guitarist playing Andrés Segovia’s classical guitar or Jimmy Page’s coveted Gibson doubleneck. I would swoon.


  6. Unfortunately, this will all be moot once she’s dead of a stroke or a heart attack. Or COVID. At which point there will be a large “celebration of her life” focusing on what an icon she was for body positivity.

  7. I don’t have a problem with her performing with that flute. She’s clearly a good flautist. As far as the attire, I reckon if she performed in a black evening gown, that might be offensive as it would clearly be satirizing the occasion (and might lead to heart attacks amongst her fans).

    I did think it somewhat amusing for her to state that there was a fire while Madison was away. Technically true, but I feel she might be missing some context there.

  8. It’s certainly a different cultural setting, both between the time in which Madison lived and the cultural differences within society today.

    With so few common cultural touch points today, with so many venues and so many choices for everything to do with your spare time, within her culture (presumably mostly young people, probably ignorant or ambivalent about history), and “our” culture (older, macro in that perhaps we’re more aware of and care about history and society generally) she’s bridging some kind of gap between then and now, and some kind of gap between “us” and “them”.

    Unfortunately, nobody will notice outside the people who like Lizzo and the conserviratti who were offended at what she did.

    I think the fact that she thought it was cool and appreciated it, in her way, and what it represented, makes it ethical.

    Tasteful is another matter, and maybe that’s where the real argument lies.

  9. It was unethical for LoC director Haydon to risk a valuable, historical, and likely irreparable (if damaged) American artifact in a vulgar stunt. I can understand wanting to record the item being played; it could make a nice addition to the archives, an accompanying display for the flute, or even as promotional material for the library. However, such a thing should be done in a controlled situation that would minimize any possibility of damage to the flute. Letting it be waved around in an open concert venue or used over a marble floor was reckless.

    There are probably any number of better professional flautists who would have been glad to help with such a project, but if Haydon, for some valid reason (not a “statement” of some sort) really imagined Lizzo was the best choice, it was still her job to have considered preservation of the artifact paramount over the thrill of staging a clown show.

    • Bingo. Indeed, I have concluded that the whole episode was an example of politicizing a position that was designed to be, and should be, apolitical. For the first black LoC director to engineer this stunt is a cautionary tale, and one that does no favors to other potential “trailblazers of color.”

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