SNL cast members Mikey Day, Chris Redd, and guest host Lizzo

Saturday Night Live is more than just a sketch comedy tv show. It’s an institution that’s been entertaining audiences since the mid-70s with a vast array of comedic sketches, guest hosts, and musical performances meant to bring the feeling of “now” right into the homes of millions of people. While the show’s broad, diversity-minded approach to engaging audiences has helped it maintain its place in American entertainment culture over the decades, SNL continues to face the competition of today, from an explosion of watching options via on-demand streaming platforms to a plethora of creator-driven content that keeps a cellphone in more people’s hands than a TV remote.

Despite this, SNL has pushed ahead in making sure it stays competitive by inviting crowd favorites to its stage, with the latest being Melissa Viviane Jefferson, known by most people as Lizzo, who hosted the show on April 16. With her flute always close by, Lizzo’s opening monologue, her pair of incredible, full-bodied musical performances, and her natural ability to make people laugh gave SNL yet another reason to believe in the power of engaging the “now”.

The first thing that’s important to note is that Lizzo is, indeed, a “real” flute player. Many musicians discount or diminish her flute playing abilities because of her “pop” focus, but Lizzo spent years studying with the renowned Claudia Momen before attending the University of Houston, where she focused on flute performance. After the death of her father, she lived out of her car and fought tirelessly for her place in the music industry. Lizzo eventually left her home in Texas to pursue music with a more hip-hop focus in Minnesota, which laid the foundation for the career she celebrates today.

Through it all, the flute traveled with her, and remains a vital part of her musical identity. To date, Lizzo’s unique approach to music has had broad impact, with much of her work inspiring body positivity, emotional health, and in the latest episode of SNL: an indictment of western classical music.

In a skit titled, “Orchestra”, Lizzo starred as a flute player named “Beverly Gags”. Hearing that the DeVry Symphony Orchestra is missing a flautist, her manager, “Tony Banks” (played by castmember Chris Redd) urges the orchestra’s conductor to hire her so that the ensemble can successfully perform Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. The conductor hears her playing and approves, but can’t accept that her musicality comes with a side of twerking. After hearing positive feedback and affirmations from members of the orchestra, the conductor accepts that to have the flautist he needs for the performance, he must allow the entire orchestra to twerk while performing. The skit ends with a jovial performance of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” with all the musicians, conductor included, twerking to the music.

At first glance this skit seems hilarious enough and fully in-line with SNL’s typical programming. But there’s a lot to unpack from this 4 minute dive into orchestral and popular cultures colliding. For example, when Tony enters the rehearsal space, his use of the word “flutist” is immediately corrected by the conductor, who prefers the term “flautist”. This is indicative of how many Black people are made to feel in western classical spaces. As the manager of a musician who he describes as having “lips and lungs sent straight from God, herself”, Tony obviously knows that both “flutist” and “flautist” are acceptable, but is urged to assimilate to the perspective of the individual who is seemingly more experienced in that sort of space. It’s also worth mentioning that Tony carried himself in a way that many would interpret as a pimp, which also speaks to how Black people are often seen within the concert hall.

Once Beverly demonstrates that she is indeed qualified to join the group, the conductor remains doubtful until the ensemble’s harpist implies that not bringing Beverly into the predominantly white ensemble could be seen as racist, which results in his finally changing his mind. Throughout the world, much less within the arts, the words “racist” or “racism” are treated with more seriousness than the acts that result in those labels; the masterful inclusion of this moment within the skit reaffirmed this truth for people who were watching closely enough.

As the rehearsal resumes with Beverly playing the flute, the conductor stops because he believes that “no one wants to see that (Beverly’s twerking)”. In response, the ensemble’s triangle player (and one of the group’s few Black members, played by Keenan Thompson) affirms the twerking. While he is ignored by the conductor, the twerking is accepted when the group’s lead violinist (played by Aidy Bryant) suggests that all members should follow Beverly’s lead in the spirit of solidarity.

Understanding this exchange is vital in understanding why orchestra culture remains the same despite more efforts toward diversity. Being seen or included in a space is not in itself empowering. As orchestras continue to showcase the marginal impacts of their diversity efforts and initiatives, the diversity is only seen and not felt. The triangle player’s perspective was deemed invalid, while the lead violinist’s wasn’t: a tiny, comedic example of one of the western classical industry’s biggest problems.

Even the end of the skit highlighted how marginalized artistic expression isn’t taken seriously. Yes, seeing an entire orchestra attempt to twerk while playing is amusing, but why should people be entertained by attempted twerking when an attempt at Beethoven’s 9th Symphony would be deemed completely unacceptable? It’s yet another point in this skit that reminded the world that words like “excellence” are totally subjective, considering the celebrated “un-excellence” of the dancing that closed the skit.

There are several other microaggressions spoofed in this skit, but overall, the indictments that Lizzo’s presence helped unearth are clear:

  • Orchestras take themselves too seriously and continue to center repertoire that lacks a sense of “today”.

  • Qualified musicians are expected to diminish their artistic abilities when entering “traditional” arts spaces.

  • The perspectives and lived experiences of Black people and people of color, despite those individuals’ ability to gain entry into predominantly white arts spaces, are continually marginalized.

  • Attempts at cultural competency are regarded as the successful execution of cultural competency.

  • Being an accomplice for change (as seen through Aidy Bryant’s character) requires speaking out and standing up – literally!

While SNL’s viewership might never be what it was in decades past, the show is making every attempt to maintain and grow its audience by engaging society’s unspoken conversations (even if only through comedy) and platforming musical artists that draw a younger, more diverse crowd. The show’s “Orchestra” skit should be considered their take on what happens when organizations and institutions fail to do those things. With direct action and honest consideration of this in an industry filled with proclamations of change, orchestras might have a chance of being celebrated in the future, instead of just being made fun of.