"Even if we’re not feeling empowered, by the time this song is over we totally will be."
Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was -- the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period -- with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators and industry insiders involved.
Before she was Lizzo, Melissa Jefferson was a freshman at University of Houston, studying the classical flute by day and teaching herself to sing by copying Beyoncé’s B’day album by night. A decade later, things came full circle at Los Angeles’ Echoplex in 2017 where Jefferson, now under her current moniker, was playing.
Among the audience was a young songwriter named Jesse Saint John, who thought to himself: “Oh my God. This is a Beyoncé show in a basement.” Within weeks, “Truth Hurts” -- a snarky, eminently quotable anthem about self-love and the unofficial new theme song for the Minnesota Vikings -- was born.
Like Lizzo, John is a self-described misfit who, as a pop songwriter, conversely spends most of his time in the mainstream, the belly of the beast. John grew up in Orange County, a gay kid from a working-class family, who wound up accumulating writing credits for mega-stars like Camila Cabello and Britney Spears. When his friend, producer Ricky Reed, linked him with their mutual friend, Lizzo, John found a creative partner with whom writing was like “stream of conscious.” Another part of that bond: a lot of similar, sad stories.
“I had a boyfriend once say to me, ‘Remember when you were skinny?’” John says, audibly cringing, not at the comment, but that he entertained it. “I think that being from marginalized communities -- with Lizzo being a big black woman and me being a femme-leaning gay -- society teaches you to take whatever you can get.”
With “Truth Hurts,” their unspoken objective was to un-do all that. Or at least, to give people some kind of preventative shield against the garbage fires of humanity they’d personally dealt with. “What would my ‘best self’ sound like in a song?” John said. “Something like, ‘Even if we’re not feeling empowered, by the time this song is over we totally will be.’”
Of the several songs John worked on with Lizzo during their months of songwriting sessions, “Truth Hurts” was the only one that made it onto the album. And just by a hair: The song was not included on the original album, Cuz I Love You, which came out in April 2019. But once the song’s lyrics became meme-ified on the video sharing app TikTok, Atlantic tacked “Truth Hurts” on as a bonus track.
“Truth Hurts” didn’t hit No. 1 until after her televised performance at MTV’s Video Music Awards, in which Lizzo performed in front of an inflatable rear-end, a la Sir Mix-a-Lot’s famous lump-filled music video. Later that week, Nielsen reported that digital sales of “Truth Hurts” jumped 102% and Atlantic began pushing the song on mainstream radio, where it eventually became a Top Five airplay hit.
Lizzo’s long-awaited mainstream breakthrough wasn’t without its issues: Two producers, who worked with her around the time of the song’s recording, claimed that they deserved songwriting credit for bringing a tweet to the rapper’s attention that inspired the song’s much-memed “I just took a DNA test” opening line. Lizzo instead sued to seek a judicial declaration against the co-producers’ claims to credit, but did credit the creator of the original tweet, for her contribution to the song’s most viral lyric. It was a valuable lesson for Lizzo and all of 2010s pop music: The Internet gives, but it can also take back.
Regardless of who is and isn’t credited as co-writers, it’s abundantly clear that “Truth Hurts” could only have come from Lizzo. “That girl has a million songs inside of her,” John says. “Even if you’re saying something sad, she is going to say it in a way that makes you feel incredibly empowered, and people want to latch onto that.”