By Ben Sisario
Two brothers say the song’s signature lyric came out of their writing session, and are seeking credit. The singer’s team says the claim has no merit.
For millions of listeners, Lizzo’s hit “Truth Hurts” has been more than just the No. 1 song in the country, the position it held on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart for six weeks this summer and fall.
An ebullient anthem of empowerment, the song has thoroughly penetrated pop culture, appearing in online memes by everyone from teenage TikTok users to Hillary Clinton. “Truth Hurts” has also introduced Lizzo as a new kind of star: an outspoken, body-positive woman of color, who is expected to be a major contender at next year’s Grammy Awards.
But who wrote the song?
That question has been quietly in dispute for months. The song’s official credits list four writers: Lizzo, whose real name is Melissa Jefferson; Ricky Reed, her primary producer; Tele, another producer; and Jesse Saint John. But a pair of songwriting brothers, Justin and Jeremiah Raisen, say they were involved in an early writing session with Lizzo that adapted a tweet into the song’s signature lyric — “I just took a DNA test, turns out I’m 100 percent that bitch” — and were denied credit.
The brothers are careful to praise Lizzo as a singular and inspiring force. “What she is doing for culture is unlike anything we’ve seen a modern pop star do, maybe ever,” they said in an interview. But as their efforts to obtain credit — as well as a share of the royalties for what may well become a multimillion-dollar song — have dragged on without resolution, they decided to speak out.
“It’s not fair that we were not included,” said Justin Raisen, who has developed a specialty working with female artists like Sky Ferreira, Charli XCX and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth.
Cynthia S. Arato, a lawyer for Lizzo, strongly denied the Raisens’ claim.
“The Raisens are not writers of ‘Truth Hurts,’” Arato said in a statement. “They did not collaborate with Lizzo or anyone else to create this song, and they did not help write any of the material that they now seek to profit from, which is why they expressly renounced any claim to the work, in writing, months ago.”
Reed declined to comment.
Credit disputes are common in the music industry, but do not often become public. In the case of “Truth Hurts,” the disagreement involves a crucial part of Lizzo’s persona and brand — she has applied for a trademark for the phrase “100% That Bitch,” and sells T-shirts on her website featuring those words.
For an industry that has already been shaken by controversial copyright cases, like the multimillion-dollar jury verdicts over Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” and Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse,” the “Truth Hurts” episode raises another knotty question: Who has the right to claim authorship over even small phrases in a song, when multiple people were “in the room” when they were created?
According to the Raisen brothers — who grew up as rock fans on Long Island and are now part of the songwriting and production circuit in Los Angeles — they held a joint songwriting session in April 2017 with Lizzo and two other writers, Saint John and Yves Rothman.
While the five of them worked on a song called “Healthy,” the brothers said, Saint John pulled up a meme on his phone based on a tweet that read: “I did a DNA test and found out I’m 100% that bitch.” They all laughed, and Jeremiah said that he suggested including the lyric in the song.
Lizzo sang it almost identically to the way those words appear in “Truth Hurts,” as demonstrated in a recording from the session that the brothers shared with The New York Times and later posted on Instagram. Jeremiah also said he helped write the melody for “Healthy,” including the “DNA test” line.
(In another complication to the song’s origins, the woman who wrote the tweet, a British singer who goes by the name Mina Lioness, has complained bitterly that she, too, deserves credit.)
Danny Riordan, an aspiring songwriter and friend of the Raisens who said he was present for part of the “Healthy” session, remembered the excitement in the room as the song boomed over the studio speakers.
“Everyone was like, ‘Oh my God, this is going to be huge,’” Riordan said.
Five months after the session that produced “Healthy,” “Truth Hurts” was released, and the Raisens said they were surprised that Lizzo’s song contained the “DNA test” line but without credit given to them or Rothman.
“There was a bittersweet emotion, because deep in our hearts we know that we were a part of this song,” Jeremiah Raisen said. “We should feel validated but we’re not.”
The Raisens said they began their campaign shortly after, seeking 5 percent each of the songwriting royalties from “Truth Hurts.” As the song climbed to No. 1 this summer, the brothers took up something of a vigilante campaign on social media, posting congratulatory messages to Lizzo while also aggressively arguing their case.
But the Raisens’ case may be complicated by the fact that they rescinded an earlier claim over “Truth Hurts” through their publisher, Kobalt, which Lizzo’s representatives believe should bar them from pursuing the matter further.
Lizzo’s representatives do not contest that the session yielded “Healthy” and its “DNA test” line. The crux of the disagreement is who did what: The brothers say the session was conducted with the understanding that all parties were contributing to the resulting work, and that Lizzo’s vocal was tailored to the instrumental track they created. Lizzo’s representatives say the Raisens were not involved in creating Lizzo’s vocal line and so have no claim to it now.
But the law may favor the Raisens on this point, said Don Gorder, the chairman of the music business and management department of the Berklee College of Music in Boston.
“Copyright law says that if a work is created and it’s clearly the intention of all the people who contributed that it’s merged into a whole,” Professor Gorder said, “that they are all equal owners of the song unless they agree otherwise.”
As part of their campaign, the Raisens commissioned an opinion from a musicologist, who concluded that “Truth Hurts” has “some strikingly similar lyric and musical elements to those in ‘Healthy,’” and that Lizzo’s hit “would not exist in its present form without the existence of and the borrowing from ‘Healthy.’”
Lizzo’s representatives portray the Raisens’ claim as a common hazard for artists with a big hit, and say that theirs is baseless. After six weeks at No. 1, “Truth Hurts” finally fell to second place on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart on Monday, replaced by Travis Scott’s “Highest in the Room.”
“Although it has become all too commonplace for successful artists to be subjected to these type of opportunistic claims,” Arato said, “it is nevertheless disappointing that after all of her hard work, Lizzo has to respond to this specious claim.”
The disagreement over “Truth Hurts” may involve another precious currency: a Grammy. Although the song is two years old, Grammy rules allow it to be nominated for next year’s awards because it was part of a 2019 album — it was added to “Cuz I Love You” as a bonus track — and had not been previously submitted. (The song’s popularity exploded this year thanks in part to TikTok memes and a prominent Netflix placement, and as Lizzo’s public appearances established her as a charismatic new star.)
At the Grammys, “Truth Hurts” is under consideration for both record and song of the year, and Lizzo is considered a leading candidate for best new artist. Nominations will be announced Nov. 20.