Okay, so this does NOT fit on a political blog. But it also doesn’t fit on Facebook or elsewhere and it’s a discussion I just apparently had to enter into. So, skip this if you want… For real…
Disclaimer one: This is going to be long.
Disclaimer two: This is solely my perspective, albeit one I’m trying to approach from a researched/well-considered place.
Disclaimer three: I think taking pop culture critically and seriously is awesome and I try to do it daily.
Disclaimer four: Did I mention this is going to be long?
Disclaimer five: I freely admit that as a white male, my position is from the outside looking in and does not represent the “gold standard” for reaction.
I have come here in defense of Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass.” I’m not here to applaud it as an irreproachable anthem of body acceptance or a modern feminist musical proclamation. I’m just here to say the song is getting a bad rap. The singer, who recently made the depressing and seemingly obligatory “young-female-in-the-spotlight (not named Emma Watson)” mistake of declaring that she’s “not a feminist,” is a different matter. But the song itself does not deserve nearly the level of vitriol and dismissal it is receiving. Having had this conversation at least 4 times with different people, I figure we’re probably at a place where a bigger discussion is worth it.
The problems with the song tend to fall into three camps, I’ll tackle all three: skinny-shaming, male gaze-praising, and “abuse of minority culture/bodies.”
The bulk of the criticism has centered around the notion of “skinny shaming,” which is the specific suggestion that skinnier female bodies are less desirable or valuable. It is certainly possible to read the lyrics where Trainor proclaims she is “all about that bass” and the subsequent “no treble” as “full-figured women rule” and “skinny women don’t.” But that’s a bit unfair and requires a nefarious motive that doesn’t seem to be hinted at by the bulk of the song, which is a woman focusing on (initially) praising herself.
Let’s start there: The first line that reveals she “ain’t no size two” has been taken to task by some who point out Trainor is by no means someone who would fall in the larger range of body type. True. However, she is also far and away not in the prototypical pop singer body frame range. Without asking for measurements, I think we can give a pass on her suggestion that she is at least in possession of a larger body than many women who are typically promoted in this genre.
She then blasts Photoshop, which I think we can all agree is a great point and not skinny-shaming. Artificial manipulation of women’s bodies by predominantly male editors sucks.
Then she dismisses “stick figure silicone Barbie dolls.” It is the first real salvo in the “skinny shaming” evidence. It should be noted that (A) Trainor does not dismiss an actual woman. At no point is she describing an encounter with a human being. In fact, the use of Barbie and reference to a “doll” seems to indicate she’s taking on a perception and not a person. Seemingly, the thing she is criticizing here is an idea, a social construct of a “perfect physical woman” who would adhere to Barbie’s physics-defying physique.
And now, to the crux of the argument: “I’m bringing booty back/Go ahead and tell them skinny bitches that.” In and of itself, it is clear that this is inarguable evidence of separation and dismissal, of telling “skinny bitches” that their looks are not desirable. And that lasts all of one lyrical phrase.
In what has to be the quickest apology in the history of pop culture, Trainor immediately says “No, I’m just playing.” That “I’m just kidding” moment that takes at least some of the sting out of the previous words. But then she elaborates: “I know you think you’re fact/but I’m here to tell ya/every inch of you is perfect from the bottom to the top.” In no uncertain terms, this is a refutation of the previous indictment. In fact, one could argue that her motive in introducing the condemnation of “skinny bitches” is to dismiss the term, shrugging off the separation and praising them with the same wording used to describe larger framed women earlier: “Every inch of you is perfect.” Unless you consider the simple utterance of “skinny bitches” to be unforgivable, it seems to me she didn’t just apologize (“I’m just playing”) she actively praised (“Every inch of you is perfect”).
Male Gaze Praise
It should be noted that these arguments get more complicated as we move forward. Yes, admittedly, the content of this song is explicitly heteronormative. I also consent that she is framing the embrace of her beauty in context of male appreciation: “Cause I got that boom boom that all the boys chase.” And her mother reinforces this, stating “Boys like a little more booty to hold at night.”
Here’s why I don’t have much problem with this. First, acknowledging that Trainor is, herself, a heterosexual and sexually confident woman, the fact that “all the boys chase” her could be what she desires. I have zero problem with anyone confidently proclaiming that their desired sexual partners find that person’s attributes desirable. Notice that males are not active in this song. Which is to say, there’s no rapper who comes in and lays down a verse about how she’s hot. This is all internal qualifications and not external expectations. Even the mother’s reassurance seems to be more innocent than it is given credit for. A reasoned response from a teenage woman’s tearful complaint to her mother that boys won’t find her attractive may be to suggest that they will. As if to say “those people you want to find you attractive will find you attractive.” Again, with two women as the agents of action here instead of promoting a male voice instructing them, I would file this under mildly bothersome.
And it is worth noting the difference between reflection and reinforcement. Trainor exists in a world where men sexualize women’s bodies. Young women in particular are codified by a patriarchal system that teaches them to seek male approval in terms of appearance. If anything, I find these lyrics to be reflective of that experience and not reinforcing it.
Abuse of Minority Culture/Bodies
And once more we venture into even more complex conversation. I have read criticisms of Trainor’s claim to the word “booty.” Undeniably, this is one of many willing or unwilling contributions from the black community that has been appropriated into mainstream culture. That being said, it has become so mainstreamed, so completely and frequently used, it seems like it is no longer culturally restricted to one subgroup. Now, if the word had some inherent meaning or was related to a troubled origin (if it does, I am unaware), that would be different. But as an innocuous slang term for a sizable bottom, it doesn’t seem loaded with preconceived racial, sexist, or classist notions. Booty has, unless there is a circumstance I’m unaware of, become a mainstream synonym for butt.
The next criticism tackles Trainor’s style. Clearly, she is imitating a throwback to Motown-inspired, soul-filled doo-wap. I have heard people describe her voice as an “impression” of black singing. I admit, that is not how I hear it. It is entirely possible that this could be a matter of perspective and experience. It doesn’t seem to me to be egregious or explicit musical cultural appreciation the likes of which we have seen from virtually every other white pop star these days. If it is considered lifting from that community, it would be petty theft and not grand larceny, at least in comparison.
Finally, the criticism of the video. I have heard the dancers in the video described as “black bodies used as props.” It’s a serious allegation and one worth tremendous scrutiny and the benefit of the doubt. White acts have been blatantly stealing from black music and then casting them into background singers/props for ages. I couldn’t initially explain why Trainor’s video didn’t feel that way to me. A careful examination gave me the answer why.
In the vast majority of the video, Trainor is not given the foreground when dancing with people of color. Instead, she is center back, with the other dancers a pace forward. Yes, she is in the middle. She is the one singing the song, aesthetically, it would be weird to have her to the side. But she is rarely foregrounded, most often following the motions of the other girls. It’s not an insignificant point to state that ignoring the contributions of black dancers to this style of movement would be wrong. To include them (most scenes in a 3-2 ratio of black dancers to white dancers) seems more like an act of incorporation than a tactless use of them as inelegant props.
The dancers are rarely shown in isolation or segregated. Most often, there are both white and black dancers working together. If there is ever inequality, it is the white dancers deferring to and imitating the black dancers.
The video is somewhat separate from the issues of the song (other than the style and voice). But it is worth noting that this isn’t the same clearly egregious content that has Miley-ed and Swift-ed across our paths lately.
I don’t know what it is about Trainor’s song that would merit more anger/commentary than her peers in the current Billboard top 10, most of which are FAR more irritating/insulting.
- Shake It Off – In Taylor Swift’s video she straight up dresses like an 80s-era B-boy (with a nearly all-white breakdancing crew). The song has lyrics like “My ex-man brought his new girlfriend/she’s like “oh, my god!” but I’m just gonna shake/And to the fella over there with the hella good hair/won’t you come on over, baby? We can shake, shake shake.”
- Bang Bang – Do we have to go beyond the first lyrics? “She got a body like an hourglass, but I can give it to you all the time/She got a booty like a Cadillac, but I can send you into overdrive.” Whatever Trainor does, Jessie and her girls do worse by infinity. Across the board.
- Anaconda – Do I really have to explain this one? I mean, it samples “Baby Got Back.”
- Black Widow – For the love of God the video features Michael Madsen. That’s offensive enough. But to hear “I’m gonna love ya/Until you hate me (Right)” and “I want you to fiend for it/Wake up and dream for it” separates this from Trainor’s song instantly. Heck, I’ve heard arguments that Iggy Azalea’s entire existence is culture thieving.
Folks, that’s the top five currently. “All About That Bass” isn’t the most troubling song in the top 5 this week. That’s maddening.
Is it okay for you to disagree? Sure. Do I think that it’s possible to defend some of the negative positions? You bet. I just don’t think this song deserves the negativity. In fact, I would argue that it’s one of the few songs right now to try to promote any degree of positivity, that doesn’t have a video that reduces the singer to a purely sexual object, and is one of the more fresh/original sounds out there.
Even if you’re not “All About That Bass,” maybe you could not be “All Against That Bass?”