Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Sonic Sandwich: Stuffy Old Songs About the Buttocks

So I put down my headphones for a few weeks, and when I came back, it was nothing but butts, butts, butts.

Truly, this was the Summer of Butts™. Through some kind of booty singularity, we got not only Jennifer Lopez and Iggy Azalea teaming up to literally tack their butts one on top of another, we got "Anaconda," Nicki Minaj's defiant, confident re-purposing of Sir Mix-A-Lot's "Baby Got Back," and of course Meghan Trainor's sweet, harmless, fluffy bubblegum ode to body positivity and confidence, "All About That Bass."

So naturally, it's the latter that's destroying young minds.

Somehow, of the three, Trainor seems to be the one who gets the most ink. I think when you're dealing with dance anthems, people generally expect the oversexed, crass imagery. But when you're the new kid on the block, and your speed is more in the range of a novelty - the type of song that uses standup bass and low-end horns to push its theme about being, well, a bit more than a size 2 - people start to pay attention to the lyrics.

Is it "Body-shaming Anti-Feminism?" Perhaps. (Trainor's own remarks on the subject don't help.) There's an argument there, that it just swaps one simplistic view of beauty for another, and worse, and that a woman's self-esteem has to be tied to whether men approve of her figure. I think it's going a bit too far to call it "disingenuous," though, because in the pop world, everyone's selling something about themselves. Trainor likely noticed some differences between herself and other singers, including the others listed above, and found a way to spin that for a buck or two, both from her physical appearance and her outlook on life. If the song's social politics are a bit gummed up by a need to be commercial, I don't think it totally breaks the message. Where Nicki Minaj says outwardly, "Fuck the skinny bitches," Trainor just teases them a bit:

I'm bringing booty back 
Go ahead and tell them skinny bitches that 
No I'm just playing. I know you think you're fat 
But I'm here to tell ya 
Every inch of you is perfect from the bottom to the top

She leaves off more on a "live and let live - I'm good with me, you be good with you" tone, going out of her way to write up a slogan that is supposed to be for every woman, in fact every person who doubts their beauty. It's not switching one set of exclusionism for another, or fetishizing the plus-sized lady, it's just kinda clumsy pandering. Trainor wants to peddle feel-goodness with some sly wordplay and a sarcastic attitude that gets her noticed - and boy, it got her noticed. That's a feat.

There are arguments against the song, like its primary concern being "Boys like how I look, so I feel good." That probably wouldn't be the thesis of an article about actual feminism, but as far as a here today-gone tomorrow pop song goes, that might be fair play. It's still a piece of pop culture, so it deals in those black-and-white dichotomies: models and "real women," boys and girls, attraction and... lack of attraction, I guess... false opposites that are more complicated when you graft them onto real life. It might be expecting a bit much for a mainstream pop radio artist to do that much work to break all the taboos, on her first go-round at least.

Personally, I have no material reason to be an apologist for this song. It's not better or worse than anything else out there on the radio, but it's different, which is why it keeps being talked about. I think there's a collective disappointment that it wasn't better about it, but it started this really interesting conversation, which is more than we could have said for "Friday" lo those many years ago (besides, "Boy, 'Friday' was just wrong wasn't it.") Maybe Trainor will have a long career and have further opportunities to correct this. But it's just as likely that this is it for her, and if so I don't think she has anything to be ashamed of. Pop music was meant to score our lives, not define it, so even being slightly on the ball with this one is a good step. I say let the girl enjoy having a big ole butt. God knows everyone else seems to these days.

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