The most important thing about Meghan Trainor’s song, “All About That Bass,” is that it’s great.
The hit is everywhere, at number two on the Billboard charts and getting the parody treatment on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. It’s catchy and surprising, with some cool doo-wop and reggae influences and playful, tongue-in-cheek phrasing. Trainor grew up in Nantucket and has an uncle from Trinidad; she told Billboard that “ever since I was 7, I grew up listening to Soca, the genre that’s from there. It’s my favorite sound.” Given that the vast majority of pop music is written by the same few hitmakers, it’s no wonder that a track like Trainor’s, which steps outside the small sonic box we’ve been stuck in all summer, is gaining so much traction.
On top of being a delightful, effective pop tune, Trainor’s song celebrates traditionally uncelebrated bodies. She preaches self-acceptance no matter what your size. As previously discussed on this site, there is nothing particularly groundbreaking about the claim that women with curves are sexy—Kim Kardashian built an empire upon the irrefutable fact that Sir Mix-a-Lot was not alone in his love of big butts—and yet the song treats the notion that Trainor is “no size two” as some shocking, beauty-standard-busting declaration.
What’s actually subversive about Trainor’s video is her style. The set and wardrobe are in that same cotton-candy-color palette as the town from Edward Scissorhands. Trainor is buttoned-up but flirty, flower-crowned and feminine. She talks about having “that boom boom that all the boys chase,” but her aesthetic isn’t aggressive or overtly sexy. She’s like a girl singing into her hairbrush at a slumber party. But that lighthearted, giddy energy is part of why the song is so fun. So go ahead, do your thing, no treble.
Trainor’s song climbs the charts just as Nicki Minaj releases her new video for “Anaconda.” Minaj makes a conscious effort to align herself with big-booty-lovers gone by, sampling Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back,” and strategically setting her video in a feminist Amazonian wonderland without any men. The only guy in the video is Drake, who gets a twerk-y lapdance and is otherwise ignored. This is great for so many reasons. (For an excellent, deeper-dive on the video, I point you to Grantland’s Molly Lambert.) Like Trainor, she spares herself from the male gaze by surrounding herself with like-bodied women; unlike Trainor, she dares you to be scandalized by her skimpy wardrobe, her in-your-face dancing, and her power.
“All About That Bass” is mostly focused on the positive, though it does include the dis “I’m bringing booty back / Go ahead and tell them skinny bitches,” which I find hilarious. (She goes on to sing that she’s “just playing.”) It is an especially funny line if you imagine the line in conversation with “Anaconda,” in which Minaj raps: “Where my fat ass big bitches in the club? / Fuck the skinny bitches, fuck the skinny bitches in the club.”
Hard out there for a skinny bitch right now, unless you like weak margaritas. :(
Legend’s song falls in the grand tradition of “songs about women who don’t like how they look, but don’t worry, a man is here to fix that!” (see also: One Direction’s “You Don’t Know You’re Beautiful” and Bruno Mars’s “Treasure,” which mansplains to a woman about how pretty she is: “Gimmie your attention, baby / I gotta tell you a little something about yourself.” )
Of course the first line of Legend’s song is about a woman applying her make-up “just so” before trying on a bunch of dresses until she’s satisfied, even though Legend says “You were fine in my eyes a half hour ago.” Legend also tells this woman “you don’t have to try.” This is the theme of Callait’s song, too, which also creatively begins with “put your make-up on” and goes on to say “you don’t have to try so hard.”
These songs are the same songs, basically, and they are both patronizing and, crucially, just not very good.
I wish songs would stop telling women that the path to self-confidence and “real” beauty is paved with discarded make-up and hairdryers. Women should wear make-up, if they want to. Women should dry their hair, if they want to. Yes, you can argue that the cosmetics industry is a multi-billion-dollar conspiracy that plays on and deliberately exacerbates the insecurities of female consumers in order to thrive. You can also argue that being able to take ownership over your appearance—using the tools available to you to change the way you look whenever, and however, you feel like it; to draw attention to the parts of your appearance that you love and minimize the visibility of the features you dislike—is liberating, confidence-boosting, and fun (and harmless! Seriously, harmless. Makeup, blown-out hair, nail polish: it all comes out in the shower.)
How exactly is it any better for a woman to stop wearing makeup because someone else—usually a man—tells her she “looks better without it” than it is for a woman to start wearing makeup because someone else—usually a man—tells her, in so many words, she “looks better with it”? They’re both part of the same bullshit of letting people who aren’t you tell you how you are supposed to want to be.
TL;DR: Meghan Trainor and Nicki Minaj’s songs are fantastic. Dance to them—with or without a sizeable butt—for the rest of the season. We could have some late-in-the-game contenders for song of the summer.