Saturday, November 29, 2014

All About Ambivalence: My struggle with Meghan Trainor's hit "All About That Bass."

Normally, I am the person who rallies in defense of pop cultural phenomena when they get so big that people start resenting them and picking holes. I’ve even written a feminist defense of “Blurred Lines” (see previous entry) and argued on behalf of Stephanie Meyer, Katy Perry, and Miley Cyrus, urging media consumers not to take Phenomenon X so seriously, as if it’s proof of the downfall of all cultural norms they hold dear. I think that a cultural backlash against a work of art that becomes wildly popular is usually a greater indication of the objector’s insecurity than it is a problem with the art. So it is particularly unusual for me to condemn a pop song to begin with, and stranger still, one that I am head over heels in love with.
"All About That Bass" made news this year as an inspirational message to young girls about loving their bodies as they are and not trying to be the thin, Photoshopped, unhealthy ideal that is now ubiquitous in popular media. The tune is catchy, upbeat, and wildly addictive. Even its harshest critics, Jenny Trout and Chloe Angyal, start their scathing deconstructions by acknowledging that “All About that Bass” is one demm fine helluva catchy tune.  Its problem, however, is the mixed, or perhaps downright catty, message this song presents: it is being hailed as a body positive message of self-acceptance to young girls, but instead of celebrating everyone, it elevates one body type by stepping on another. 
I actually purchased this song, which is amazing in and of itself because I am normally far too cheap to pay for entertainment I can get for free (no thieving savagery for me, I sit through advertising to keep it free on Spotify). But the melody and rhythm of “All About That Bass” are so infectious that I had to have the song on my portable devices so I could listen to it on repeat ad nauseum. (I am probably only alive due to the modern miracle of headphones, which have prevented the otherwise certain homicide that is triggered by a neighbor listening to the same pop song on repeat for hours.) I’ve gotten much more than my investment of $1.29 in entertainment from the song alone, and the video is visually striking, seductive, funny, and fresh. The dancers in their super feminine, chaste pastels evoke simple joyous revelry in dancing to pop music. I feel a rush in my chest and a barely containable urge to dance in front of a mirror whenever I hear it. It has carried me miles on a treadmill and caused countless drivers to lose their situational awareness on the road when they look at the goofy idiot next to them seat-dancing in her car. I LOVE this song. But I still squirm whenever I hear it.
So here’s my painstaking line-by-line breakdown of the lyrics:
Because you know
I'm all about that bass
'Bout that bass, no treble
I'm all about that bass
'Bout that bass, no treble         x2

Yum: “That bass” is a metaphor of her low-center-of-gravity figure. It is the bottom line, the meat of the sandwich, the “booty” as she calls it later in the song. The singer is gifted in the derriere and by being “all about” it, she is embracing it. Props for celebrating the figure you have!
Hmm: The metaphoric explanation of “treble” is not exactly spelled out, and whatever it is, it’s being rejected.
Squirm: There’s a convincing argument that “treble” might be the lighter, thinner, less substantial female figures of the type she makes comparison to later in the song. If so, these lines are a subtle suggestion that the treble type figure isn’t worth being “all about.”

But I’d like to give her the benefit of the doubt and just assume these lines are only acceptance of her own unique figure, rather than an outright rejection of another figure type.

Yeah, it's pretty clear, I ain't no size two
But I can shake it, shake it
Like I'm supposed to do

Yum: On first listen it doesn’t sound too bad. It’s happy and self-assured and she’s claiming that even though she’s not the present cultural ideal of super thin, she still finds joy in her body.
Hmm: The inflection puts a heavy emphasis and little bit o’ ‘tude on syllable two of “supposed,” which smacks of bitchy one-upmanship, as if the tiny girls who can’t “shake it shake it” are not doing what they are supposed to do. And if they can’t do what they are supposed to do, does that imply that size two girls are inferior? At least in terms of performing the mating dance, it would seem.
Squirm: As a currently “fatcceptable” but formerly obese woman, I was shocked when I learned from a very thin friend that her body, too, often caused her psychological difficulties both in attracting mates and finding clothes that flattered. Until then, I had never even considered that thin people could be self-conscious of anything. I remember my older brother calling me out once for quite genuinely describing a new friend to him as “skinny, but nice.” I truly believed that skinny people had the advantage in every sphere of experience and therefore didn’t know the soul defining pain of body shame, which in turn, prevented them from becoming fully developed, empathetic, kind people. But it turns out that just as I assumed I had a lifelong man-catching handicap of excess fat, thin women can also have equally crippling confidence problems believing that they aren’t curvy enough. This man-catching concern brings us to the next troubling lines:

'Cause I got that boom boom that all the boys chase
And all the right junk in all the right places

Yum: That’s right, rock out with your sexy, curvy self!
Hmm: Having the “boom boom” that all the boys chase is problematic for a “body anthem” because it begs the question: is the celebration value of a woman’s body determined by what men want to do to it? This is a particularly uncomfortable thought for me because, as stated above, being attractive to the opposite gender was a preoccupation of my younger, fatter self (probably, still is). It feels hypocritical of me to say that she should not measure her body’s worth by that with which I built the very walls of my own self-loathing prison. Can I claim the expertise of age and experience in asserting that there is more to proving a body is awesome than the number of boys chasing it? Can you dance with it? Draw a picture with it? Run a 5K with it? How about singing a chart-topping, beloved, and unbelievably catchy song? All of these could also validate the pleasure of inhabiting one’s own body. That’s not to say I think being sexually attractive is not an awesome thing to celebrate. I am regularly thrilled that my stunningly attractive intended gentleman exhibits behavior consistent with finding me attractive. Being sexy is one of my favorite things. Ever. Only barely above ice cream. Both at the same time make the best day of my life. But if my reason for body acceptance is my man-attraction alone, it leaves a gaping hole if ever that particular success should falter on occasion.

Squirm: Finally, having “all the right junk in all the right places” kind of implies that there is wrong junk and that there are wrong places. If this is true, then it undercuts the whole “fat is ok” thesis because it puts a limitation on what kind of fat you can be. The booty seems to be an approved place in the universe of this song, and I’ll go out on a limb and guess that boobies are also a “right place.” So what about wrong places? The body positive anthem is becoming increasingly strict about what kind of bodies we should be celebrating.

Maybe I’m being too harsh to pick it apart this way. Is this just the millennial equivalent of “Baby Got Back,” which was revolutionary in its time for celebrating something sexy that popular culture hadn’t recognized before. I think there could definitely be a niche for a pro-fat-chick, or pro-plus-size song, even one that makes a distinct preference for larger lovers over skinny ones if it was no different than, say, a song praising a “brown eyed girl.” But I don’t think that such a song should be hailed as having a “great message about body acceptance” as I heard one newscaster put it. It would just be a fun niche song, like “Fat Bottomed Girls.”

As blogger Jenny Trout put it, the next verse represents what this song “could have been”:

I see the magazines workin' that Photoshop
We know that shit ain't real
C'mon now, make it stop
If you got beauty, beauty, just raise 'em up
'Cause every inch of you is perfect
From the bottom to the top

Yum: This verse is pure empowerment. Down with fakeness! Photoshop doesn’t just make people skinny who aren’t, it smoothes complexions, removes pores, straightens and whitens teeth, evens colors, and glamorizes features. There is a lovely faux PSA video floating around the Internet that turns a slice of pizza into a stunning model at a photo shoot, which showcases the magical powers of digital manipulation. Everything is subject to change in Photoshop, so it’s a good message to tell us not to believe it.
Hmm: But even this verse is not without a question of conscience; I am not exactly sure how she’s defining whether or not someone has “beauty, beauty.” Shouldn’t everyone? Why is there an “if” at this point in the song? The next phrase is “just raise ‘em up,” so maybe “beauty beauty” a euphemism for “fat arms”? Is it a play on words for the “booty” she’s “bringing back” in another verse? I hope there’s a legitimate interpretation that assumes everyone has some kind of beauty and the “if” is just a semantically clumsy allowance for unspecified forms of it.

Yeah, my mama she told me don't worry about your size
She says, "Boys like a little more booty to hold at night."

Yum: Awe, what a cool mom, allaying her insecurities.
Hmm: As someone who has seen the massive life change that comes from losing a huge amount of weight, I thoroughly enjoy the enticing power of my still-plus-sized curves. I know how men (and women!) treat other women when their bodies place them at various points on the skinny-fat spectrum. I shouldn’t knock a song for celebrating reassurance that fatty girls can get boys, too. But I wish it didn’t do it at the price of knocking the skinny girls down a peg, claiming that they are less desirable to men (and of course, that that desirability determines whether or not one should worry about their body size).
Squirm: At least two things wrong with these lines. The first is the hetero male validation problem again. This poor girl’s mother tried to assure her that her body is ok BECAUSE boys will be attracted to it. Second, there is an explicit limitation of who is considered sexy: only those with “more booty.”

You know I won't be no stick figure silicone Barbie doll
So if that's what you're into then go ahead and move along

Yum: The singer is not going to change her body for anyone’s preferences and cave to the cultural standard of improbably thin women with big boobs. If she’s not someone’s type, they can go find what makes them happy somewhere else.
Hmm: Apparently liking thin women with big breasts is distasteful enough for immediate dismissal.
Squirm: There are naturally occurring thin women gifted with a generous upper balcony, and is it fair to call them “stick figures”? Stick figure implies not only that someone is unshapely, but also that they have been created with a lack of sophistication and interest. The stick figure is our most basic, unadorned image of a human being. Intentional or not, this verse is a dig at not just porn stars, but all skinny women. And what about women who get breast implants? Are they no longer valid sexual partners because they elected to enhance their bodies in a way that made them feel more comfortable or attractive?

I'm bringing booty back.

Yum: Yay! I have a booty I want made popular, too!
Hmm: I was initially puzzled by this line. I thought, “Did booty go somewhere?” Didn’t Sir Mix-a-lot make a little ditty about booty 20 years ago that’s still the anthem of thick souled sisters everywhere? Didn’t Nicki Minaj just recast it into yet another chart topping hit?
Squirm: Oh. Racism. Jenny Trout’s blog poignantly exposed the racism that I, as a privileged fatcceptable white girl didn’t see once during my hours of binge viewing the video. Big lady booties have always been and never stopped being a Thing for ethnic minorities, and a song that doesn’t even know it—and has the arrogance to assume it is responsible for turning a cultural tide to a state it was already in—suddenly reeks of privilege of many levels.

Now the lines that cemented my unease about the song:

Go ahead and tell them skinny bitches that
Squirm: Trainor has explained that the line is a joke, but that’s not exactly a defense. It may be “just a joke,” but it’s a bad joke, the kind of “joke” that people use to say whatever terrible thing they want, thinking they have cleverly cut themselves a loophole in the required social conventions of politeness by adding “just kidding.” Another implication of informing thin women that she isn’t going to change her is that skinnies must be antagonists. Why else would they need to to be told? This line alone illustrates a deep insecurity that not only are skinny people considered more attractive, but they’re actually out to harm you if you’re not skinny, too.

No I'm just playing.
Sounds about as sincere and effective as adding “no offence” after an insult. As a former fat kid, I am very familiar with the formula. It rarely works.

I know you think you're fat

Yum: I do!
Hmm: Do I? Or should I? I’m tearing this song to pieces, which is unfair of me considering that I have gone through the struggle that the author has clearly gone through herself: thinking she’s too fat to be attractive to men. It’s a common concern, but it’s not actually universal. To boldly claim, “I know you think you’re fat” is a pretty telling indicator of the singer/song writer’s own mindset. When you’re that scared girl thinking you’re too fat for anyone to find you attractive, and you find support among friends who feel the same, it’s intoxicating to go fatproud and adopt comforting but exclusive mantras like “Men want curves, dogs want bones.” But that’s self-inflating and exclusionary, not self-loving.
Squirm: This verse is perhaps the most insidious because while it appears to offer solidarity, by creating an “us” (all us fat chicks), it also creates a “them” (anyone with any other insecurity). It alienates and completely dismisses girls who are plagued by other body issues (or don’t have any at all). It reinforces that the only girls who are sexy are the ones with extra weight, and suggests that they are also the only ones who need reassuring.

But I'm here to tell ya
Every inch of you is perfect from the bottom to the top

Yum: If this applies to everyone, then this is an indisputable “yay.”
Hmm: But as the rest of the song seems to imply that it doesn’t, then “hmm.”

The above suspicions and concerns are based on the lyrics alone (with the exception of the racism). The video, however, is indisputable anti-skinny propaganda. It begins with the singer and her slightly overweight girl friends cheerfully clad in pretty, chaste pastels, smiling as they dance to the upbeat tempo. 20 seconds in, we are introduced to The Skinny Bitch, whose garb is a skin-tight club dress made, literally, of plastic. A visual metaphor throughout the video is the image of people stuck in still Barbie-doll like poses. Plastic = fake. If there is a clearer metaphor for assessing women’s worth based on their bodies and clothing choices, I have no idea what it could be.

Every scene with the thin woman shows her making a face of disapproval or utter disgust as she watches the bigger girls (and one big boy) show off their booties dancing. 

The other thin women in the video are the chorus, whose faces are literally obscured by their garish hair and makeup. Their hair is identical, an unnatural white blond, which covers their eyes, and their lips are almost grotesque protrusions of violent pink, yellow, and blue. The effect of these visual additives with their expressionless faces is masklike, as if all skinny women are alike, fake, and void of real emotion.  

And finally, in case the “skinny isn’t real” message was too subtle, one of the dancers literally shoves the thin woman out of frame by bumping her with her derriere, at the exact moment we hear the phrase “skinny bitches.”

As if to say, look, Skinny Bitch gets what’s coming to her! Time for the booty revolution!  

Skinny Bitch doesn’t show up in the montage that follows of the individual dancers rocking out. After being shunned by the awesome power of the booty, Skinny Bitch makes a comeback to try to understand, but like most of her kind, she is apparently completely clueless: 

“Nope, still don’t get it.”

Some may claim it’s unfair of me not to consider the second-long shot of joy-dance that Skinny Bitch gets at the end. But this barely-more-than-still-frame feels tacked on, like “just kidding” after throwing passive aggressive insults at thin women for the majority of the song.

Some may also claim that the inclusion of Sione Maraschino, the big flamboyant male dancer, proves that the song really does promote acceptance of all body types. But it’s suspicious to me that the only male dancer is also the only dancer who might accurately be labeled “fat.” Would the video still be cheerful and funny if his part was played by an equally fat woman*? Or would we think that was exploitative and/or offensive? My hunch is the latter, which underscores a subtle sexist and sizeist idea that I have rarely seen explored: that truly fat women are considered tragic, but truly fat men are considered funny. I am ill equipped to fully diagnose the breadth of possible reasons for this inequality, but I have some ideas: The value of a woman is still based in large part on how attractive she is (a notion certainly not challenged by this song), and in the present climate, obesity is not considered attractive, ergo, a woman who is obese is pitiable and it’s bad form to showcase her. The fat man being funny is still an uncomfortable trope for me. If he were a thin male dancer, he would not have been of note at all, but as it is, he remains remarkable because he is both fat and dancing with abandon. Though it seems on the surface as if we’re saying “Let your freak flag fly at any size!” we’re still watching this guy dance as we would watch the spectacle of a circus freak, cheering “Go, fatty, go!” It’s spectacular because it’s someone we expect be ashamed or embarrassed to dance at all, and there he is freaking without a care. In that way, it’s reinforcing our idea that it is something unusual to be comfortable in your own (fat) skin.

Now, despite the anti-skinny message of the song, I doubt that it is going to do any real damage to anyone’s self-esteem. As my older brother pointed out, pop culture is still very much in the skinny, beboobled woman’s favor, and this one song is unlikely to change the tide. But I worry that the impact of this song is not a universal celebration of all female bodies, but a wedge driven between the skinny and the not, one that further alienates women and girls larger than the generally acceptable not-fat-but-not-skinny body type. It polarizes the skinny/fat dichotomy under the guise of universal female empowerment rather than encouraging us to appreciate the entire spectrum of shapes and sizes. Ladies of Size, do we really need a revenge anthem, one in which skinny women are shown as being somehow less “real”? Aren’t we past that point in progressive body politics where we need to shove the skinny woman off the screen to be able to dance and revel in our own bodies? Maybe not. But until some other body-positive musical prodigy can write a catchier tune, we’ll need to make our peace with this anthem as our flawed, but freaking adorable theme song.

*Ok, maybe Rebel Wilson or Melissa McCarthy could make this funny, but women being funny and fat is a pretty new and rare thing.

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