It takes two hands for me to count how many of my straight male friends have solicited my opinion on Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass,” currently the No. 2 song in the country, since its release three months ago. “Fifty million viewers can’t be wrong,” one such pal countered a couple weeks back, nearly five million views ago. Usually I would laugh off such justifications, pointing to the two billion views PSY racked up for “Gangnam Style” amidst his short-lived wheelie-poppin’ on the zeitgeist, but I am less certain of Trainor’s novelty status, despite her Diet Feminism approach to pop music.
Admittedly, the premise of “All About That Bass” would not make it through a Gender Studies 101 course intact: boys like a little more booty — so that’s reason enough to love yourself, just the way you are. “Every inch of you is perfect, from the bottom to the top,” Trainor sings while conventionally attractive female back-up dancers in colorful, size-eight dresses shimmy innocently. Elsewhere in the cutesy, GIF-ready clip, a man of color dressed in pastels plays the role of prop in two different ways: the sassy gay best friend and the sole overweight person who doesn’t give a fuck.
Of the four songs that appear on Trainor’s gratingly catchy new EP Title, out this week on Epic, three are what feminist orthodoxy would deem “problematic.” “All About That Bass” may filter self-love through the male gaze, but “Dear Future Husband” polices chivalry, demanding Date Night in return for domestic tasks like grocery shopping. On “Title,” Trainor rails against hook-up culture by reinforcing the stereotype that women crave monogamy but won’t get it if they “give the milk away for free,” then asks to be treated “like a trophy.” These messages are too simple for anyone with progressive gender politics, but the thing is, Trainor is not meant for that crowd.
As a pop music fan, I find just about everything about Meghan Trainor irritating, from her Karmin-esque rap breakdowns to her apparent love of doo-wop and Glee-style a cappella. I hate that she ripped off the Valley of the Dolls book jacket for her cover art, and how she comes across as a little smug in interviews when she mentions how she’s “kind of helping people.” But the truth is, she kind of is. I’d need her song if I were 13, just coming into my own self-loathing as a woman. In fact, I clung to Destiny’s Child’s dudes-love-curves anthem “Bootylicious” at that age, feeling less like an unattractive freak just trying to be invisible. Years later, I’d come to realize the song would not have worked without Bey and her girls portraying themselves as objects of sexual desire, but it did the self-empowerment trick during the tough years.
A lot of pop music is aimed at preteen and teen girls, in part because of their disposable income (often via their parents). Songs like Bruno Mars’ “Just the Way You Are,” One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful,” and John Legend’s “You & I (Nobody in the World)” may provide the boost of self-love some need, but the lack of specificity in these male-sung odes to natural beauty leaves a lot of room for self-imposed denial (as in, “Oh, he could never be singing about me, I’m ugly/fat/etc.”). “All About That Bass” deals in specifics, yet as I’ve written before with regards to Nicki Minaj’s ass anthem “Anaconda,” a big butt is subjective. Girls of all shapes and sizes could find a salve within the verses of “All About That Bass.” At such a young age, I’d argue that takeaway of self-worth — even if it is wrapped up in male approval — is better than crippling insecurity. It’s better than internalizing the dissection of hot girls that routinely goes on across all genres but particularly infiltrates hip-hop and pop. (I say that as someone who once developed a preteen complex over O-Town’s “Liquid Dreams”; I was never going to have Janet Jackson’s smile, let alone pair it with Jennifer Lopez’s body.)
Not all junior high girls are going to be interested in Kathleen Hanna or read Rookie, let alone begin to understand what feminism is. Not all of them are even going to sit through the Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoken-word intro to Beyoncé’s “Flawless.” But if they listen to Top 40 radio, they will hear “All About That Bass,” which will soon dethrone Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” as the Hot 100’s reigning champ. If one young girl musters confidence because of Meghan Trainor, I can’t — for the sake of my younger self — despise her outright.