All About the Bass, Not So Much About the Patriarchy

I like this song and it’s video.  Really like it.  The sound is catchy, bouncy, and pleasingly retro.  The video is bright, diversely cast, and the over-the-top doll-house theme is appealingly funny.  The overall message of the song, “Every inch of you is perfect, from the bottom to the top,” is obviously a positive message for everyone to hear, especially the girls and young women who are presumably the target audience for any new young pop star.  I think this song, and it’s rocket to popularity, are great signs for our culture’s progressing along in the conversation about self-image, women’s voices, and the variety of body types shown in pop culture.

But, this song and video are hardly without fault.  Maybe, a lot of fault.  When I first heard this song I flinched at the lines, “You know I won’t be no stick figure silicone Barbie doll,” and, “Go ahead and tell them skinny bitches that…”  It’s great that Ms. Trainor feels great about her body, but it doesn’t seem fair to feel great by bringing others down.  Isn’t this part of the whole problem Ms. Trainor is taking exception to?  Thin-shaming isn’t any better than fat-shaming, though perhaps it is a little less common.  Maybe leaving any kind of body-shaming out of a song about embracing your body would be for the best?

The other thing about those lines that I didn’t like, that’s a little more hidden and insidious?  They are, on one level, about not-skinny people shaming skinny people – yikes.  But it’s also about women shaming and body-policing other women – super-yikes.  As the great Ms. Albright taught us, there certainly is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.  And throwing around the tired phrase, “skinny bitch” is certainly not helping anyone.  Not every woman has to be in every other woman’s corner every single day – we’re just people with ups and downs, opinions and disagreements, good days and bad.  However, putting the phrase, “stick figure, silicone Barbie doll,” an incredibly offensive, delegitimizing, anti-woman phrase, to incessantly ear-wormy music?  That’s a feminist foul. Or, maybe just foul.

A friend of mine on FB noted that as much as he personally liked the song he didn’t plan on letting his kids listen to it, and it wasn’t for the reasons I outlined above.  Rather, what irked him were the lines, ostensibly advice being delivered by a mom, “Yeah my mama she told me don’t worry about your size / She says, ‘Boys like a little more booty to hold at night.’ ”  He disliked the notion that girls should be overly concerned about their bodies just so that they could have bodies that would be pleasing to boys rather than for themselves.  That’s is indeed the seemingly literal meaning of these lines and I suspect it’s the only message that many young people would be able to parse from these lines.  But I don’t actually think that’s the message Ms. Trainor means to be sending, or indeed is sending, with this music video.  If that’s the essential story behind this video could it ever have had the incredible resonance among women as it’s enjoyed?  I’ve seen it quite a bit on my newsfeed, shared by folks who love strong, independent, happy ideals for women.  Let me explain why I think these lines, and some other truly problematic lines, are part of a larger, rosier picture.

The whole video’s theme is fairly juvenile.  There is a childhood bedroom, a doll-house, balloons, a tea party, pink-bike riding, and even dancers frozen with bent arms, karate-chop hands, and starchily coiffed hair – the perfect caricature of Mattel dolls.  There’s even a floral headband, a riff off of childhood’s daisy-chain crowns if I ever saw one.  Ms. Trainor and her video girlfriends are alternately dressed in pastel Pleasantville-style clothes and brightly colored mini-dresses, the 1950’s being our culture’s idiom for our collective childhood experience and the 1960’s for our collective adolescence.  I think this video is based squarely in that dreaded “tween” time, the developmental grey area between childhood and the later teen years.  This is where imagination, play, and still-sought parental advice are the only tools kids have to help them navigate the increasingly more grown-up questions they face like:

“What kind of person am I?”

“What kind of world do I live in?”

“Am I someone that is likeable?”

“Will I have a boy/girlfriend someday?”

If you can bear to do it, try to remember being that age, 12 or 13.  Your level of worry about social acceptance, was it pretty chill and low or was it numbingly, terrifyingly high?  I’m guessing it was astronomically high – it certainly was for me.  Young teens are very, very worried about how other people, especially their peers, perceive them.  This worry can certainly have some unhealthy consequences if it gets out of hand, but it seems that by itself it’s just a regular step on the way to developing into a healthy adult.  Young teens worry that their peers won’t accept them as friends or as potential romantic partners for a whole host of reasons.  They worry a lot about being liked, about being cool or at least, being normal.

That’s the worry that I imagine the song’s mom speaking to.  “Don’t worry about your size…Boys like a little more booty to hold at night” would be an outrageously inappropriate thing to say to a six year-old, who shouldn’t be worried at all about her body (except perhaps how she can get it to climb trees better or when her scraped knees will heal) and will only be confused by the innuendo.  It’s also inappropriate to say to a 26-year old, who’s old enough to make up her mind about her own body and what she’d like to look like and about any partners who might or might not pass judgement on her.  But a young woman, without experience or wisdom of her own yet, but needing to start making decisions about her dating life?  Maybe some good mom-advice is exactly what’s useful.

It might do a teen, of any gender, a lot of good to be told the very true truths that fashion magazines lie (“workin’ that Photoshop”), that different people find different body types attractive (the oft repeated “more booty” line), and that people who can’t respect them for who they are aren’t worth their time (“So if that’s what you’re into then go ahead and move along”).  Those things are empowering messages and not always obvious to kids (or adults!).  Teens don’t walk out into the dating/relationship world having all the facts straight already.  Telling them the truth when it’s useful and appropriate isn’t overly sexualizing children or taking their power from them.  It’s just one of the ways they have to learn about this particular world.  It’s a complicated world and teens need whatever help they get.

It wouldn’t be empowering or positive if the song’s mom said, “Don’t worry about being chunky, your butt’s pretty attractive, you’re still sexually marketable and therefore have worth.”  Scraped down to plain lyrics, I understand why some people hear this message in All About the Bass.  It’s a message unfortunately echoed in the first verses lines,

But I can shake it, shake it
Like I’m supposed to do
‘Cause I got that boom boom that all the boys chase
And all the right junk in all the right places

These lines set up a normative body that is “right” and what’s “supposed” to be for women.  And that body is most definitely sexualized with a “boom boom” (what!?) that “all the boys* chase.” People hear, “I’m built right, with a nice butt, that’s valuable to boys, exactly as it ought to be.”  And that’s hard to argue with on one level, it’s right there.  And indeed, that is a frustratingly essentialist and limiting sentiment. You are as valuable as your butt.  Your butt is as valuable as the boys that chase it.  Blergh.  That is awful.

But here’s how I choose to read these lyrics, and the song as a whole.  I say “choose” because like any other piece of media I recognize this song has many fair understandings some of which may cause people to come to vastly different decisions about how to interact with it.  I choose hear a young woman, caught in the weird years between playing with dolls and going to prom, gathering the collected wisdom of her life so far: storybook morals (“Every inch of you is perfect…”), pop culture (“I’m bringing booty back”), and parental advice (“Yeah my mama she told me…”),and turning it into her own words and her own moral-of-the-story, “I’m all about the bass.”  Her version isn’t perfect or without clunky bits, but what would we expect that out of a young teen?  The point is that out of that sometimes-a-mess reasoning she came out with the right idea, that she herself likes herself just as she is.  She is all about the bass**.  All about it!  She says it 32 times.  I counted.  That is clearly the overwhelming message of the song.  This growing and discovering young woman, she is growing and discovering she likes her curvy self, just as it is.  Full stop.

And that’s the emotional powerhouse behind the love for this song.

That emotional wallop is why I’m will to engage in some pretty heavy criticism of this music, but still scan the radio looking for it.  There is practically no music out there that’s immune from some criticism (Itsy-Bitsy Spider, maybe?), but it’s worth our time and energy to engage our minds and values in judging what we take in from the world around us.  Criticism is a way to mitigate the bad parts of media, to recognize, name, and call out bad actors and wrong beliefs for being hurtful.  I do it not only so that media is less damaging to me but so that I can find it more enjoyable.  My friend on FB might consider this simple justification for a great tune – a sentiment I understand, it’s how I feel when anyone has anything even vaguely positive to say about the rape-apologist song Blurred Lines.   But I don’t, I find it a useful way to manage living with the world as it currently is, where even the best and most progressive media outlets are tainted with sexism, racism, and xenophobia (and queerphobia, and resentment of the poor, and victim-blaming, and violence and, and, and….).  However, I recognize that there is a lot of terrible junk out there and we’ve all got different ways of filtering what gets to us (and any kids!) and we’re going to come to different decisions about individual media items.  So while I used my friend’s thoughts as a jumping off point to discuss this song’s vices and virtues, which I think I see differently from him, I’m not suggesting he’s wrong to determine that this is out of bounds for his kids.  The patriarchy is awful and if this is a step he sees is important to take to protect his kids from it – great.  I am pro-kid and anti-patriarchy everyday of the week.

I was also inspired to write this post by reading this by Samantha at Defeating the Dragons where she writes about Taylor Swift’s new music video for Shake It Off and it’s multiple issues with racist stereotypes and cultural appropriations.  The article is very good, even if I don’t agree with every single point. It is also kind of sad, because without the racism this music video would be pretty amazing.  Yes, I just said a very qualified something nice about Taylor Swift.  And it’s on the internet so it’s forever.  The things I do for this blog.

*This is also a very cis/heteronormative song – All the boys are interested in this girl? I doubt it.  If this song is meant to be generalized to all body-conscious girls, why only addresses how boys might feel about “a little more booty,” and not what other girls or genderqueer people might think?  Plenty of girls are worrying themselves over girls and genderqueer  people right now in middle schools all over this great nation.  Possible not-straining-to-sound-inclusive-but-magically-is: “Folks like a little more booty…”.  It scans the same!  The queer oversight is funny, because in the video the only people to even take notice of any women’s bottoms are other women.  There’s even butt-grabbing by a woman!  Though, to be fair, she does look terrified when she does it (why is that a terrifying act?) and does not give the impression of being especially attracted to this particular lady-butt.

**I also LOVE the metaphor of depth of sound for size/curviness.  There are so few ways to talk about size and weight, even when using euphemisms (sometimes especially when using euphemisms) that stay away from labeling one end of the size spectrum as good and the other as bad.  But bass/treble is totally value-neutral and yet clear in it’s meaning.  It’s a rich and creative metaphor and I think our idiom is the better for it’s creation. Personally, I also think that deeper voices are quite attractive for women, I think women who sing as tenors (which is usually annotated along a bass line) are pretty awesome.

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