BY ANNA MILLER
I started listening to rap/hip-hop music at a young age. To this day, it’s one of my favorite genres, as my iTunes Top 25 Most Played list will attest. As a middle school kid, I was especially drawn to the song “Anna” by rapper J-Live. I was obsessed with all songs that shared my name, but even more so with this song because of its meaningful lyrics. In the song, J-Live raps, “You can’t salary cap your mojo, Anna/You’re not a ho, Anna/It’s okay if all systems ain’t go, Anna/You gotta tell a brother ‘no means no,’ Anna.”
My 21-year-old feminist self tells me that “Yes: obviously you don’t have to say yes to sex with men. This message is so outdated.” But as a 12 year-old, this message was pretty radical for me. Rewind to middle school for a second (circa 2006) and think about the songs that were popular during this time. I’m reminded of the explicit “Laffy Taffy” by D4L that told women to “close your mouth and don’t say shit/bend on over and hit a split/work that pole and work it well.” Or consider T-Pain’s classic “I’m ‘n Luv (Wit a Stripper).” The title says it all, doesn’t it?
Everyday, I was bombarded with messages about what a girl should be. Not just from music, but from TV shows, movies, friends, books and magazines. Being a little too young to pick up a book like Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, I turned to my playlists for redemption. When I listened to J-Live’s music, I entered into a world where women were respected and savvy—not just objects for male attention.
I’ve felt the power of music. Just a few lyrics can change your life. Which is why I can’t in good conscience turn my back on Meghan Trainor’s hit “All About That Bass.” Trainor has faced a lot of heat lately from well-intentioned feminists who believe that her song, while seemingly promoting a healthy body image, is actually demeaning women and perpetuating sexism.
I can understand why “All About That Bass” might seem problematic. In the song, Trainor sings “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 you/Every inch of you is perfect from the bottom to the top.” Critics have clung to the phrase “skinny bitches” and bashed Trainor for being woman-hating, sizist and pseudo-feminist.
While I am in no way supportive of women hating on other women, I think it’s important to note that the lyric is a joke. Trainor says it’s a joke in the song (“I’m just playing”) and even follows it with a giggle. Some may say, “THIS IS NO JOKING MATTER, how dare she?” But let’s think for a second about the nature of transgressive art. Transgressive art (meaning any art that goes against the social norm) can be melancholic, serious, heavy and dark, but it can also be joyful, fun and light. Artists defy social norms with humor to make the statement that the norms are just so ridiculous that they’re laughable. And though I don’t claim Trainor has fully thought through all of her lyrics, I think she is creating transgressive art in her song. She’s laughing at the women who have laughed at her—for being plus-sized, for being “sexually unattractive,” for being different from other girls.
Trainor also makes a comment in her song that “My momma she told me don’t worry about your size/She says, boys like a little more booty to hold at night.” Critics have argued that Trainor is promoting “faux feminism” here, because she seems to suggest that self worth is dependent on male approval. However, I think this is a very simplistic reading of these lyrics. In a culture where media outlets glorify thinness as the penultimate of female beauty, transgressive art has to fight against this norm. Rather than saying that women are obliged to look a certain way to receive affection, I think Trainor is trying to say that there are all different kinds of body types that are worthy of the titles “beautiful” and “attractive.”
Criticism aside, Trainor also does some pretty powerful things with this song. For instance, the “All About That Bass” music video featured more people of color and diverse body shapes than I have seen in any other music video this past year. Furthermore, Trainor breaks boundaries herself by proudly showing off and singing about her curvy body. In a world where the majority of female pop-stars are thin, this is a big deal. Trainor’s bravery and power, albeit laced in pop music, make me respect her.
While I’m not first in line to get Trainor’s album, I feel compelled to support women who produce empowering messages. Though Trainor does not claim to be “feminist,” the message in her song promotes female power and body love. Indeed, everyone lives feminism in different ways: some call it feminism; others call it girl power or self-love. It’s not our place to tell a woman what should or should not empower her. Feminism isn’t the idea that women should act a certain way but rather that women should have the freedom to behave how they choose. Rap music, Meghan Trainor, Beyoncé—whatever you choose, girl, I’m still all about you.