The Booty Myth

Are female pop stars glorifying their bodies or objectifying them? Well, it’s complicated.

THE FLESH MOVES impressively, rippling and rolling in such synchronized symmetry, it almost seems mechanically powered. The buttocks curve with a geometrical perfection that explains why one calls their display a moon. They are hypnotically rollicking orbs of brown skin, these ass cheeks of Nicki Minaj, thrust with such, er, assurance at the video camera, again and again, in the steamy R-rated video for her top-10 hit ‘Anaconda’.

Oh my god, look at her butt.

The women rub their rumps against each other, as liquid oozes over their flesh. The video for the subtly titled ‘Booty’ is like a soft-core hydrotherapy commercial, featuring two hot pop stars. Jennifer Lopez and Iggy Azalea rub water over their tan and peach skin and let the thongs of their fabric-flimsy bathing suits go right up their cracks. J-Lo even pulls out a jar of some sort of Vaseline-like gel and dangles it tantalizingly behind her, then brings it up to her mouth and moisturizes her lips.

Big big booty but you’ve got a big booty.

Meghan Trainor wears her blond hair in bushy ponytails and a blue polka-dotted dress over long sleeves and tights in the PG video for her number-one debut hit, ‘All About That Bass’. The visuals are candy-colored, but the lyrics celebrate the 20-year-old singer’s mostly clothed body, in all its womanly curves: “All the right junk, in all the right places.” The song has been praised for its body positivity, but it’s primarily about one particular, um, asset, as Trainor trills over the tune’s impossibly infectious doo-wop bounce:

I’m bringing booty back!

News to Nantucket: Booty’s been here. Still, point taken. Music is in the midst of a particularly boisterous anal fixation, as Freud might say (a sexual allusion that Lopez makes explicit in ‘Booty’). Three hit songs – ‘Anaconda’, ‘All About That Bass’ and Lopez and Iggy Azalea’s ‘Booty’ – are, well, all about that ass. These songs are not just for men who prefer thighs to breasts (though, in part, that’s their subject).

What’s striking about this multicultural, multi-genre (rap, pop, Latin, country, dance) trifecta are that they’re all by female artists celebrating their own bodacious booties. They’re expressions of women reveling in the size of their derrieres and, in two songs, overtly dismissing skinny-model standards of the fashion and beauty industry – and of the recent pop past. They’re celebrations of bodily pleasure and of beauty standards based more in African and Caribbean cultures than in white America.

Are these pop stars glorifying their bodies or objectifying them? Are they teaching women to love themselves, humps and all – or are they peddling paeans to perfection, like shills for the ever-growing, $12.6 billion cosmetic surgery industry? Well, it’s complicated.

There’s a long history of blues, rock, funk, and rap odes to the earthy pleasures of gluteus maximus to the max. “Shake your booty,” KC and his Sunshine Band urged Top 40 radio listeners during the disco era. “Fat bottomed girls you make the rocking world go round,” Freddie Mercury sang in a 1978 Queen camp-metal song. Texan rockers ZZ Top were just looking for some ‘Tush’. ‘Shake Ya Ass’, Mystikal rasped in 2000, channelling James Brown and KC. Even country star Trace Adkins got on the ‘Honky Tonk Badonkadonk’ bandwagon.

Women have revelled in their own rumps before. “Pull up to my bumper in your long black limousine,” Grace Jones instructed in a 1981 club hit. One of the first overtly feminist all-female rock groups called themselves Fanny. In fact, rear ends are enough of a pop trope that they inspired the Spinal Tap satire ‘Big Bottom’, with its immortal lyric: “Talk about mud flaps, my gal’s got ’em.”

Booty has even been the moniker for an entire genre of music: the lascivious, loud electro hip-hop music that was alternately dubbed Miami bass. The sinuous tail-feather-shaking featured in ‘Anaconda’ can be traced back to the 1980s heyday of 2 Live Crew and crew, itself a North American outpost of Jamaican dancehall “whining” or “wining”. (Having been a Miami-based music critic, I can attest that the pelvic thrusts favoured by Minaj, Lopez, and Azalea are part and parcel of your average club crawl in hustler’s paradise.) They whine at Carnival in Trinidad, Brazil, New Orleans, etc., too. In Treme, the music is named for the movement, not the object or the sound, but the thrust’s the same: bounce:booty:bass. All of it – the bump, the whine, the twerk – has roots deep in West African culture.

The video for ‘Baby Got Back’ launches with one white girl uttering to another the couplet that would become oft repeated, a veritable pop music meme: “Oh my god Becky, look at her butt.” Describing the possessor of said derriere as resembling a rapper’s girlfriend, or “a total prostitute,” the girl with the long blond hair and stonewashed denim jacket expresses astonishment at the roundness and size of said body part, which rotates in a tight minidress before the girls’ very eyes. “It’s just so…” she searches for the right word: “…black!”

Jump cut to the music: Sir Mix-a-Lot, not a small man himself, starts his rap with a blunt confession – “I like big butts and I cannot lie” – as he stands atop what looks like a giant sand sculpture of a tush.

He goes on to dismiss the “flat-assed” beauty myth sold by fashion magazines as unappealing to him and his “brothers”. If hip-hop was a black thing, as the saying went in those glory days of the genre, ‘Baby Got Back’ (which sampled 2 Live Crew) was an explicit ode to an African-American female body type – the Revenge of the Hottentot Venus.

Women quickly got on board the black is bootyful train. Destiny’s Child may have claimed themselves ‘Independent Women’, but they also prided themselves on being “Bootylicious.” “I don’t think you ready for this jelly,” Beyoncé et al warned, as they shook it like they meant it. A white girl could celebrate that “junk inside your trunk”, aka ‘My Humps’, too – or at least she could if, like Fergie, she was in a mixed-race band and, actually, pretty damn thin.

Perhaps taking these frank assertions of sexiness as licenses for sexism, a veritable phalanx of men unleashed their own responses to booty calls in recent years. With its unabashed baseness, not to mention bassness, and ridiculously rudimentary tagline – a whispered “wiggle wiggle wiggle” that has made the song a favourite of the under-10 set – the video for Jason Derulo’s ‘Wiggle’ comically recalls the booty daze of Uncle Luke. “You know what to do with that big fat butt!” the singer exclaims, as he looks through a pair of oversized binoculars. Snoop Dogg joins the young star and offers this closing observation, which nicely sums up the feminist possibilities of ass worship (not): “Damn baby you’ve got a bright future behind you.”

Allusions to ass have practically become de rigueur. Sage the Gemini whimsically compares rumps to pitbulls in ‘Red Nose’. Lil Wayne quotes Becky’s friend from ‘Baby Got Back’ on Drake’s ‘The Motto’ (in which Drake shouts out to Uncle Luke). The theme seemingly reached the level of pure absurdist nonsense on Major Lazer’s 2013 ‘Bubble Butt’, a minimalist dance rap in which the two words of the title get repeated ad nauseam, like some kind of meth-head mantra. The video makes clear the racial implications of the booty myth. Three skinny white girls in platinum wigs pathetically flounder in their attempt to dance, look cool, and have fun. A candy-assed brown-skinned superhero comes to their rescue by sticking hookah tubes up their anuses and performing emergency inflation surgery. The girls don’t appropriate booty; it is donated to them, and, bubble-butted, the party begins.

The current ass anthems can be heard as lasses’ flirtatious responses to these laddish catcalls. The pleasure each artist takes in her physical attributes is in part derived from the fact that men appreciate them.

Minaj reels off ridiculously ribald raps about the benefits she reaps (cocaine, clothes, meals) for letting guys tap her ass, but the song’s title and refrain belong to a man, whose “anaconda don’t want none unless you’ve got buns, hun” – it’s another sample from ‘Baby Got Back’. Trainor’s mother has reassured her that being a full-sized woman is okay because “boys like a little more booty to hold at night.” Lopez hands all the power to the men: “It’s his birthday, give him what he asks for,” the chorus repeats again and again.

It’s as if they’re answering, “This ain’t your pleasure dome, it’s mine.” ‘Booty’, as the title indicates, is the most bare-boned about its message. Understandably, J-Lo seems to be staking her claim to this butt-proud territory, for herself (P. Diddy recently called his ex’s behind “a work of art”) – and maybe for Latin women in general, as if to say belle bottoms are not just a black thing. Adding the Aussie Azalea to the mix, ‘Booty’ attempts to take race out of the equation completely. I know boasts are a time-honoured rap practice, but for Iggy to brag that nobody has seen a “booty this good” since “Jenny from the block” – well, cut to the ‘Anaconda’ video.

Minaj surrounds herself with women of all colours, like Benneton gone bootylicious. It’s a woman-centric bacchanal with Nicki as its MC. Like a modern-day Mae West, Minaj is a smart cookie; she can turn an invitation to add some eye-candy to a track into an opportunity to wrest a sex-play script into her own hands. (Just watch Trey Songz’s ‘Bottoms Up’ video if you don’t believe me.) She also usually ruptures or at least calls into question conventional beauty standards by donning brightly coloured wigs, or drag-queen-dimensioned eyelashes, or bras that push her breasts into comic-book dimensions. For ‘Anaconda’, she goes au naturel; instead of talking about what Nicki’s wearing this time, we’re talking about what she’s not wearing. Still, by sampling Sir Mix-a-Lot, Minaj telegraphs the song’s hip-hop heritage: “Oh my gosh, look at her butt.”

There has been much buzz about whether that butt is real or surgically enhanced – Nicki claims the former. It doesn’t really matter; what matters is that both the ‘Booty’ and ‘Anaconda’ videos celebrate bodies that are exceptionally spectacular in their overdetermined way. For most women, the curved T&A of Lopez and Minaj are as unattainable as the flat stomachs of the “skinny bitches” – fashion models, and midriff-bearing pop stars like Gwen Stefani – that ‘Anaconda’ mocks.

Actually, Nicki rhapsodizes about being “little in the middle” and having “much back” – apparently she can have her cake and eat it too. We haven’t even replaced one impossibly high beauty standard with another: We’ve just doubled men’s expectations. These booty songs still sell perfection; they still perpetuate classical notions of symmetry and balance, albeit in voluptuous dimensions.

These pop fantasies have real-world consequences. Body image is a damaging, even deadly issue for women and girls around the world. Naomi Wolf documented the misogynist power of the cosmetics, fashion, diet, and plastic-surgery industries in her 1990 book The Beauty Myth. The pressure to live up to impossible standards of appearance kills women via anorexia or botched operations by unlicensed, and therefore cheap, “surgeons”.

The beauty myth drains women of time – how many hours does Minaj have to spend in hair and makeup before a show, or a shoot, hours that Drake, or Trey Songz, or Usher can spend writing lyrics, or warming up his voice, or maybe even relaxing and having fun. And the pressure to look good drains women of money. Plastic surgery is an ever-growing industry, and 91 percent of its patients in 2013 in the U.S. were women, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons’ annual report. Let me just repeat that: 91 percent. One of the fastest-growing surgical procedures are butt jobs. Maybe Minaj was born that way, and has a staff of professionals who make sure she never looks less than perfect for the camera. But millions of women worldwide have emptied their piggybanks and maimed their flesh to get one piece of that ass power.

‘Pretty Hurts’, sings the booytlicious Beyoncé – a paragon of perfection if there ever was one. (Out of the other side of her mouth, Ms. Knowles-Carter shills for L’Oreal.) Trainor calls out one of the tricks of the trade in ‘All About That Bass’: “I see the magazines working that Photoshop / We know that shit ain’t real.” The song may be a celebration of booty, but it’s a celebration of everyone’s booty, and beauty (well, almost everyone’s – more on that in a minute). Trainor doesn’t flaunt her body to make viewers envious of its proportions. She’s well aware she doesn’t meet the Western standard (“I won’t be no stick-figure silicone Barbie doll”), and she doesn’t care. And she tells her listeners not to care: “Every inch of you is perfect from the bottom to the top.” In the video, a variety of body types shake shake shake their booty, including one XXL black man, several young girls, and a trio of singers in platinum wigs and Crayola lip gloss, looking a little like Minaj.

Trainor delivers her body-positive message not with strident bombast but with addictive sugary aplomb. It’s a great empower pop moment, even if its maker has said she’s not a feminist – a stupefyingly lame thing for a young woman to say at a time when the world’s top music star performs in front of a giant “feminist” sign at the Video Music Awards. Earth-goddess to Trainor: It’s not only okay to be a feminist in 2014, it’s bootylicious!

‘All About That Bass’ has a positive message, but it’s problematic too. By proclaiming herself the spokesperson for bass and resuscitator of booty, Trainor appropriates language and themes from African-American culture. From Al Jolson to Elvis Presley to Eminem to Iggy Azalea, columbusing is a deeply disturbing but time-honoured practice in American pop music. The assembly-line Minaj dolls are also troubling: Is Trainor mocking Minaj, or acknowledging that the ‘Super Bass’ singer owns this territory in which she, a not-so-little girl from Nantucket, is just a tourist? Couldn’t she have gotten Nicki, or someone, to do a guest verse on the song  –  then it would seem like a display of girl power, an act of love not theft? Jeez, isn’t it a requirement in 2014 for either Minaj or Azalea or Jessie J to do a guest verse on a radio track? I guess not, since Trainor’s song went to number one, only just to get, er, bumped by Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake It Off’.

Sisterly love is the hardest love of all. Misogyny is so deeply internalized in our culture that even songs that purport to celebrate womanhood can’t help but defile it. Women must always be pitted against each other; on their way to the top, Minaj and Trainor step on others. In one line, Nicki empowers herself and those like her, albeit with a sailor’s salty tongue: “This one is for my bitches with the fat asses in the fucking club.” In the next, she slaps other women down: “Fuck those skinny bitches.” Trainor uses the same words, dismissively: “skinny bitches.”

A line is being drawn in the sand in these booty calls to action. But instead of there being on one side of the line the industries that profit off of women’s insecurity (fashion, beauty, diet, medicine, magazines, Hollywood, pop music) and on the other side, women of all shapes and sizes, the booty myth looks like this: On one side are full-figured women and the men who love them, and on the other are the skinny bitches and the men who exploit them.

Taylor Swift could be the paradigmatic bootyless popular music star, as she acknowledges by posing as a ballerina in the video for the first single from her just released new album, 1989. At one point, the crossover country idol looks up at the shaking bell curves of the dancers between whose legs she lies. She has wonder, jealousy, and amusement on her face, as if she knows they have a power she does not. And then she follows her own succinct advice: “Shake It Off.” Swift’s a failure as a ballerina and knows she can’t twerk, but she’s going to do her goofy dance anyways.

LeAnn Rimes, another blond country star who knows well the negativity of the entertainment business, recently released a mashup on her YouTube channel, as part of her “Songs and Hymns Inspired by Tabloids” series. The video shows her and her bandmates in a dressing room, presumably for her VH1 show LeAnn and Eddie. Over acoustic guitars, she begins singing: “You know I’m all about that bass.” It’s a lovely, playful version. When she gets to Trainor’s, er, cheeky boast “I’m bringing booty back,” Rimes stops, as if she’s just remembered something. The rhythm shifts, and now she’s singing ‘Baby Got Back’.

When I was writing my book, Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways, one of the many ugly stories I was told was that a new bassist for the band was kept out of the public eye for several weeks until she had lost some weight. It’s the kind of narrative that fills the annals of rock history. For years, the music industry has kept women artists hungry by literally starving them. So if celebrating big butts means that singers can eat again, then bring on the booty!

But if we’re substituting one impossible beauty standard for another, and reducing women to a single body part while we’re at it, then my anaconda don’t want none, hon. Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie warns against using sexuality to gain advancement in the viral video of her Ted X speech “We Should All Be Feminists.”

That’s the same speech that Beyoncé quotes in the song ‘Flawless’ on her latest album, the one that offers this definition: “Feminist: the person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes.” (Take a listen, Meghan.) That’s equality for fat-bottomed girls and skinny bitches. You know what, don’t even look at her butt. Maybe Funkadelic had it right decades ago, when they told us, “Free you mind and your ass will follow.”

© Evelyn McDonnellCuepoint, 10 November 2014

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