“Bass” as a metaphor for “ass”—for curvey, BBW physiques—is used by two of the summer’s most widely discussed and debated singles: Megan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” and Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda.” The talk of Trainor’s and Minaj’s songs has focused almost exclusively on women’s body image and images of women’s bodies: the mainstream media hails “All About” as an ode to the kind of body-positivity we want our daughters to profess as they Lean In, and feminists of all stripes are debating Minaj’s ass-ertive pose on “Anaconda”’s cover art. (Though the cover art dropped like a bomb, sending shockwaves across the media that drowned out any attention to the song, this review gives some careful attention to Minaj’s musical performance.)
In our obsession over body image, in how womens’ bodies are represented, we miss what the b/ass metaphor actually does—connecting sounds to bodies, the metaphor lets women artists use music as a way to re-claim their physical, sexual, and aesthetic pleasure. But Trainor and Minaj use the metaphor in very different ways, and re-claim very different pleasures.
A response or answer to Sir Mix-A-Lot’s iconic “Baby Got Back,” “Anaconda” doesn’t state the b/ass metaphor in words, but in music. Built on a sample of “Baby”’s bass riff, Minaj’s track plays on the connections listeners already have made between “Baby”’s music and its lyrical content. In the 20+ years since “Baby”’s release, that bass has come to be pretty indissociable from “ass”—in listeners’ minds, the riff embodies the lyrics’ content.
[I researched the origin of the “Baby” bass riff. I can’t find any evidence that it is a sample of some other song. But I can’t find definitive evidence that the producers programmed it themselves, either. According to whosampled.com, “Baby” samples some melodic synths and drum machines from Chanel One’s “Technicolor,” an OG Detroit techno track on Juan Atkins’ Metroplex label. But after listening to this track, it’s clearly not the source of the bass riff. “Baby”’s bass has a family resemblance to the bass in many Metroplex/Juan Atkins tracks, such as Model 500’s “No UFOs” and in Cybotron’s “Cosmic Cars.” My best guess is that “Baby”’s bass loop is an originally programmed beat modeled on basslines in early Detroit techno.]
People associate that bass riff with thick women, but also with misogynist objectification. At best, “Baby” is a celebration of black heterosexuality as narrated from a man’s perspective. At worst “Baby” has become a facile symbol people who don’t know much about hip hop use to represent everything they think is misogynist about hip hop culture. Which is unfortunate, because that is a really hot record. (In fact, its irresistible funk might be one reason “Baby” continues to be so well-known and well-liked, whereas other novelty records from the same era have been forgotten, or relegated to a VH1 special.) As the discussion on the “Ladies of reddit, what’s a totally misogynistic song that you love anyways?” thread shows, “Baby Got Back” is a prominent example of songs women like in spite of their lyrics.
“Anaconda” recontextualizes both “Baby”’s bass and its narration of women’s bodies. Mix-A-Lot raps about his desire for a certain kind of female body. Minaj raps about her enjoyment of her body, how she feels in her b/ass, not how she feels about it.
Reworking “Baby”’s music, “Anaconda” provides women the opportunity to enjoy the b/ass without qualification. Putting the bass riff in a context that affirms women’s sexuality and puts men’s objectification and other women’s body-policing in check, “Anaconda” is like a sonic cock-block that prevents men and body-policing white women from crashing the party. The repetition and stuttering of the line fragment “My anaconda don’t” performs this checking--it stops male desire in its tracks. It also represents male desire as something of a shortcoming, as something that just “don’t.” Male desire don’t have b/ass, either. Whenever “Anaconda” samples from “Baby”’s lyrics, the bass riff drops out. (It’s not under these lines in the original, either.) When Minaj raps about her body, the bass is there; but when other people (Mix-A-Lot, “Becky” and her friend) express their feelings about Minaj’s ass, the bass is absent. Nicki mocks the idea that thick women’s bodies are valuable because men like them. Right after the break, she says “Yeah, he loooove this fat ass,” and follows that line with a cackle that reinforces the sarcastic tone in which she delivered it.Here, b/ass is something women can enjoy without interference from horny men who love b/ass, or judgy women who harp on its imperfections.
As the second half of the song suggests, b/ass is best enjoyed in solidarity with other women. After the break, Minaj calls out to other big-assed women, demanding they manifest themselves on the dancefloor and embody maybe not the same b/ass vibes, but vibes that synch up.
Yeah, this one is for my bitches with a fat ass in the fucking club
I said, where my fat ass big bitches in the club?
Fuck the skinny bitches, fuck the skinny bitches in the club
I wanna see all the big fat ass bitches in the motherfucking club
Fuck you if you skinny bitches WHAT?
It’s easy to imagine how this part of the song will play out in actual clubs: having already stormed the dancefloor as the song began, women will chant these lines in unison, as a sort of b/ass choir. Skinny bitches kill the vibe, and that’s why they’ve gotta fuck off.
Minaj’s musical performance on “Anaconda” sets the tone for this vibe.The song has two main parts: there’s the more structured verse/chorus/verse first half, then, after the break, the second half is more freeform. The first half is where Nicki demonstrates her chops, where she proves that she can meet and exceed externally-imposed standards for “good” rapping, that every beat of her rapping can be “perfect” if she wants it to be. For example, she shows that she has adequate knowledge of hip hop history and has mastered the skill of evoking other rappers’ styles. In the verses, Nicki’s old-school flow and her thick New York accent evoke L’Trimm’s classic “Cars That Go Boom.” With the refrain “we like the cars, the cars that go boom,” this song uses bass or “boom” as a metaphor for men’s “anacondas” and the pleasure women, as a group, take in men. This L’Trimm reference echoes Minaj’s own lyrics, which are about “boy toy[s].” So, in the verses Minaj hits several of the marks people expect from a “perfect” performance.
The second half is where Nicki does what she wants, what feels good for her, fuck perfection. As Jillian Mapes writes in Flavorwire:
Laughing like she’s high on her own greatness, Minaj starts searching for answers: “Where my fat-ass big bitches in the club?” Variations on that theme follow, but the idea is clear: Nicki loves herself enough for the haters, but she also has a duty to her big-booty ladies. Show yourself, she demands.
Minaj’s meter and rhyme scheme are much less strict in this section--thoughts spill over rhythmic phrases, and there’s really not much rhyming to speak of. And then there’s Nicki’s trademark non-verbal sounds, her snorts and growling inhale. If you didn’t know this style of rapping is actually harder to pull off than the relatively “primitive” style of the first half (and, frankly, pop audiences that don’t know much about hip hop aesthetics may not know this), you might think Minaj was being lazy here. But actually what she’s showing is that pedantic rules and conventions are irrelevant to her pleasure--in performing, in music, in her body, in solidarity with other women. (This technique of meeting standards only to then reject them is a classic feminist strategy. When women do something “different,” they’re generally judged incompetent--the assumption is that they’re incapable of “perfection” rather than intentionally rejecting it.)In “Anaconda,” feeling good isn’t a matter of being perfect down to the last inch; it’s about being in an affirmative, supportive space--here, the club--where you can get high on your own greatness, snorts and all.
The lyrics for “All About” use sounds as metaphors for women’s body parts: “bass” is a thinly-disguised euphemism for “ass.” Sometimes the song switches it up, using “boom-boom” instead. (Though, given the popularity of wobble bass nowadays, the lack of reference to “wobbly” parts shows that this song isn’t about all kinds of bass, or all kinds of bodies.) Sounds are the middleman between women, their bodies, and the male gaze. “All About” actually isn’t at all about sounds or music--its primary focus is women’s body image. Trainor’s song makes us (women with curves and the people who love them) feel good about having the proper body image and/or the right taste in femme bodies.
“All About” rehabilitates womens’ body image by recalibrating the notion of acceptable femme embodiment: the ideal isn’t lack ofjunk (being a “skinny bitch”), but “hav[ing] all the right junk in all the right places,” the “right places” being the ones that boys like to see, grab, and chase. (As Chloe Angyal says: “No need to worry about failing to meet the standard of beauty imposed by the fashion industry, she meets the one imposed by men. Phew, that’s a relief!”) Curvy, well-proportioned bodies are what boys like, and they’re more natural than “silicone Barbies.” This song isn’t telling women to love their bodies because they are intrinsically loveable, but because their bodies meet external standards set by the male gaze, by nature--all those good old authorities feminists spent the 20th century trying to discredit. Instead of challenging the idea that there is one ideal femme body type, it just redefines what that ideal is.
“All About” re-claims “perfection” for curvy bodies. At several points in the song Trainor repeats the line “every inch of you is perfect.” This isn’t about enjoying the use of our bodies, but about enjoying the fact that our bodies are normal. This line is the crux of the song’s message, and its musical setting is the key to unlocking both the underlying function of the b/ass metaphor, and the gender/race politics of this song. It is sung in multi-part harmony by female voices, and, interestingly, all the bass instruments (upright bass, and later, bari sax) drop out—all treble, no bass.
Musically, this line does the opposite of what the chorus says: it flips the “all about that bass/no treble” script into “all about that treble, no bass.” When you get down to the bottom of the matter, what counts isn’t b/ass, but women’s voices—that women aren’t silenced by objectifying images and unrealistic body ideals, but that they’re empowered to feel good about themselves, to have a voice. This sort of resilience is the bread and butter of mainstream, corporate white feminism.
Trainor’s body positivity appropriates alternative femme body ideals in black and Latino culture for white feminism. The racial appropriation in the video and the song’s bass vamp show this. In the video, Trainor is backed up by a group of mostly non-white curvy people. (Jenny Trout breaks it down here.) It sorta feels like a more respectable, cheerful version of Miley’s VMA performance (or a gender/race swapped version of Kid Creole & the Coconuts). Miley was appropriating ratchetness for shock value, using black women’s bodies as her wonderland, as Tressie Cottom put it. Trainor, on the other hand, appropriates respectable chubbiness to therapeutically overcome her negative body image and feel wonderful about her own ass.
Musically, “All About” barely engages white male pop artists. There’s a half-reference to Timberlake’s “SexyBack” (when she sings the line “I’m bringing booty baaaaack,” she mimics JT’s pitch and vocal performance), but the song generally avoids direct challenges to misogyny in music. Instead of appropriating and re-claiming pop from white dudes, the song does what the white dudes do--appropriate black music for cultural cachet. The song’s instrumental hook is a bass riff that resembles the bass riff in the theme music from the HBO show Treme. “Treme Song” composer John Boutte calls that vamp it a “New Orleans clave beat”; similarly, “All About”’s vamp is a Caribbean rhythm processed through American rock-n-roll. (Media coverage of Trainor’s hit seems a little too stuck on the fact that Trainor’s uncle is from Trinidad—as though that’s the only explanation for a white girl’s love for Caribbean music that’s not filtered through US corporate hip hop?—which is also, coincidentally, where Minaj was born.)
This exotic retro sound is heard, as Idolator’s Robbie Daw put it, “just the type of unique sound to break through the EDM rut radio seems to be stuck in.” “All About” participates in the long tradition of white people appropriating from non-whites as a way to show their superiority over other whites (in this instance, all those white artists stuck in the EDM rut). B/ass heavy white girls show their superiority over self-hating “skinny bitches” by stealing black and Latina girls’ b/ass vibes.
“All About” and “Anaconda” both use the b/ass metaphor, but in very different ways to vastly different ends. These differences reflect broader trends in feminist approaches to pop music. As scholars like Judith Peraino have argued, white feminist music (in particular, the “women’s music” singer-songwriter genre) generally uses lyrics (and, sometimes, visuals) as the tool to do its feminist work. Black feminist music, on the other hand, tends to work in the sonic, and to work the sonic against the verbal and visual dimensions of pop performance. For example, as Angela Davis explains in her book Blues Legacies & Black Feminism, Billie Holiday often used musical nuance to transcend the banality of second-rate lyrics. Similarly, Regina Bradley has shown that Beyoncé plays sonic ratchet off visual respectability. Limiting the conversation about “Anaconda” to body image and images of Minaj’s body prevents us from hearing the full spectrum of Minaj’s work, and thus misrepresents and misinterprets her use of b/ass. At the same time, an overly narrow concept of feminism might lead us to see Trainor’s song in too positive a light: it’s a manifestation of mainstream white feminism, the feminism that encourages women to “Lean In” to patriarchy rather than revolt against it.
“Anaconda” and “All About” are both catchy pop songs. Considered only for their music, they’re really enjoyable. But as the b/ass metaphor shows, our enjoyment of a pop song’s music is filtered through our experience of our bodies and their gender, their size, their race. In “All About,” pleasure is something that white women feel when they embody men’s desires. If this is, as so many people describe it, a “feel-good song,” then “feeling good” amounts to little more than the pleasure of being in harmony with white supremacist, patriarchal society. In “Anaconda,” pleasure comes from tuning out all the bullshit from men and from respectability-obsessed women, of finding your own groove and mixing it with those that resonate sympathetically. From this perspective, “Anaconda” beats “All About” at its own game: when it comes to feeling good (or not) about our taste in b/ass, Minaj gives us a lot to grab on to, while Trainor’s song seems a bit thin.
Robin James is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Women's/Gender Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She's on Twitter - @doctaj