Halfway into October, I doubt I need to familiarize you with the No. 1 song in America, Meghan Trainor’s fauxminist booty anthem “All About That Bass.” After evicting Taylor Swift’s blockbuster hit “Shake It Off” from the penthouse of Billboard’s Hot 100 five weeks ago, this giant-killing song from a first-time artist hasn't let go. It’s still on top more than a month later, nearly three times as long as Swift’s song commanded the list. Usually we call this series “Why Is This Song No. 1?” But this calls for a slightly different question: Why is this song still No. 1?
Trainor’s retro-girl-group, Doris Day–cum–Betty Everett song—celebrating the ladies who tilt plus-size and, more importantly, the men who love them—is basically omnipresent. For nearly a month it’s had the biggest radio audience in the U.S., and it’s sold roughly 2.7 million downloads. According to Billboard and Nielsen, it’s been YouTube’s most-streamed music video for most of September and October. Maybe you haven’t been clicking the “play again” button on Vevo, but an impressionable 10-year-old you know probably has.
And even if you’ve gotten through early fall without hearing the song constantly, “Bass” and Trainor have likely crossed your radar: The song has been catnip for thinkpiece-writers. Most are not impressed. While virtually everyone applauds Trainor’s disses on Photoshop beauty standards and her motivational-poster-worthy line, “Every inch of you is perfect from the bottom to the top,” many are deeply dubious about her approach to body positivity, which tears down “skinny bitches” even as it exalts the bootylicious. As Slate’s own L.V. Anderson put it, for the curvaceous Trainor, “perfection apparently depends on male approval.” More charitable commentators, like the sharp Jillian Mapes at Flavorwire, have poked at “Bass” for its “Diet Feminism” while acknowledging that its message might still do some good—particularly for impressionable teens and tweens struggling with body-image issues, for whom Beyoncé’s Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie citations might be somewhat advanced.
Speaking purely as a pop-chart analyst, it’s fair to say that the message—whatever you think of it—is the big reason “All About That Bass” is No. 1. Sure, “Bass” is catchy. The “Every inch of you” line sports a scatting tempo and shimmying melody that are effortlessly memorable, and I like the way she sassily interpolates the hook of Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack.” Cowriter/producer Kevin Kadish has swaddled the wispy tune in vintage white-girl, Italo-Latin soul, expertly aping the sound of peak Rosemary Clooney and Eydie Gormé. But the sound of the song can’t be the only reason it’s on top. This kind of kitsch isn’t exactly the dominant mode at Top 40 radio right now, even after the success of Pharrell’s retro smash “Happy.”
And yes, pop songs by young women are currently doing especially well on the charts. Billboard reports that the Top Five has been on lady lockdown for a full month, a new record for the longest period in Hot 100 history that the chart’s upper reaches have been all-women. Given their high profiles and chart histories, any of the ladies currently occupying the Top Five—Iggy Azalea, Nicki Minaj, Jessie J, Ariana Grande, plus Swift—could be topping the chart right now; all have scored Top 10 hits before. But first-timer Trainor is beating the lot of them.
There’s also the matter of our current tuchus obsession. Also in the Top Five are Minaj’s booty-themed “Anaconda” and Jessie J’s body-flaunting “Bang Bang,” featuring Minaj and Grande. Add Jennifer Lopez’s sexed-up team-up with Azalea on a remix of “Booty”—which despite a lot of online panting at its sensationalistic video hasn’t actually reached the Top 10 (after a No. 18 debut two weeks ago, it’s now down to No. 71)—and clearly, singing about a fetching posterior and wiggling said keister on YouTube is one way to score a hit in 2014. But ringing the bell at No. 1 requires more than junk in the trunk.
So what’s Trainor’s X-factor? It’s the message: “All About That Bass” is a smash because it is being received by America as a particular kind of protest song. Call it protest lite, or, with apologies to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a skim-milk protest song.
When you hear the term protest song, maybe you think of a Woody Guthrie or Pete Seeger composition. More likely, you envision an American folk or rock song from the 1960s. Perhaps it’s pointed, like Dylan’s unsparing “Masters of War,” or more oblique, like the Buffalo Springfield’s perennial backdrop-to-’60s-footage “For What It’s Worth” (No. 7, 1967)—which, for what this is worth, was about a local Sunset Strip dispute over club curfews, not the Vietnam War. But actual chart-topping, radio-blanketing protest songs were fairly sporadic even in the ’60s. Like Stephen Stills’s Buffalo Springfield hit, which had greater import ascribed to it when it reached the Top 10, chart-topping hits in the last half of the ’60s that had “something to say” were generally either indirect, like the Monkees’ vaguely antiwar “Last Train to Clarkesville” (No. 1, 1966), or merely youth-oriented, like Simon & Garfunkel’s cross-generational-booty classic “Mrs. Robinson.”
There were No. 1 songs at the peak of the Vietnam era that addressed something larger than crappy Mondays or girls with groovy glasses. From 1965 to 1972, I count five songs conceived as capital-s Statements that topped the Hot 100: Barry McGuire’s ungainly, nihilistic “Eve of Destruction” (for one week, 1965), the Rascals’ broadly progressive “People Got to Be Free” (five weeks, 1968), Sly and the Family Stone’s pluralistic “Everyday People” (four weeks, 1969), Edwin Starr’s no-holds-barred “War” (three weeks, 1970) and Helen Reddy’s unabashedly feminist “I Am Woman” (one week, 1972).
Generally though, even then, the more overt the song, the lower it charted. Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” (No. 31, 1965) did little better than the Doors’ “The Unknown Soldier” (No. 39, 1968). Creedence Clearwater Revival’s classic draft lament “Fortunate Son” was relegated to a B-side and missed the Top 10 (No. 14, 1969). Or consider “Ohio,” a pure, direct cry of protest penned by Neil Young in the immediate aftermath of the 1970 Kent State riots, recorded with Crosby, Stills and Nash and rush-released within days. It, too, peaked at No. 14 in mid-August 1970—impressive for an insta-single but not as hot as the Carpenters or Bread that week. When it comes to popular music, America isn’t a “Change Is Gonna Come” kind of country. We’re more of a Zager and Evans, “In the Year 2525” (No. 1, six weeks, 1969) country—topical, chattering, protest-ish rather than protesting.
After Reddy’s “I Am Woman” in ’72—a miracle of a chart-topper that only got the promotional push it deserved after getting picked up for a movie soundtrack—the No. 1 spot rarely hosted anything so pushy ever again. Less than two years later, Paul Anka’s downright retrograde “(You’re) Having My Baby” was on top for three weeks, suggesting that record-buyers enjoyed the frisson of topicality more than any actual movement. Or consider the last No. 1 hit connected to Vietnam, Tony Orlando and Dawn’s corny 1973 smash “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ’Round the Old Oak Tree,” which was about soldiers coming home only inasmuch as they could count on a spouse’s open arms. Again, the vague topicality and personal connection—connoted by a wartime symbol that actually dated back centuries—superseded actual political commentary.
If the ’60s and early ’70s are overrated for their political specificity on the charts, the ’80s and ’90s seemed largely devoid of it—though “Ebony and Ivory” (No. 1, seven weeks, 1982) was arguably less softheaded than “In the Year 2525.” The top hits of those decades weren’t angry, but they could be topical. We didn’t like classroom conformity, or homelessness—we would “think about” that. We would be friendly to people with AIDS in a noncommittal way. We’d pour one out for friends who died young and tell them not to chase waterfalls … which could mean anything, really. And paparazzi who wound up killing estranged royalty—we were definitely against that. We preferred the charity song for Africa that featured mostly Americans to the one that featured mostly Brits, but they were both about ending hunger, right? (Or maybe they were about power vocals from Bono and Bruce?) Bobby McFerrin’s well-intentioned kitten poster of a song, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” was catnip for the millions of Americans who call themselves “spiritual, not religious.” The actual protest song by Public Enemy that raged about McFerrin’s success six months later? It peaked at No. 20 on Billboard’s Hot Black Singles and didn’t make the Hot 100 at all. (Damn if I say it you can slap me right here.)
Were any of these songs (putting aside Public Enemy’s) actual protest songs? Not really. Pop music has always been better at stirring the pot than starting a movement. “Ebony and Ivory” protests racism only insofar as it assures you you’re halfway to pluralism for liking both white and black musicians. “Another Day in Paradise” isn’t enraged about homelessness so much as frustrated. But all these songs were received as commentaries on the human condition—and that’s a big part of what made them hits. Buying a copy of “We Are the World” or “Tha Crossroads” or “Candle in the Wind 1997” meant joining a national, even global dialogue, whether the issue was as vital as global famine or as small-scale as mourning one (very famous) person’s death.
As for redefining beauty standards, we seem to come back to that cause once a decade or so (“Baby Got Back,” 1992; “Bootylicious,” 2001). Indeed, if you really want to understand why Trainor’s tune is the 2014 hit that won’t let go, consider its posterior-celebrating social-commentary forebear by one Anthony “Sir Mix-a-Lot” Ray. What keeps “Back” immortal two decades later is its directness: “I like big butts, and I cannot lie” was even more pointed than Trainor’s “Yeah, it's pretty clear, I ain't no size two.” But while Mr. Ray’s plaint (“So Cosmo says you’re fat/ Well I ain’t down with that”) was self-serving and objectifying in the extreme, it was—at the height of the waif supermodel and nearly a decade before the explosion of J.Lo as sex-symbol standard-bearer—novel for its time, as far as mainstream hits go. If Mix-a-Lot doesn’t deserve a cookie for his feminism, he at least gets points for mild progressivism, prescience, and candor.
And now we have a pair of songs in the Top Five that owe a debt to Sir Mix-a-Lot: Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” (currently No. 5, down from a No. 2 peak) and Trainor’s “Bass.” Both songs celebrate callipygian women and denigrate “skinny bitches” by name. Minaj’s hit is actually built entirely out of “Baby Got Back,” from its title to its samples, and several sharp critics have noted that on “Anaconda,” Minaj flips female-objectifying tropes like Ray’s and turns them on men. But on pop radio, “Anaconda” comes off as a party song. The result: a hit that has scaled the charts largely due to its salacious video, with sales and airplay that are a fraction of Trainor’s. (Another reminder that black women can’t catch a break on the charts this year.) Trainor’s hit is following Sir Mix-a-Lot’s to the top of the charts because, on the positive side, it echoes his directness and topicality, and on the negative, because it elevates men’s love of women’s asses above women’s own appreciation of them.
But then, “All About That Bass” is heir to decades of message-lite No. 1s, the “Year 2525s” and “Yellow Ribbons” and “Another Day in Paradises.” It’s not too arch. It’s direct in its sentiments but muddled in its politics. It’s as self-congratulatory as “We Are the World.” And like it or not, it will be with us until Americans of 2023 need another sonic pick-me-up about their physiques. In the meantime, let’s just hope Trainor’s gross misuse of “treble” as a metaphor doesn’t wreck that word’s definition for a generation, the way English teachers of the ’90s had to do damage control on irony. Music teachers of 2015, you have my sympathies.