Previously on the Blog: Charlie Puth finally delivered a good song by eschewing respectability and concentrating on just being emotive. Then it turned out that Meghan Trainor’s somehow produced a good song too.
My issues with Meghan Trainor are well documented by this point: I’m not sure just how feminist her “feminist” pieces are; her attempt at a “sexualised doo-wop music” shtick just doesn’t work; and the slightly crappy way that she gets handled by her record company seems to constantly threaten to tip her into total irrelevancy. I’m just not convinced that anyone associated with the Meghan Trainor brand is truly working at their full capacity.
My main issues with her are the first two – her politics and her doo-wop aesthetic – so let’s go through them in turn:
First, the gender politics. Trainor’s work is trying to be definitively feminist: she is a sassy, empowered woman who will demand the best from her partners and is all about body positivity. The problem is that, for how progressive her messages are, they always come with highly regressive elements. Dear Future Husband is her defiantly telling her husband that she will be the perfect housewife who fucks him on demand. All About That Bass is about how much men should objectify women with large butts instead of just the “skinny bitches” (like they don’t do that enough). Her songs are problematic is my point, almost to the point of constituting a feminist-tinted fetishisation of objectification. Third wave feminism has empowered Meghan Trainor to decide to be a sex object for men who stays at home toiling over hot stoves. Which is… actually fair enough – third wave feminism is based upon the idea that women can choose to be what they want – but my god is it a strange version of a feminist ideology to shout as loudly as she does. It accepts sexist narratives about women at the same time as it openly challenges them; it’s both sexist and feminist, or maybe it’s neither, or possibly it’s both at the same time.
Secondly, the over-sexualised doo-wop aethestic. As I said in my review of Marvin Gaye: “There’s a truly adult and subversive music project to be built out of making highly sexualised songs with a 50’s doo-wop sound but the power of that project will come out of the contrast between the innocence of the music and the debauchery of the lyrics. Meghan Trainor uses innuendo and last-word switches to pretend that the lyrics of her songs are as innocent as the rest of her music and thus the point of the sexual lyrics are completely lost.” The idea just doesn’t work, and results in something as messy as her politics.
You see, doo-wop music is synonymous with 1950’s white Americana and thus can be seen as representative of one of the most conservative periods of a highly conservative country’s history. By taking this type of music and filling it with sex and innuendo, Meghan Trainor’s work could be read as an attack on this conservative era, filling it’s icons with exactly the type of messages that it served to repress and thus completely undermining its politics. But…
So much of Meghan Trainor’s lyrics are jokes based on subverting the supposed sexiness of her lyrics. Take the lyric in Dear Future Husband which is “I’ll be sleeping on the left side of the bed / Open doors for me and you might get some… kisses”. The whole joke is that those lines sound like a blowjob joke, up until the point that they don’t. So the point of Meghan Trainor’s lyrics is that they sound like dirty subversions of doo-wop music, but actually they’re not. So Meghan Trainor’s songs aren’t challenges of rightwing American ideologies, they’re actually subversions of leftwing challenges of rightwing American ideologies, baiting feminist listeners into thinking that they’re listening to a joke being played on a sexist audience until it turns that the joke’s being played on them. Only…
If Meghan Trainor’s work is actually anti-feminist, then why is it so goddamn openly feminist? All About That Bass is a self-empowerment anthem telling people who are frequently told that they’re ugly by the media that they are beautiful and deserve as much love as everyone else gets. Dear Future Husband is her definitively telling any man in her life that she wears the trousers, no matter how much it looks otherwise.
So who is this woman? Is she a feminist or a parody of feminists? Are her works challenges to the status quo or challenges to challenges to the status quo? They’re both, and thus neither, and thus both again. She’s definitely making a definitive political statement; but fuck knows what that statement actually is.
It. Just. Doesn’t. Work.
Which brings me to my ultimate problem with Meghan Trainor. Her act is actually really complicated, based upon balancing a lot of highly contradictory impulses into one political statement that needs to have full control imposed on it by it’s writer to be effective. The thing is: Meghan Trainor doesn’t seem to realise how complicated it is. She seems to think that in-your-face doo-wop songs about a woman loving her ass is enough, and hasn’t considered the full breadth of anything she’s done. The result is something incredibly overambitious being done by an incredibly unambitious person: Trainor’s works are both overstretched and desperately need more stretching.
Which is what makes No so refreshing: because, ultimately, it’s a very simple song which works in a very simple, direct way.
Meghan Trainor is strutting around town, enjoying being sexy because that’s what she does, and men keep catcalling her, thinking that her being sexy means that she’s being sexy for them; she has one response to their advances though: “No”. Instead of being inspired by doo-wop music, this song’s influences appear to be R’n’B girl groups of the 90’s, taking it’s inspiration from feminist acts like Destiny’s Child and from the heyday of Girl Power. It’s simple, it’s precise and, you know what, it’s effective. She gets her message across in a clean two letters: “No”. Job done. The result is an uncomplicated immediacy that actually results in something quite enjoyable.
It also helps that the message is one that really needs saying. Men need to be told “No” more (of course, getting us to listen in another thing, but we at least need telling). This gives it a one-up over even All About That Bass which, while being a very pronounced version of the form, is ultimately just another body empowerment anthem of the type that has been made a lot during the past few decades; hell, the only thing truly separating it from Baby Got Back is the gender of the singer. Meanwhile, I can’t think of another recent song whose central message was “It’s ok to say no to sexual advances if you don’t want them”. I’m struggling to think of another song with that message period. It’s saying something that needs saying but that no-one else is; combine that with the fact that it says it rather well and you have a song which can genuinely be considered to be important.
Solidifying the need for this song is the way it’s currently being treated by radio presenters. After it was played on Signal 1*, the presenter came on air and said that Trainor “would never get a boyfriend with that attitude”. A presenter on BBC Radio 1 pretended to be Meghan Trainor singing the song, giving her the voice of an ugly spinster due to the song’s message. Well done on missing the point, you fucks. If this is how the people being paid to play the song as part of their shows are reacting to it, then my God is this song needed. Hell, they should play it instead of the presenters. I’m half tempted to start a radio station where this song is played 24/7 on a loop just to even out the balance.
At this point, the fact that it fixes a lot of my problems with Trainor’s earlier works is just the cherry on the cake. I really like this song, and am glad that I keep hearing it on the radio. It’s Trainor’s best song by a country mile. And that’s because it keeps it simple.
Her latest song though: that’s something much more complicated…
* A radio station designed for people afraid of actual content. Listening to the station for more than a single day is the aural equivalent of listening to a tumbleweed with access to a Facebook account; it’s awful.