I’m coming towards the end of the teaching weeks of my university degree programme. Reaching this climax has made me think about the start. The term begins in October, and I try to open each academic year by looking at the main pop events of the preceding summer. In 2013 this was easy. There had been the big news stories of ‘Blurred Lines’ and ‘Wrecking Ball’. There was copyright and sexual exploitation to debate.
The summer news of 2014 seemed more trivial. Big butts were on the agenda. Meghan Trainor was topping the charts in the US and the UK with ‘All About the Bass’, while Jennifer Lopez had released ‘Booty’ and Nicki Minaj had released ‘Anaconda’ (‘I wanna see all the big fat ass bitches in the muthafuckin’ club’). Everything about these releases seemed a bit tired, from the provocative subject matter through to the provoked response. I nevertheless found myself coming down on the side of mild liberal outrage, finding these female artists more exploited than exploiting, not least because each of the songs was primarily written by men and men were also responsible for the sexually graphic videos for the Lopez and Minaj singles.
Looking at male composers and directors leads us directly to Sir Mix-a-Lot. Minaj’s ‘Anaconda’ samples heavily from his 1992 track ‘Baby’s Got Back’, a pioneering work in the field of big butt songs. I played the Trainor, Lopez and Minaj songs to my university students. In general, the response was negative. Most of them thought that the songs and/or videos offered negative portrayals of women. I also played the students ‘Baby’s Got Back’. Here we paused for thought. Almost all of the students loved this track. I do too. And yet its lyrics can’t be said to be any more progressive than those sung by the female artists (‘If you want to role in my Mercedes/Then turn around, stick it out’; ‘My anaconda don’t want none/Unless you’ve got buns, hon’). The song doesn’t even have the excuse of being a larger woman’s riposte to our diet-infatuated society.
Why do we let Sir Mix-a-Lot get away with it? It’s not because we see him as some authentic pimp, providing us with a slice of ghetto life, nor is it really because he’s perpetuating the innuendo-laden tradition of black popular song. It is instead because ‘Baby’s Got Back’ is great. In contrast, the Trainor, Lopez and Minaj tracks are not. Aesthetics do matter, even when it comes to songs about backsides.
Quality doesn’t need to be maintained throughout the whole of a track either. What makes the Sir Mix-a-Lot song is its opening line. To an extent, you can forget the rest. ‘I like big butts and I cannot lie’ may not be Shakespearean, but it’s certainly arresting. More important is the way that Mix-a-Lot delivers it, pausing and rising through the first four words and skipping more frantically through the next four. Meanwhile, the bassline prowls away and the drum machine starts to clatter like crazy, cued by the crucial first mention of the word ‘butts’. The content of this lyric is as carefully weighted as its style. ‘I like big buts’ is brazen, but ‘I cannot lie’ is confessional, leading us into one man’s story, told in the face of white society’s norms. And so, do we find ourselves liking this track against our better judgement, or is it because of it?