Meghan Trainor exploded onto the music scene this year with her groovy, sugar-laced pop album, “Title.” Among the songs on her album, which features a mashup sound of hip-hop, dancehall and 1950s chord sets, is the song “All About that Bass.”
The tune is infectious, as evidenced by the eight weeks it spent at the top of the Billboard charts. It’s so infectious that it’s been nominated at the upcoming Grammy Awards for Song of the Year. Listen once and you won’t be able to get it out of your head.
The song has stickiness for another reason. With lyrics like, “It’s pretty clear, I ain’t no size 2. But I can shake it shake it, like I’m supposed to do,” tweens and teen girls look at it as an anthem, a throw-down to an industry that perpetuates the idea of the skinny model.
Some of the lyrics include: “I see the magazines workin’ that Photoshop / We know that (expletive) ain’t real / Come on now make it stop.”
Yet this so-called empowering song has another side to it. Consider the following lyrics: “ ’Cause I got that boom boom that all the boys chase / All the right junk in all the right places.” In the chorus, Trainor croons that being a larger size doesn’t matter because “boys like a little more booty to hold at night.”
“While it’s a body-positive message in a lot of ways, it hinges on whether a girl or woman is desirable in the eyes of a guy. That’s not progress in any meaningful way,” points out Shayla Thiel-Stern, a senior digital strategist at Fast Horse, a Minneapolis-based marketing agency and author of the book “From the Dancehall to Facebook: Teen Girls, Mass Media, and Moral Panic in the United States.”
Songs like Trainor’s send girls a mixed message, a message that runs loud and clear through pop culture right now: Embrace who you are, as long as who you are can still look sexy and get a guy.
As Thiel-Stern points out, this is nothing new but simply the nature of the medium.
“Part of the business of pop music is to shock and titillate people," she said.
The concerning thing, according to Thiel-Stern, is that sexualization, especially of girls, is happening at younger and younger ages. Songs like Trainor’s “All About that Bass” are featured with modified lyrics on karaoke machines and Kidz Bop albums across the country.
In addition, pop artists like Trainor or Beyoncé are seen as the poster girls for female empowerment, but their lyrics and music videos send a new version of feminism, one that includes a great deal of self-objectification.
In fact, in a recent study on music videos conducted by Jennifer Stevens Aubrey, an associate professor of communication at the University of Arizona whose research focuses on the sexual objectification of girls and women in the media and its consequences, Aubrey discovered something surprising.
In her research, she expected to find music videos with rampant images of men objectifying women. While this was the case in a few instances (hip-hop in particular), what Aubrey found most alarming was that female singers like Beyoncé and Rihanna were, by and large, self-sexualizing.
“My students idolize Beyoncé,” Aubrey said. “They worship her. They think of her as the ultimate woman, someone they aspire to be like.”
Yet when test subjects watched these objectifying music videos, they did not come away with feelings of female empowerment. They came away primed with ideas about sex and the physical body.
“I definitely think there is a veneer of empowerment that this music represents,” Aubrey said. “In a post-feminist world, women think that whatever they do is empowering and without consequence.”
It’s a message that makes Natalie Cottam, a mother of four in Austin, Texas, leery. Songs like Trainor’s and “She Belongs to Me” by One Direction have led to numerous family discussions about female roles and relationships.
“The message from these songs is that you’re there to please everyone else and evaluate yourself in comparison to other women,” Cottam said. “It’s never about loving yourself for who you are. That’s a frustrating message.”
Yet while parents sit in the car, doing a line-item dissection of pop songs on the radio, kids are just interested in a good beat. Are they really internalizing the lyrics and meaning behind each groovy new pop artist?
When Cottam asked her 11-year-old daughter what she thought “All About that Bass” meant, she was surprised by the answer. Her daughter didn’t pick up on the message about looking a certain way for a guy. To her, the song was about respecting a person’s unique body type.
“That’s the good news,” said Aubrey. “(With pop music), many teenagers don’t know what the lyrics mean.”
That doesn’t mean they don’t have an effect. Studies have shown that there are long-term ramifications of music, especially when it comes to sexualization.
In a recent study by Aubrey, she measured the sexually oriented media used by college freshmen. This media included television, movies, magazines and music.
“Of the sexual media diet, music had a unique and powerful effect on sexual risk-taking,” she said.
Although it's still unclear why that is, Aubrey said her hunch is that college students who are listening to sexually explicit songs are hitting parties and social events — they’re listening to the music at places where sexual risk-taking is happening.
A 2004 study by Steven D. Martino and his colleagues tracked teens ages 12 to 17 over the course of several years. They found that teens who listened to music with sexually degrading lyrics had a higher rate of sexual activity than teens who listened to music with other types of sexual lyrics.
“The research shows that kids who listen to songs with sexually explicit lyrics that are sexually degrading to women are more likely to start sexual activity early,” Aubrey said. “There are real concerns about that. These are teens who are sexually active before they’re mentally and physically ready to understand the consequences.”
However, while Trainor’s songs may have some edgy lyrics, they’re certainly not as graphic as many of the pop songs available. Are we overhyping the impact? If kids aren’t really picking up on the deeper meaning, should it matter?
It seems the duty of every new generation of parents to get up in arms about the music culture of the day. It’s called moral panic, and it happened with ragtime in the 20s, Frank Sinatra in the 40s and Elvis in the 50s.
“This isn’t new,” Thiel-Stern said. “From the beginning of pop and rock music, the double-entendres have been there. Parents for generations have had to think how to deal with this.”
However, that’s not an excuse to ignore the messages. Kids are consuming more media, and in turn more messages, than ever before. Recent studies show that kids spend more than seven and a half hours with media per day.
Parents need to actively mediate the messages coming at their kids, Aubrey said. Counter-messages are important as well. If parents are listening and singing along, and not discussing the messages behind the media, this communicates to the children an implicit endorsement of the content.
Kids also need a break from the media diet. Especially when it comes to body image, counteracting the stereotypes with body-positive activities (such as sports) can be helpful for both boys and girls. Aubrey calls this body competence — when kids use their bodies as an instrument to show what they can do instead of what they are.
Cottam’s oldest daughter has found that body-positive message on a competitive swim team. Her daughter is more apt to revere Olympic swimmers than One Direction and Taylor Swift. Still, the family dialogue about pop culture and music is ongoing.
“I like pop music,” Cottam said. “I listen to a lot of it. I don’t want to take the music away from my kids, but it’s tough when there are not a lot of good messages and role models.”
However, she acknowledges that pop music has its benefits.
“One thing about pop culture is that it brings a lot of opportunity to have conversation, and that is important,” she said.
“Pop music holds an important place in teen girls’ lives in negotiating gender and empowerment and navigating cultural discourse,” Thiel-Stern said. “It helps them navigate the line between childhood and adulthood.”
Just as long as they don’t cross that line too soon.