I'll introduce this post by saying that I've spent the last four months focusing all of my mental energy (and most of my emotional energy) on my upper level Communication Studies classes. In these classes, I've read and discussed fundamental media criticisms written by bell hooks and analyses of the significance of Jennifer Lopez's butt and commendations of feminist pornography (plus I wrote an 18-page paper on the Jonas Brothers which was obviously a highlight). So perhaps it was inevitable that my first night of post-finals summer break freedom would lead me straight to Meghan Trainor's new music video. Media criticism doesn't end when you leave the classroom, evidently, especially when you love media and pop culture as much as my friends and I do. I've written before about my concerns for Meghan Trainor’s career; in January I wondered how the singer would nail down a demographic that was old enough to relate to her drunken one-night stands but ignorant enough to remain indifferent to (or, God forbid, be supportive of) the harmful gender stereotypes she recited. This week, Trainor is making headlines for the way she handled a recent Photoshop incident, but a closer look reveals that her actions were not as laudable as we’d like to believe.
Last night, as I scrolled through YouTube looking for a new release to review for my magazine job (which I never did find so pls don't tell my boss I'm posting this long ass article here instead), I came across Trainor's newest single "Me Too" from her upcoming album Thank You, currently available on Apple Music and due out everywhere else this Friday. I clicked on the video expecting something to irk me, as I’ve come to expect from Trainor ever since I first listened to her debut album with high hopes last year. Sure enough, she did not disappoint. Well, technically, she did disappoint me. But you know what I mean.
Much like she did in her 2014 hit “All About That Bass,” in “Me Too,” Trainor disguises misguided morals within banging, anthemic choruses and faux-feminist verses. The surface level message of the (undeniably catchy) song is that Trainor loves being who she is and embraces her true self—an excellent message, of course, and one that many media outlets will praise if they choose to utilize only a small percentage of their intellect when listening. Trainor calls herself "that sexy thing," says she deserves "respect," that she's a "dime piece" (which, for the record, Urban Dictionary defines as "when a girl is bangin', hot, beautiful, a perfect ten"), and claims to "thank God every day" that she "[wakes] up feelin' this way." She tells us, "I can't help lovin' myself and I don't need nobody else." But the not-so-indiscernible deeper layer is Trainor's description of where her confidence derives. Spoiler alert: it comes from money and fame.
Let me elaborate. In the first verse, Trainor mentions the "icy thing" around her neck; she says, "That's gold, show me some respect," as if the respect that a human being deserves—that she deserves—comes from the possession and display of material goods. Respect, according to Trainor, is not earned through integrity, compassion, character, loyalty, empathy or any other internal value; she deserves respect because she has the money to buy a gold necklace (with her own name on it, of course, for an added touch in the music video). In the second verse she describes her life as "a movie" in which she goes "straight to VIP," "never pay[s] for [her] drinks," and walks with an "entourage behind" her. This life she claims to have—one of exclusivity, privilege, hierarchy, and wealth—is the reason she "can't help lovin'" herself. In the music video, as a team of stylists dress her, do her hair, and put on her makeup, Trainor says she wakes up loving herself and without a need for anyone else; while the video literally shows her changing her appearance with the help of professionals, she claims her self-love is inherent and individual. (Who does she think she's fooling?) The chorus adds to the shallow and exclusive descriptions provided in the verses of the song. The hook simply states (in an indistinguishable accent that is certainly not her own, I must add), "If I was you I'd wanna be me too." She is not only bragging about her wealth and status, but preaching to us mere mortals (particularly her fan base, which it's safe to assume consists primarily of young girls and women) that we ought to envy her. Her movie life is flawless and beautiful, her material possessions are responsible for her self-respect, and we should all strive to be just like her, she says. No thanks, Meghan.
When the music video for "Me Too" was first posted on Vevo, Trainor noticed quickly that her body had been Photoshopped (without her consent) to be slimmer and taller. She—rightfully so—did everything in her power to have the edited version taken down and a version featuring her natural waistline posted instead. Trainor's immediate actions were swift and honest and for about a minute and a half, I was impressed by her. That 90-second blip ended abruptly when I heard her interview with Howard Stern where she discussed her decision to have the video removed. She explains that she did approve some Photoshopping—although she didn't want her waistline digitally edited, she was okay with the removal of her "mustache" and "mole hair." (Although she quickly retreated and clarified that she does not actually have a mustache. We all know women are naturally hairless and never wax or bleach their upper lips, right?) She calls herself "the poster child for no Photoshop," then regresses, "or just don't make it look so fake." I guess being the poster child for no Photoshop means being okay with Photoshop that looks realistic to viewers—as if a skillful edit that looks real is less harming to young girls learning their bodies than is an edit they are able to discern as fake. I argue that the opposite is true. Stern persistently asks Trainor if it's insulting to her to be told that her body is imperfect and needs to be improved. Her answer is interesting. She says it's not necessarily insulting; she was simply angry because she was already wearing "Spanx, [a] corset...everything," and wonders why she wore "all that torture" if they could just edit her figure later on. She is angry that all of her attempts to be thin enough were in vain—this seems to be Trainor’s first encounter with the reality that women will never, ever be thin/good/attractive enough for media standards, something most of us come to terms with eventually.
Within a two and a half minute interview, Trainor goes from calling herself "the poster child for no Photoshop" to describing the apparently masochistic methods of making her waist appear thinner. In Trainor's world, it is ethical to wear clothing that is "torture" to achieve a certain body type, but digitally enhancing that body is immoral. Alas, she doesn't seem to regret the corset and Spanx, and reassures us that she looked great before the edit, noting, "I couldn't have gotten more compliments that night." I also feel compelled to mention Howard Stern's ignorant remark that he wishes he could be Photoshopped more often although "a lot of women are saying that now," diminishing the entire discussion he had with Trainor and completely belittling her beliefs (no pun intended).
When my big sister/roommate Kellie came home from her night class on Tuesday, I warned her that I was once again stressing out about how problematic Meghan Trainor is. Being the overworked, under-appreciated, but ultimately selfless first grade teacher that she is, Kellie listened to my ranting and watched the music video. Then I played her the Howard Stern interview and tried to get her riled up with me. Typically when I rant to Kel about one of my average, everyday, normal 20-year-old girl concerns like the commodification of feminism in the 21st century (don’t worry I hate myself too), she plays devil's advocate and it drives me crazy. Last night, she was really tired and had a particularly crappy day at work. She concluded by saying that I shouldn't spend my first night of summer stressing about Meghan Trainor because, simply put, Trainor is just dumb and it doesn't matter what she says. And like Kel, I don't deny that Trainor would benefit from some introductory gender studies classes, but I do think that what she says matters. Because whether we think she deserves it or not, she has a public forum to express her beliefs on a large scale. Through her lyrics (which she writes and co-writes), plus her music videos and the answers she gives in interviews, her thoughts and beliefs are presented to a mass audience. The ideologies presented to all of us, by politicians and producers and Trainor and others like her, play a role in constructing our culture, which we inevitably mold much of our lives around. And although Trainor may be "dumb," and most of my friends are aware of her fallibility (this is especially true among my fellow Com majors whom I love discussing these things with because they are all what we call "super woke"), she does have an audience. This audiences allows her to live the privileged life she brags about. So we have to critique her. We have to listen to her and interpret the messages she produces and analyze the potential impact they could have on individual young girls listening to her music and on our society at large. For better or for worse, pop music plays a part in constructing, little by little, the culture that we typically accept and distribute and buy into.
I tried to get Kel to understand why Meghan Trainor's music matters. And I hate that it does, but we can't sweep it under the rug and dismiss her words as worthless because we think she's ignorant; intelligence is not a requirement to have a voice in our media (cough Donald Trump cough). Thus, we have to absorb it and analyze it with a critical eye. And that's exactly how I found myself watching her video in the first place—though she doesn't matter to me personally, she plays a part in this machine that I live in, that we all live in, and helps create the world we live in. These celebrities at the forefront of our media landscape right now have the invaluable opportunity to improve our culture, and I've seen these improvements happening. I saw it when actress Gina Rodriguez gave an incredible speech while accepting a Young Humanitarian Award earlier this year. Taylor Swift has—intentionally or not—helped bring feminism back into mainstream dialogue. Emma Watson has gone from the young girl in the Harry Potter series to a UN Women Goodwill Ambassador (and also gave a speech that made me cry). And there are countless other celebrities, whom I can name and whom I can't, who are using their voices to make our world a little more inclusive, accepting, and altruistic. I don't want to live in a world constructed by Meghan Trainor's ideologies. I don't want to live in a world where women are supposed to "torture" themselves to attain a certain standard of beauty, and then get lauded for speaking out against the exact standard they've blatantly perpetuated. I don't want to live in a world where the rich talk down to the rest of us and tell us to envy them. I don't want to live in a world where we respect each other based on socioeconomic status. I don't want to live in a world that values the thin-obsessed, materialistic, hierarchical standards that Trainor upholds. Which, I guess, is what brought me here, 2,000 words later.
Click here to listen to Meghan Trainor's interview with Howard Stern, and check out the music video below (if you wanna).
Music, feelings, and a little bit of feminism.
words by the month