Earlier this week, Meghan Trainor took down the video for her new song “Me Too” because, she said, she realized it had been edited to make her look slimmer than she really is. It’s a familiar tale, putting Trainor in a line of female celebrities—Kerry Washington, Lady Gaga, Zendaya—who’ve recently called out nonconsensual airbrushing. Two years ago, Trainor’s breakout hit “All About That Bass” dissed magazine slenderizing; as Trainor herself said in one of her many interviews following her this week’s snafu, “I’m the poster child for no Photoshop! That is my thing!”
Then again: The fact that being unjustly retouched so neatly dovetails with Trainor’s whole shtick has ledsometo wonder if it’s a marketing stunt. Even if it’s not, it’s obviously helpful PR for her new album Thank You (as is the fact that she took a fall last night on Jimmy Fallon and then began retweeting videos of it). Trainor, more than any other major star, exemplifies this cultural moment when social causes meant to reform mass media are becoming tools of mass media. Body positivity and female empowerment of the kind that “All About That Bass” touts arose from fighting unrealistic images in mass marketing. Now, corporate swimsuit lines build national ad campaigns around the same idea; now, you can listen to Trainor give a dozen different takes on girl power and shaming-the-shamers without feeling like she’s taken a single risk.
Trainor, a 22-year-old songwriter from Nantucket, has had an easy relationship with the Billboard charts—four top-10 hits in a very short career—but a difficult relationship with the feminist Internet. “All About That Bass,” while ostensibly taking aim at sexism, got tagged “problematic” for dissing “skinny bitches” and acting as though a woman’s worth was equal to her appeal to men. Follow-up songs like “Dear Future Husband” and “Title” co-opted gender stereotypes with oblivious glee, and her cutesy nu-doo-wop routine was painted as insidious.
Which is why it’s been interesting to see the reaction to Thank You’s first big single, “No.” It’s a perfect radio confection that sonically evokes Britney Spears and Destiny’s Child but lyrically could have been inspired by a think-piece about consent. Emilee Lindner has a funny post at Fuse expressing confusion at hearing “No” and not immediately finding it offensive: “There’d be no Meghan Trainor backlash that day. We could all go into the weekend feeling unburdened by something unsavory seeping subliminally into our culture. Phew.” Jia Tolentino at Jezebelstill resisted on aesthetic grounds, calling Trainor “the DEFINITION of the sonic uncanny valley.”
“Uncanny valley” is a good description for Trainor, for whom the relationship between honest expression and pandering is even closer to the surface, and harder to untangle, than it is for most pop stars. In the run-up to Thank You, she’s chipperly talked about her record label rejecting her new demos that were in the vein of the retro sound that made her famous, encouraging her instead to try out the dance-pop styles that more typically rule the Billboard charts. The results are a frighteningly catchy pastiche delivering the bubbly pleasures that more-established pop divas—Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Beyoncé—have neglected as they’ve entered artier phases. Trainor’s music openly references these women, as seen in the fact that both of Thank You’s first two tracks rework the catchphrase of Beyoncé’s “Flawless.”
Woke-up-like-this-isms are just a few of the zillion ways that Trainor manages to say “I love me” over the course of Thank You; other examples include the back-porch toetapper “I Love Me,” which you might be surprised to learn is not also the name of the recent Hailee Steinfeld hit whose chorus says those three words (that song is called “Love Myself”). For a pop star to fully sell the empowerment routine, they have to find a way to position doing so as not vanity but rather bravery in the face of mean ol’ society. The cheeky—or smug—way that Trainor typically goes about doing this might be what turns certain pop listeners off. The album opens with the refrain “Shh ... be quiet, I’m on a no-hater diet”; later, she self-mockingly complains about late Ubers and spotty wifi. At this point in pop and wider discourse, she exemplifies how struggle can feel simply like a box to check on the way to the million-dollar brag of a chorus.
Or maybe what turns some people off—and draws other people in—is simply Trainor’s taste. She is undeniably a clever craftswoman: Thank You cuts up styles from dancehall to blues to ’80s balladry and laminates them as if for an A-student’s scrapbook project. But where some stars exude attitude, Trainor seems like she knows she has to write her way into a memorable identity. Hence she ends up with lines about her “breasteses” and songs like “Dance Like Yo Daddy,” which follows Macklemore’s “Dance Off” to become the second major song of 2016 trying to glorify the insecurities of people with no rhythm. The clip of her fall on TV last night says it all: You cringe, then hit replay.