For the week ending September 20, 2014, Meghan Trainor’s song “All About That Bass” hit number 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100. The song was cited by the New York Times as one of several new hits that utilizes the theme of body image, and Trainor mentioned in an interview with Billboard that the song is “about loving your body…and your booty.” On the other hand, the song (and its music video) have been criticized for not actually being body positive; author and blogger Jenny Trout even cogently asked, “If this song is promoting body positivity, then why does it define a specific body type as being more desirable, and place all of a woman’s value on her fuckability to heterosexual men?”
Those criticisms aside, the song is quite catchy, and since its release back in June it has become a memorable hit of the summer (and a welcome change from last summer’s dance craze). However, what intrigued me about the song was not its body image theme, but rather how other performing artists appropriated Meghan Trainor and Kevin Kadish’s song, and covered it in different ways.
Trainor’s recording of the song is straightforward; it begins with just her voice singing the hook, backed only by the bass line and hand claps. The song continues by dropping in the drums and Trainor singing:
Yeah, it’s pretty clear, I ain’t no size two
But I can shake it, shake it
Like I’m supposed to do
‘Cause I got that boom boom that all the boys chase
And all the right junk in all the right places.
The style is clearly influenced by country music, and the use of drums, dancing, and some of the production effects (vocal processing in particular) are common among hip hop and contemporary pop tracks. The song is a peculiar mashup of styles—Wikipedia has the song listed as pop, doo wop, and blue-eyed soul—but her recording maintains a stylistic unity throughout. This is probably due to Kevin Kadish, the song’s producer and co-author.
The song continues in much the same way that many pop songs do, in fact there’s really not much to this track beyond the opening hook and the repeated, “Yeah my mama she told me don’t worry about your size.” The hook, “You know I’m all about that bass,” is repeated several times throughout the song, and the primary vehicle for maintaining interest is stacked orchestration and the adding and subtracting vocal lines.
In addition to its commercial success, Trainor’s recording has inspired dozens of covers and new interpretations. These include the usual YouTube videos of people singing into their laptop camera, produced parodies, and even an 8-bit arrangement of the song. The versions I found most intriguing were, an a cappella version recorded by Home Free Vocal Band, and the version produced by Scott Bradlee and Postmodern Jukebox for their album, Historical Misappropriation.
Home Free, season 4 champions of NBC’s The Sing-off, obviously take advantage of the song’s country influences and move completely in that direction. While Trainor’s singing may have implied country, Home Free’s singing is total country—which of course is their aesthetic. The interesting things about their interpretation include, switching the gender narrative (this being a male group), referencing Trainor’s music video, and their arranging choices that depart from the original recording.
The choice to switch the gender of the song’s narrator seems like an obvious one, especially for a male a cappella group. The problem with this is now the song is about how much a man loves big booty. It becomes an a cappella country version of Sir Mix-A-lot’s “Baby Got Back.” What was once touted as women celebrating their own bodies, now becomes men telling us what kind of body they like. In and of itself, it’s not wrong to sing about what one finds beautiful or sexually appealing, but the circumstances reinforce the narrative of a male-oriented—as opposed to a self-directed—definition of feminine beauty. I seriously doubt that this was Home Free’s intention; they just wanted to sing a fun, upbeat song.
Home Free made the choice to have their music video reference Trainor’s video. There are several instances where the staging and direction are direct callbacks to the original. The following image is one of my favorite comparisons; this moment is during the lyric: “My mama she told me don’t worry about…”
Also, Home Free makes some different musical choices in their recording. However, their choices are beholden not only to their configuration as a male a cappella group, but also to the source material, i.e., the song itself. As the song begins, and throughout the whole recording, they use the same orchestration techniques as Kadish and Trainor. They add and subtract voices, and change the timbres of the voices to vary the texture. After both verses and choruses, Home Free double times the tempo, in classic country fashion, and adds a barbershop tag with their lead on a long post to finish the song. It’s almost identical to the Cracker Jills‘ tag from “Where the Black-Eyed Susans Grow.”
The third example is by Scott Bradlee and his band, Postmodern Jukebox. Postmodern Jukebox is known for taking pop songs and reinterpreting them in a different, usually a historically defined, style of pop music. This time they chose a Billie Holiday/small jazz combo setting for this work, and Kate Davis joined the band to sing and play bass. Of the three recordings, this one is the most exposed in terms of orchestration and production value. With the exception of some reverb to emulate the sound of a jazz club, their version lacks all the vocal processing used extensively by Trainor or Home Free.
However, Postmodern Jukebox handles the source material in much the same way as the other artists, by stacking the orchestration and taking instruments in and out to change the texture. Their version also adds a short bass solo, and at the end of the song drops the orchestration back to the exposed texture present at the beginning. What separates their version from the other two is it’s role as parody. Postmodern Jukebox’s arrangement and recording depend upon the audience being familiar with Meghan Trainor’s version of the song. The listener might glean that a radical style shift is the central conceit, but without that familiarity, the nature and extent of that style shift will be lost.
These three recordings each provide a unique take on “All About That Bass,” but at the same time they each must deal with the realities of the source material: a verse-chorus, verse-chorus form. What’s notable is that all the performers dealt with the form in the same way, by using a technique of textural changes to maintain the energy and direction of the song. Each group of course, dealt with the issue within their own context: a recording studio, an a cappella group, or a jazz combo; but their interpretive choices exposed the bare bones of the song, and reveal the essence of Meghan Trainor and Kevin Kadish’s work.