The Number Ones

September 20, 2014

The Number Ones: Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass”

Stayed at #1:

8 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present. Book Bonus Beat: The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal the History of Pop Music.

Don’t read anything about “All About That Bass.” I mean, read this column, but don’t read anything else about “All About That Bass.” It’s possible to hear Meghan Trainor’s smash debut single as a thinkpiece in song form — a winky, knowing, self-aware attack on harmful Western beauty standards. It’s just as possible to hear “All About That Bass” as an example of retrograde thinking at work — a work of racial appropriation and misguided fake feminism that, if you squinted your ears hard enough, was also a body-shaming attack on skinny people. Quick, guess which option appealed to America’s thinkpiece writers.

“All About That Bass” had the misfortune to be an annoying, successful novelty song in a moment when it wasn’t possible for songs to merely be annoying and successful. They had to be meaningful. Every tossed-off line on a song as big as “All About That Bass” had to make some big statement, and people felt a burning need to debunk those big statements. Ultimately, the internet-media reaction to a song like “All About That Bass” is just as indicative of its cultural climate as the song itself. “All About That Bass” reflected a moment of corporate empowerment, when big companies attempted stage-managed, self-flattering outreach to the communities that they’d previously ignored, if not outright demonized. The people who wrote online editorials would then go off, at length, about how these efforts didn’t go far enough. It was just the way things were.

A decade later, private equity has reduced the internet media infrastructure to smoking ruins, and the world’s corporations are working to figure out less grating ways to pander to the people whose money they want. We no longer have the conditions that allow an annoying song like “All About That Bass” to become a runaway smash or the conditions that allow for an even-more-annoying online-intelligentsia reaction to “All About That Bass.” Instead, we’ve got reactionary country stars and post-Alex Jones Kanye West sailing to #1. The Hot 100 is still a site of culture war, but field of culture battle has changed. The passage of time almost makes the noise around “All About That Bass” look heartbreakingly quaint — as in, that’s all we had to complain about back then? But time hasn’t made that conversation any less annoying. It hasn’t made the song any less annoying, either.

Meghan Trainor wasn’t trying to kickstart annoying cultural discourse when she made “All About That Bass.” She had absolutely no way of knowing that such a thing would even be possible. When the song came out, Trainor was a 20-year-old neophyte songwriter with no record deal who was only just starting to lock up big credits. She wasn’t famous. Even within the music business, she was almost entirely unknown. Thanks to a sequence of events that was largely outside of her control, “All About That Bass” went supernova, and lots of well-meaning critics and opinion writers reacted. This was a hell of a way to begin a career. Looking back, it’s impressive that Trainor has held on to become the solidly B-list pop singer that she is today. Also, she married one of the spy kids from Spy Kids. Good for her.

Meghan Elizabeth Trainor was born on the Massachusetts island of Nantucket, where her parents owned a jewelry store. If you want to write a limerick about her in the comments section, go ahead, but I will not indulge in that particular form of horseplay. (When Trainor was born, Janet Jackson’s “Again” was the #1 song in America.) Trainor started out singing in her Methodist church, where her father played organ and taught music. Her family was full of musicians, and that’s what led her to join a band called Island Fusion when she was a kid.

Look: Nantucket is a beach community. Trainor also spent a lot of her childhood on Cape Cod, another beach community. When people go on vacation at the beach, they like to listen to beach-type music, so it makes sense that a family band on Cape Cod might play soca. Trainor apparently has an uncle from Trinidad, and when she was 13, a bunch of her family members formed this group called Island Fusion. Years later, Trainor talked about that whole experience on The Tonight Show, and both she and Jimmy Fallon put on fake Trinidadian accents to say the name “Island Fusion.” Fallon also surprised Trainor with a video of her singing the hook from Pitbull’s “Give Me Everything” in a Nantucket bar. I’d say that Trainor didn’t seem quite embarrassed enough, but maybe if you grow up singing soca on Nantucket, you’re impervious to embarrassment. It would explain a lot about her career. (Speaking of embarrassing: Jimmy Fallon’s sole Hot 100 hit, the Will.I.Am collab “Ew!,” peaked at #26 while “All About That Bass” was at #1.)

Island Fusion was not an obvious route to stardom, but Meghan Trainor learned a bunch of instruments, getting guitar lessons from former NRBQ member Johnny Spampinato. She started writing her own songs when she was still a kid. Trainor’s parents built her a home studio and started taking her around to songwriting conventions. She self-released a few albums as a teenager. In 2010, the 17-year-old Trainor came out with a fervently patriotic quasi-country song called “Take Care Of Our Soldiers.” It’s exactly what you’re imagining.

Around the same time, Meghan Trainor’s parents took her to a songwriting conference in Colorado, where she introduced herself to the former NRBQ frontman Al Anderson. I find it extremely bizarre that cult-beloved bar-band institution NRBQ would play such an outsized role in Meghan Trainor’s origin story, but they did. (“Get That Gasoline Blues,” NRBQ’s only Hot 100 hit, peaked at #70 in 1974.) Trainor actually had a great uncle who briefly played guitar in NRBQ, so that and the Johnny Spampinato guitar lessons were her ins with Anderson. Anderson introduced her to the people behind music publishers Big Yellow Dog, and Big Yellow Dog signed her to a publishing deal.

Trainor could’ve gone to Berklee College Of Music, but instead she stayed at home and kicked off a brief career writing music for other artists. For a little while, Trainor commuted from Nantucket to LA for songwriting sessions, but that got old fast, so she moved to Nashville. In 2013, she landed her first credit, co-writing “In The Sun,” a widely ignored single recorded by the Swedish singer Aya Katrine. The next year, Trainor got a credit on the pop-country stars Rascal Flatts’ deep cut “DJ Tonight.” (Rascal Flatts’ highest-charting Hot 100 hit, their 2006 version of “What Hurts The Most,” peaked at #6. It’s a 3.) Trainor and Al Anderson co-wrote “Can’t Blame A Girl For Trying,” the debut single from Girl Meets World star Sabrina Carpenter. (At least for the moment, Carpenter’s highest-charting single is the 2024 summer jam “Espresso,” which hasn’t yet gotten past #4. It’s a 9.)

Judging by those early credits, young Meghan Trainor specialized in perky, uptempo party songs that vaguely approximated the pop sounds of the moment in flexible ways. Those tracks could work as country, as dance-pop, or as Radio Disney fodder without too many adjustments. As long as the pop-song machine exists, it’ll need writers like Trainor. Most of those writers never get famous, and plenty of them never even make proper hits. Rascal Flatts were past their peak when they recorded a Meghan Trainor song, and Sabrina Carpenter was a decade away from reaching pop-star status outside the Disney ecosystem. There’s a whole world full of people like Meghan Trainor — workaday songwriters who keep cranking out music for other people, recording demos and attending songwriting sessions and hoping for something to hit. For Meghan Trainor, something really, really hit.

At some point, Meghan Trainor had a writing session with Kevin Kadish, a Baltimore-born Berklee grad two decades older than her. Kadish’s story is another version of how things could’ve gone for Meghan Trainor. Kadish tried to make it as a solo artist in the ’90s, and he had a deal with Republic for a while, but it never went anywhere. Instead, Kadish became a songwriter and session musician for hire, and he put in work for a profoundly random assortment of artists: SR-71, Willie Nelson, Jason Mraz, Bif Naked, Meat Loaf. Before he met Meghan Trainor, Kadish had his biggest success in 2003, when he co-wrote “(There’s Gotta Be) More To Life,” the biggest hit from the Christian pop singer Stacie Orrico. (“(There’s Gotta Be) More To Life” peaked at #30. I like that song.)

I’ve never been to a songwriting session, and I can only imagine what they must be like. I bet it’s awkward! A few people get together, and maybe they have some ideas, but they have to figure out how to turn those ideas into fully fleshed-out pieces of music, which can then be sold to potential recording artists. You might’ve never met these other people, but you have to work with them and make things that can function as both art and commerce. It must be intimidating! In this case, Meghan Trainor and Kevin Kadish talked for a while, and they figured out that they both like ’50s oldies-radio fare. Then Kadish got out his book of potential song titles, and the one that Trainor liked was “All About That Bass.”

When they got the idea for “All About That Bass,” Meghan Trainor and Kevin Kadish had to abandon the idea of writing for any specific pop star. The title made Trainor think of the rounded-on-bottom way that bass fiddles are shaped, and she hit on the idea of bass as a metaphor for thickness. Together, Trainor and Kadish came up with what they thought were fun lyrics about being something other than skinny — potentially a tough sell, since most female pop stars are awfully skinny. The two of them wrote together quickly, and the song came together in a couple of hours. Kadish put together the instrumental, and Trainor freestyled most of the lyrics. Once they had a demo, they tried shopping it around. A year later, that demo was the #1 song in America.

“All About That Bass” makes perfect sense as the product of one of these journeyman songwriting sessions, especially one from two first-time collaborators. Nobody is revealing any deep internal truths on “All About That Bass.” It’s pure pastiche — doo-wop call-and-response backing vocals, old-timey handclap-happy sock-hop production rendered through a ProTools filter, vocal delivery that’s at least vaguely rap-aware. It reminds me of the malt-shop style of Sean Kingston’s “Beautiful Girls,” except done without any actual samples. It reminds me even more of Bruno Mars, who must’ve been the real guiding light for the whole enterprise.

“All About That Bass” sounds like it was devised to sell something. On some level, most pop songs were devised to sell something, even if that thing is just the song itself. But “All About That Bass” works on that other level, where it almost sounds like a Dove or Target jingle the first time that you hear it. Meghan Trainor’s delivery is supposed to be sly and knowing and funny, and maybe it’s all those things, but it’s the most basic version of them. She does that pinched vocal-fry thing that’s supposed to evoke past versions of pop music but mostly just comes out sounding like an ad agency trying to make its own Amy Winehouse song. I get even more Target-commercial vibes from the lyrics, which are generally about self-acceptance but are basically all shallow catchphrases.

To me, “All About That Bass” falls on the wrong side of the cute/cutesy divide. It communicates a clear idea, to the point where you could never mistake the song’s point, and it does this with effectively earwormy insistence. That idea: Meghan Trainor ain’t no size two, but she can shake it shake it like she’s supposed to do. She’s not a Photoshopped magazine image, but she’s at peace with that, since her mama told her that boys like a little more booty to hold at night. She’s all about that bass, no treble. I don’t know what treble is supposed to be in this metaphor, but I’m not going to worry about that too much.

You can see where people got tripped up when “All About That Bass” became a juggernaut hit. For one thing, Trainor sings about loving herself, but she conveys that point by saying that boys like her shape — self-worth achieved through dudes’ attraction. She also sings this: “I’m bringing booty back/ Go ahead and tell them skinny bitches that.” The first part of that line was the one that annoyed me: Booty, like sexy, has never gone anywhere. But some people heard the line about skinny bitches and decided that Trainor was body-shaming, even though she followed it up right away by saying that she’s just kidding and she knows that even skinny bitches think they’re fat. Nicki Minaj also targeted skinny bitches on her 2014 hit “Anaconda.” Skinny bitches must’ve felt so oppressed by top-40 radio in 2014. (“Anaconda” peaked at #2. It’s an 8.) Also, Trainor was a young white woman using Black slang and operating in a historically Black retro-soul musical mode, so the racial-appropriation accusation got thrown around, even though Iggy Azalea was right there on the charts next to her.

Plenty of gifted, thoughtful writers followed that line of conversation around “All About That Bass,” just as they did for so many of the other big hits that revealed societal issues that hadn’t gone away. I get it, and I’m not in any place to adjudicate Meghan Trainor’s alleged cultural crimes. But also, this song wasn’t built to bear the weight of any of that scrutiny.

For her part, Meghan Trainor was a little befuddled about all the thinkpiece-style attention that she got for “All About That Bass.” While the song was still climbing the Hot 100, she told Popjustice, “I’ve got a lot of feminists tweeting me — ‘why have you got to talk about boys?’. I don’t know, man! I just wrote a fun song about loving your booty and loving your body! I never had a problem getting boys, I still got ’em, I still had fun. I don’t know. My mom never actually said those words, she’s a very shy person.” Fair enough, honestly.

My problem is that I don’t think “All About That Bass” is a fun song. It’s bright and sticky and catchy, and it’s also annoying as hell. Retro-soul production and catchphrases-strung-together lyrical conceits can be fine on their own. They can even be really good together; we’ll see that on a song that’ll appear in this column soon. For me, though, “All About That Bass” is just absolutely grating and self-satisfied. Whenever it comes on in Kroger or wherever, I think longingly of my headphones, wherever they might be.

In any case, Meghan Trainor and Kevin Kadish had no way of knowing that they’d just made a juggernaut hit. They took the song to different labels, hoping that some pop star would grab it, but nobody did. Trainor told Popjustice that Beyoncé’s team “loved it,” but I cannot picture a reality in which Beyoncé records “All About That Bass.” Labels also told Trainor and Kadish that they had to re-produce the song, to bring it more in line with the pop of the moment. That all changed when LA Reid, who was running Epic Records at the time, overheard an A&R rep listening to the demo. Reid loved the song, and he brought Trainor in to sing it for him. She played it on a ukulele in the label offices, and he signed her immediately. She didn’t expect to become a recording artist, but suddenly that’s what she was.

LA Reid heard “All About That Bass” as a huge hit. He didn’t want Meghan Trainor to re-record it or to change anything from the demo, and the demo is what ultimately came out in June 2014. The veteran director and choreographer Fatima Robinson made the song’s bright-pastel video, and it prominently featured Sione Kelepi, a charismatic plus-size dancer who’d become a bit of a sensation on Vine. Kelepi pushed the video to his followers, and that got the train moving for “All About That Bass.” The song built gradually, breaking into the Hot 100 in July and then reaching #1 two months later.

I knew “All About That Bass” was about to be huge the first time I heard it, and it wasn’t a good feeling. It was one of those weird little rumbles that you might sometimes get: “Oh, this is about to be huge. Oh, no.” Sure enough, “All About That Bass” built up enough steamroller momentum to knock 1989-era Taylor Swift out of the #1 spot for two solid months. 2014 was a year of chirpy, obnoxious, retro-minded hits, and “All About That Bass” met popular culture exactly where it was. I don’t know why that kind of glib, self-impressed retro perkiness — the thing that I also hear on “Happy” and “Rude” and “Shake It Off” — was such a dominant pop-chart force in the late Obama era. Maybe that time is still too close. Maybe it’s a question for future historians to ponder. It was rough, though. I’m glad we’re past that.

That forced-positivity school of pop music never fully disappeared, and maybe there’s some “All About That Bass” influence in the Lizzo tracks that’ll eventually appear in this column. The vibe eventually shifted, but before that happened, Meghan Trainor racked up a bunch more hits. Trainor’s label bosses wanted to keep the “All About That Bass” magic going, so she mostly avoided working with big-name collaborators and just stayed in the lab with Kevin Kadish. Her follow-up single “Lips Are Movin” is just as retro-sunny and catchprase-dependent, and it peaked at #4. (It’s a 5.)

Three months after “All About That Bass” hit #1, Trainor released her debut album, and she pulled the cutesy move of giving it Title as a title. “Title,” the title track from Title, is about how she wants to be officially designated as a girlfriend, not as some kind of hookup: “Don’t call me ‘boo’ like you’re some kind of ghost.” (Nobody was in the room when I heard that line, so you can’t prove that I guffawed like an idiot when I heard it.) She kept that weird neo-traditionalist streak intact on her single “Dear Future Husband,” which peaked at #14. “Like I’m Gonna Lose You,” a duet with former Number Ones artist John Legend, got as high as #8. (It’s a 4.)

Title ultimately went triple platinum. The “All About That Bass” single went diamond in 2018, and a bunch of the other songs from Title also racked up big numbers. In 2016, Meghan Trainor won the Grammy for Best New Artist, beating out the relatively weak field of Courtney Barnett, Sam Hunt, Vance Joy, and Tori Kelly. (I really like Courtney Barnett, but she was never going to win that thing.) Trainor mostly stopped working with Kevin Kadish on her 2016 sophomore album Thank You, going instead with Ricky Reed, a hitmaking producer whose work will eventually appear in this column. I think that was a good move, and I’ll take leadoff single “No” over anything from Title. (“No” peaked at #3. It’s a 7.)

Thank You eventually went platinum, and the pretty fun dance-pop single “Me Too” peaked at #13, but Meghan Trainor’s stock was clearly nowhere near as high as it was in the “All About That Bass” era. That’s just how it goes sometimes. You become a sharper songwriter, your records become less annoying, and the public starts to lose interest.

In 2016, Meghan Trainor started dating former child actor Daryl Sabara, the aforementioned spy kid from Spy Kids, and they got married on her 25th birthday in 2018. Trainor did a few stints as a reality-show judge — on The Four: Battle For Stardom in the US, on The Voice in the UK, on Australian Idol. She released two albums in 2020, Treat Myself and a Christmas one, and they both came and went without much notice. (Treat Myself lead single “No Excuses,” which is not an Alice In Chains cover, peaked at #46.) She became a mom in 2021.

Trainor’s career seemed like it was going quiet when she released her 2022 album Takin’ It Back, but the stealthy comeback single “Made You Look” went viral and snuck up to #11 last year. “Made You Look,” which fortunately has nothing to do with Nas, is kind of a double throwback — to the nostalgic jukebox music that influenced her first album and to the you-go-girl snappiness of “All About That Bass.” I don’t like the song much, but it’s impressive that she was able to charge back onto the charts like that.

Earlier this year, Meghan Trainor made it to #78 with, swear to god, an Amazon-exclusive version of “Jingle Bells.” A week and a half ago, Trainor released a new album called Timeless, and she’s all over the talk-show landscape right now. About a month ago, for instance, Trainor and Kelly Clarkson, someone who’s been in this column a few times, sang “All About That Bass” together on Clarkson’s daytime show. I’d be surprised if Trainor’s got another “All About That Bass”-level hit in her, but she’s not going anywhere, which is cool. I think “All About That Bass” is doodoo, but anyone who survived the 2014 thinkpiece gauntlet earns some respect.

GRADE: 3/10

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BONUS BEATS: Here’s Meghan Trainor and a fellow Nashville resident, the great country star Miranda Lambert, singing “All About That Bass” together at the 2014 CMA Awards:

(Miranda Lambert’s highest-charting Hot 100 hit, the 2014 Carrie Underwood duet “Somethin’ Bad,” peaked at #19. Lambert and her side-project group Pistol Annies also guested on her then-husband Blake Shelton’s pleasantly dumb 2013 hit “Boys Round Here,” which peaked at #12.)

THE 10S: Jeremih and YG’s sleek, slithery sneaky-sex celebration “Don’t Tell ‘Em,” with minimal DJ Mustard production built on snaps and Snap!, peaked at #6 behind “All About That Bass.” I got a missed call from yo’ biiiiiitch, and she was probably trying to tell me that it’s a 10.

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now on paperback via Hachette Books. I got that book book that all the boys chase and all the right pulp in all the right pages. Buy it here.

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