Shake Off the Anacondas: at the Nexus of Taylor and Nicki
Taylor: I am lame, hear my roar.
Nicki: I am woman, fuck you.
A conversation about the various questionable offences of “Anaconda” and “Shake it Off” came to me not from a conversation with enraged bloggers, but from a group text with my college roommates, one of whom thinks (okay, all of whom think) that I have some sort of vagina Bat-Signal for anything remotely opposing feminism, racial equality, or recycling. They’re not totally wrong, but the Bat-Signal is just Twitter, and my frequency for it, pretty low, all told. My friend wanted to know what I thought about Taylor Swift’s recently released video for “Shake It Off,” the haters-gonna-hate anthem of girls with Etsy shops and beautiful blonde lobs everywhere.
She acutally said, “I bet you have a lot of opinions about the twerking scenes.” And as I aim to constantly disappoint my friends with my unpinnable lack or excess of opinions, I told her: “No, compared to other white pop singers’ unapologetic cultural appropriation, Taylor’s focus on a few butts twerking did not particularly stand out as offensive amongst the various stylized scenes of diverse dancers with whom she equally could not fit in.” Except I said “ugh, OMG” a few more times and used a bunch of emojis of that girl in the pink shirt waving to really drive home my point.
But that bit of twerking and its lack of focus in Taylor’s video does seem to intrinsically tie it to another music video that debuted around the same time that’s almost entirely focused on twerking, and its subject’s excellence at it: Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda.”
Taylor and Nicki’s music videos don’t directly address each other. Neither is a response to the other, but you’d be hard pressed to find a gathering of young people in an office kitchen somewhere talking about one without simultaneously discussing the other. The videos for “Shake It Off” and “Anaconda” aren’t visually comparable; Taylor prances around doing the best she can, while Nicki wields her ass with the precision of a jōnin ninja. They certainly don’t have similar sounds: Taylor’s is meant to soundtrack build-your-own pizza slumber party, and Nicki’s would fit nicely in the most laser-lit of night clubs. And yet the videos, in combination with their songs, seem to send similar messages to their viewers: Nicki looks you in the eye (or rather, you look her in the ass) and dares you to call her anything but the boss of her own faculties, and Taylor is just a girl standing in front of a world, telling them to piss off. Except she didn’t say piss.
Oddly, with undeniably catchy hooks, and melodies concocted explicitly for dancing, both songs beg for your attention, while also telling the listener clearly: I give exactly zero fucks what you think about me. Aurally, these tracks aren’t changing any lives. They don’t make any real artistic musical statement, but as early singles off of each of these artists’ new records, they are a line in the sand. “Shake it Off” reinforces what Taylor has already told us with words: that “1989” will be her first entirely pop album. And Nicki’s “I Like Big Butts” sampling, slur-slinging “Anaconda” reminds us that she doesn’t have to cater to her more pop-inclined fans or her more rap-inclined fans…she’s still going to get 19.6 million listens in one day.
But the real statements “Shake It Off” and “Anaconda” make, come only when coupled with their visuals. Taylor and Nicki’s videos each inform any viewers who weren’t sure that these are women fully in control of their own image. And your opinions of it have exactly no impact on that image, even while their songs serve as pure, catchy, club-bumping, sleepover hairbrush-singing anthems, provided especially to entertain you, the potentially confused listener.
Taylor has heard you: her garden parties are lame, she can’t keep a boyfriend, and she’s not the darling she thinks she is.
Nicki has heard you: she’s ruining rap music, her ass is fake, and she’s not the boss she thinks she is.
They’ve taken what you have to say about them, absorbed it, thought about it, and decided it’s not an issue. They’re here for your entertainment, not your bullshit. (Except Taylor wouldn’t say bullshit.)
I never miss a beat
I’m lightening on my feet
And that’s what they don’t know
I smiled as I watched Taylor’s video—I smiled! I was embarrassed immediately following, and looked around my empty apartment to make sure no one noticed, not even the dog on the balcony next door. He didn’t. But I still knew that I enjoyed it; that I got some sort of implicit thrill from knowing that Taylor, one of the main lightning rods for my own second-hand embarrassment, knows that she’s a bad dancer and embraces it. Taylor wallows around in owning her lameness so much that she proclaims it her own version of cool; it’s the height of confidence. So much so, that she has garnered quite a few haters who gonna hate, hate, hate, just because she loves, loves, loves herself so much.
I have a theory that Taylor is the biggest Slytherin to ever walk this Earth.
Taylor released an excellent pop album with a country slant in Red, and people still pass her over as a credible musician simply because her songs are catchy above all else, and she has an earnestness that can’t help but read false…or is it a falseness that can’t help but read earnest?
But Taylor knows that the only thing that gives those opinions power is if she cares about them; Taylor knows that the only thing that makes being a bad dancer in the front row of an awards show embarrassing is clearly thinking you’re a good dancer; Taylor knows she has four Grammys and, like, 16 houses.
She wraps the “Shake It Off” video up with a bunch of more common-looking people dancing equally lamely to make shaking it off a universal message. But most of the video, and all of the lyrics, make “Shake It Off” a very personal anthem for Taylor. Hey, assholes: you haven’t slowed me down yet, and you’re not going to. As long as Taylor Swift can write catchy music—and she sure as hell can—she’s going to be successful. And success funds cooking parties with Lorde. But what she’s really saying in three full minutes of her dancing badly by herself is not just that she’s going to keep dating boy banders (allegedly) for publicity and breaking up with them; it’s that, if you hate her for it, she’s going to rub your face in it.
Speaking of in your face…
He can tell I ain’t missing no meals
Come through and fuck ‘em in my automobile
Nicki refuses to be the object of her own video; she is the subject, that much is clear. And her thesis is, “Do you think this is too much? It doesn’t matter, this is my video.”
Grandmaster Flash, one of the earliest pioneers of hip hop and a BET I Am Hip Hop Icon Award winner, said of Nicki’s “Anaconda video: “I don’t think it was totally necessary.”
Normally, I might agree. When is a music video ever really necessary? It’s more of a treat; something that comes out after the track is released as a visual accompaniment for fans. But what’s ironic about Flash’s comment is that, this time, Nicki’s video is entirely necessary to her ultimate message. “Anaconda” on its own doesn’t really make much of a statement at all. It’s more of a remix of “Baby Got Back” than anything else; the antithesis of the artistic, understated Nicki in “Pills N Potions.” “Anaconda,” the song is a mostly blank, vaguely butt-themed canvas for “Anaconda, the video.
In the same interview with BBC Radio 1Xtra, Flash said that while he thought Nicki’s “Anaconda” video was unnecessary for an already successful female artist the reception of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s source material music video for “Baby Got Back” was a different situation: “A man’s perspective it’s not looked at as doing something wrong or he’s doing something negative - he’s just a man being a man.” Sure. Mix-A-Lot just likes big butts; Nicki actually has one.
"But she flipped it and went the other way with it - now she is the center of attention to the ‘Baby Got Back’ track." And according to Flash, that is where the inherent wrongness of Nicki’s video lies…the self-appointed attention to a woman’s Back. “I just think maybe if she was up-and-coming maybe, but to have…all the power she already has, it wasn’t totally necessary.” Oh, I see. Flash thinks Nicki is waving her ass around for the sex appeal. He thinks that she’s a video girl; just an escaped woman from Sir Mix-A-Lot’s video.
In “Anaconda,” Nicki doesn’t let other people tell the viewer to look at her butt…she tells you first. She offers it up on a Barbie pink platter. The repetition of “Oh my gosh, look at her butt” with Nicki staring directly into the camera is her specifically instructing you to look at her butt. Look at it. I want you to look at it. It’s MY butt. Because 22 years after Sir Mix-A-Lot’s song, women in music videos don’t need a man to tell other people to look at their butts. If they want you to—and it seems that Nicki does—they, and their record contracts, and their 40+ million views, will just go ahead and tell you.
Flash did get one thing right: that Nicki’s “Baby Got Back Part 2” takes Sir Mix-a-Lot’s song and video to a “different level.” While Mix-a-Lot’s created its own commentary about different types of female bodies (well, butts, at least), Nicki’s video, for all its cheeks, becomes less about the ass, and more about the female body itself, and who exactly is in charge of it—there’s nary a male gaze in sight in Nicki’s anaconda-less jungle.
The “Anaconda” video isn’t sexy. For all its gyrating parts and talk of romaine salads, it’s tough to get through, as many YouTube commenters (and my roommates’ group text) will tell you. The video isn’t porn; it doesn’t seem like an invitation to get your rocks off while looking upon all of these self-defined perfect bodies. It almost seems more like a threat; like a dare. I dare you not to accept this. I dare you to look at male rappers casual music video trips to strip clubs and thong-themed yacht parties as a bit of fun, but look at me and my girls deciding to lift weights and hump a floor on our own accord as tawdry.
Whereas Sir Mix-A-Lot’s song told a tale of butts, Nicki’s video—which features her curiously mouthing at a banana and then promptly cutting it in half with a blade—mostly speaks directly to penises: Your anaconda wants me, but that doesn’t mean it can have me. And by anaconda, I of course mean, dick. In the only portion of the video that features a male, Nicki gives Aubrey “Drake” Graham a lengthy lap dance, then walks away the moment he touches her, leaving him…frazzled. Surely not the way Drake’s own music video would have ended. No matter what we do with it; no matter how many times we bend over in front of you, or what we wear to work out, Baby—and Baby alone—is control of her own Back. Enjoy your boner!
A confused male commenter on Nicki’s “Anaconda” video wonders, along with 33 of his closest friends, what happened to women wanting to be skinny? Didn’t women used to want to be skinny? Do women now want to have big, fat asses? Don’t all women want the same things?
No, JeanFranco Moggartoff Herrera. Some women want to be cheerleaders.
Some want to be hip hop dancers.
And some simply want to be Parisian youths.
It’s not a difficult message to understand that all people inherently want different things. But, for some reason, it can still be difficult to understand that all women don’t have a common set of universal ideals. Doesn’t Taylor have a problem with being perceived as fake? As a goody-goody? Shouldn’t Nicki reject the idea of being called a whore? A pop artist?
No. Because I believe I heard somewhere that haters are simply going to hate, hate, hate. The best Nicki and Taylor can do as public figures is put their most honest, in control foot (or ass) forward. Each song and video surely still has problematic moments: I wish Nicki didn’t say “Fuck you to the skinny bitches,” and I wish Taylor hadn’t crawled through that tunnel of butts like a wondrous child, without showing anyone’s face.
But these women aren’t my idea of perfect; they don’t have to be. I think that’s the damn point.