We Cannot Lie

The Cultural Significance of Sir Mix-A-Lot's "Baby Got Back"

by Tyrone Beason

The Seattle Times (TNS)

9 May 2017

“Baby Got Back” shook up more than the pop charts and the delicate sensibilities of the time (MTV banned the music video to after 9 p.m.).
 

Sir Mix-A-Lot leaped ahead of his time with his definitive shout-out to the derrière, “Baby Got Back”.

“I like big butts, and I cannot lie,” the Seattle rapper, real name Anthony Ray, famously confessed 25 years ago this month.

The truth he spoke was more than his own.

The song spent five weeks at No. 1 and it sold 2 million copies, back when people had to go to a store to buy music. It also helped put Seattle hip-hop on the map, and in the process making Sir Mix-A-Lot our first rap superstar.

“Baby Got Back” shook up more than the pop charts and the delicate sensibilities of the time (MTV banned the music video to after 9 p.m.)

The anthem unashamedly praises a body type that seldom appeared on billboards, in movies or on catwalks, and it treats pop culture’s historic sidelining and pigeonholing of people of color for what they are—racist.

“Oh. My. God. Becky, look at her butt … I mean gross … She’s just so, black.”

The opening dialogue of “Baby Got Back”, spoken by what is supposed to be two white women who seem to believe that a brown-skinned woman flaunting her curvaceous backside must necessarily be “one of those rap guys’ girlfriends” and looks like a prostitute, stings even today.

The women’s scathing observations offer listeners the first clue as to what Sir Mix-A-Lot is really up to here: “Baby Got Back” is, in fact, a clever protest song dressed in the skintight jeans of a novelty tune.

True, in the music video Sir Mix-A-Lot raps while standing atop a ridiculous, booty-shaped platform, and yes, cheeky images of various round and luscious fruits appear on screen as backup dancers gyrate to the gluteus maximum.

“Baby Got Back”, with its hilariously prurient imagery, is relentless in its single-minded focus on the virtues of “healthy” rumps.

The song simultaneously objectifies and subjectifies black and brown women, reframing an underappreciated physical attribute as the ultimate symbol of desirability.

As the rapper himself says in the song, we can have all those “knock-kneed” women in rock videos, because he prefers his women to look like “FloJo”.

Just before that line about liking women who boast a body type similar to the late track star Florence Griffith Joyner’s, he raps that he’s “tired of magazines/ sayin’ flat butts are the thing.”

Underpinning the peepshowmanship is a notion that has taken almost all of those 25 years to permeate pop culture: America sells itself short by not celebrating the diversity of a society whose people derive from every corner of the globe and whose variety of body types reflect as much. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, “Baby Got Back” makes the best case ever that this fact about us is actually pretty hot.

Maybe, just maybe, we’re finally ready to embrace what was previously and somewhat disingenuously maligned.

Fitness publications now routinely feature articles and advice on how women and men of all colors can achieve showy, protruding bubble butts.

Fashion and beauty brands, recognizing the profit potential and essential rightness of marketing to a broader audience, are starting to hire fuller-figured models.

Women of color are boldly demanding, and slowly receiving, more exposure on catwalks and in magazines.

And no disrespect to Sir Mix-A-Lot, but female musical artists of color themselves now lead the charge to glorify physical attributes associated with people who have African ancestry, as Nicki Minaj does on her joyously re-imagined, woman-centric take on “Baby Got Back”, 2014’s “Anaconda”, as Jennifer Lopez does in her 2014 ode “Booty” and as Solange does on her more meditative 2016 single “Don’t Touch My Hair.”

The “Beckys” of the world might be changing their tune too.

The white pop star Miley Cyrus has made a stellar career out of celebrating the rear-end, twerking her way across countless stages with a dance move that is itself rooted in black culture.

And Meghan Trainor has nothing but love for her full frame in her hit, also from 2014, “All About that Bass”, which tells listeners doubting the beauty of their larger bodies that “every inch of you is perfect”.

And then there’s Kim Kardashian on the cover of Paper magazine.

Sir Mix-A-Lot may have had a very specific type of person in mind with “Baby Got Back” 25 years ago, but he helped push us all forward.

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