An Unwitting Anthem: How Fergie Moves the Cultural Needle With “M.I.L.F. $”
As a piece of pop culture "M.I.L.F.$" alludes deftly, cheekily, and authentically to three aspects of one’s induction into the club of mothering.
Motherhood is a club only insomuch as its realities are hidden until the moment it happens to you. That’s the tie that binds: the fact that nothing prepares you for how it hits you over the head. Very little else, if anything, is universal amongst mothers other than this process of entry. The women to whom you were closest before having children can turn out to have very different philosophies and experiences as mothers. It really is the unveiling of the grand conspiracy of motherhood -- that it is unyieldingly consuming in a way that is both shocking and transformative -- that makes those who face it automatic members.
I first heard Fergie’s new single “M.I.L.F. $” on Spotify’s New Music Friday playlist the day it was released. Before I was even a minute into the song, the milk/M.I.L.F. allusions in the opening lines, coupled with the visual of Fergie’s bare shoulders and elevated décolletage on the single’s artwork, had me texting my sister (and fellow lactivist), “I think Fergie’s new song is about breastfeeding?!” By the end of the day, there was a definite buzz resonating. Several friends who are moms had texted write-ups about the song, shared related posts on Instagram, and forwarded links to its celebrity-filled video.
The more I listened to it, the more I realized that the song isn’t about something as specific as breastfeeding. (Though Chrissy Tiegen breastfeeds her newborn in the video and if that isn’t one of the raddest displays of public breastfeeding I’ve ever seen, I don’t know what is.) The song is actually about so much more. In “M.I.L.F. $”, Fergie sings about the power and burden of providing life to another, the loss and reclamation of one’s pre-motherhood identity, and the process of redefining oneself in the aftermath. In other words, “M.I.L.F. $” addresses head on the shocking and transformative initiation into motherhood I was describing above.
“M.I.L.F. $”, therefore, is not just a fun, pop-y, dance song for the summer, and it signifies more than the impending arrival of a sophomore solo album from the Dutchess herself. As a piece of pop culture it alludes deftly, cheekily, and authentically to three aspects of one’s induction into the club of mothering, and in this way it's no less than an anthem to a major subset of society.
Theme #1: The Power and Burden of Providing Life and Sustenance
It's a strange truth that women in Western culture tend to not know our bodies very well at all until we conceive, carry, birth, and nurse a child. Prior to that, we only have a sliver of a clue about what our bodies are capable of. The transformation of a woman’s body when she becomes pregnant for the first time is, of course, miraculous, astounding, and wholly badass. Your body is doing things it’s never done before, in the pursuit of something so powerful that it’s almost inconceivable. All of this is mystifying and confusing and places unique physical strains on one’s body. But then the baby arrives, the umbilical cord is cut, and a mother is nowhere near finished with providing life and sustenance. Nowhere. Near. And that’s not only for mothers who choose to breastfeed -- bottle-feeders don’t get a pass on the ‘round-the-clock, physically-taxing, mentally-draining role of mothering a baby, either.
In the first verse of “M.I.L.F. $”, Fergie speaks from the point of view of someone who has been through this ringer -- carried, delivered, and raised a baby into a preschooler -- and as a result has achieved a level of confidence and comfort with all her body has done and can do as a mother. “Heard you in the mood for a little M.I.L.F. shake” she sings in the video as she gestures to her breasts, spokes-model style. She continues by assuring her audience that she has the means and the know-how to sustain life within the high-pressure situation of motherhood -- a situation that requires daily hurdle-jumping and challenge-navigating: “I could whip it up, fix you up straight away / Come on in the front door, leavin’ out the back door, whip it, flip it, hey”. This is her house -- the Dairy Dutchess Love Factory -- and, with a few years of parenthood under her belt, her house is in order.
Perhaps most interestingly, Fergie seems aware that the transformation and mastery conveyed above has the potential to be misunderstood and even off-putting to a subset of her fandom: namely men who have for years appreciated her for her many pre-mother qualities. “Didn’t mean to make you nervous,” she tells them, somewhat sarcastically. Mothers can make men nervous in all sorts of ways: by having something besides them be the center of their attention, by using their bodies for something other than providing sexual pleasure, by disappearing from public display into the private sphere of motherhood, or -- even worse -- returning from that sphere as less sexy than they were before.
What Fergie is expressing in “M.I.L.F $” is that while her body became the provider and sustainer of life (“been workin’ at your service to give it to ya”), and it has done something both commonplace and miraculous, both industrious and divine, it still remains hers to celebrate and enjoy. If she wants to do so by flaunting it, then by all means.
Theme #2: The Loss and Reclaiming of One's Pre-Motherhood Identity
Getting to a point where you can recognize all your body has done and learned to do and reconciling it with the pre-parenting body you used to have is part of a greater struggle that mothers face: the loss and reclaiming of one’s pre-motherhood identity. The second verse of “M.I.L.F. $” is where Fergie trumpets her long-time personal credo and reminds listeners that at her core, she hasn’t changed. Echoing the themes of self-reliance found on her debut album The Dutchess http://www.popmatters.com/review/fergie-the-dutchess/, she declares her ability to pay her own way: “Me and the girls up in the club… buying the bar like I bought all these rocks.” Just as she does in her 2006 single, “Glamorous”, she stresses that her financial status and the perks that come with it are the result of hard work (“I’ve been workin’ all week. Where the hell is my drink?”) and that her success is self-made (“Cuz we I-N-D-E-P-E-N-D-E-N-T, do you know what that means? / Can’t see me B-R-O-K-E, I’m P-A-I-D, ya heard about me?”).
These are her values and her points of pride -- pulling herself up by the bootstraps and never apologizing for what she’s made of herself -- and it’s vital to her that she let her fandom know that those things haven’t changed, in spite of the fact that parenthood tends to turn just about everything else in one’s life upside down. In interviews about the single, Fergie has stressed that her definition of M.I.L.F. is a redefinition, an acronym that stands for Moms I’d Like to Follow; her video is filled with celebrity moms who have continued to grow in their careers. This matronly take on a #squad is anything but. They represent a group of public personalities who have managed to maintain their success while maintaining a family; they do both, and they get P-A-I-D.
But in a way, she’s reclaiming the term M.I.L.F. that was first popularized 17 years ago in the movie American Pie, in which Jennifer Coolidge played a M.I.L.F. in the form of Stiffler’s mother. Since then, M.I.L.F. has had a predatory air and suggested something more akin to the term “cougar”, painting a picture of a mature woman who is creepily pursuing men who are too young for her. In Fergie’s video, she replaces this stereotype with vivacious mothers who are just as fuck-able as they ever were pre-children. This visual gets back to that hypothetical nervous man, the “mother fucker” she speaks to in the pre-chorus: he doubts this, he doesn’t understand this, but he still wants this. He still, despite everything that makes him nervous, would fuck this mother.
Theme #3: The Need For Mothers to Redefine to Survive (Mentally, At Least)
Many women who become mothers, and live through all the upheaval motherhood entails, end up re-inventing themselves in a way that might actually be more authentic and more fulfilling than who they were pre-children. The experience of having children can strip away almost everything for mothers: their free time, their energy, their inward focus, their self-prioritization. Once the smoke clears from the wildfire that is raising babies and toddlers, it’s just as easy (and definitely more inspiring) to claw your way back to something you really, really want, as opposed to something that will do to pass the time and/or earn an income. So often women find themselves pivoting careers or chasing new dreams after having kids.
The third verse is where Fergie unleashes, both vocally and thematically, and where she speaks to this process of fighting one’s way back to fuller autonomy from new motherhood’s rock bottom, a place where the tools are primitive and the learning curve is steep. She addresses the relentlessness of the job, the complexity of negotiating her dual roles as parent and working artist, and the patience it takes to chart this course: “I been whipping this up, I been tipping this cup / I been waiting my turn, I been working so hard / Got my spirit turned up and I can’t stop now / I been running so long, I been fighting so strong”. Fergie sings about reconciling her pre-motherhood identity with her post-motherhood identity, both a return to and a reinvention of who she truly is (“I want it, I need it, I got it, for real / I love it, real woman, I feed you this meal”), and she acknowledges her successful scaling of the learning curve (“Hey mama, I did it, the top of this hill”).
Most importantly, though, she ends the verse by once again speaking to the “mother fucker” who may have shaken faith in the unmitigated power of both Fergie the pop star and Fergie the mother: “Been a minute, don’t forget it, mother fucker, I’m ill!” In this fiercely delivered mic-drop of a line, Fergie allays any doubts that becoming a mother may have rendered her less of an artist.
So go back and listen to the song, which has over 18.7 million plays on Spotify. Not only does she move the needle by re-framing a tired term in pop culture (M.I.L.F.), but she and Tiegen take a big step toward normalizing public breastfeeding (to the tune of 122.2 million views and counting on VEVO). But even beyond that, if you listen closely, Fergie is offering a peek behind the curtain of the grand conspiracy of motherhood and an example of what it feels like when, after your induction, you finally realize you just might make it out alive. “M.I.L.F. $” is so much more than a summer jam. It's a war story and it's a battle cry. Now let me see you M.I.L.F. shake.
Ashley Glacel has a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Maryland, where she has taught classes on popular culture. She lives in Los Angeles. Find her on Twitter at @avglacel