Who is the twerker starring in the video for “Thievery,” the first single off of “Yeezus”-producer Arca’s debut album “Xen”? Her ass is unreal, simultaneously jiggling to multiple beats on this squeaky dance track. But is she even a she? Breasts are visible but flashes of crotch reveal a Barbie-style amorphism. What’s also unclear is the figure’s race—despite the fleshiness of the ass, the CGI character is more pixel than skin. Yet her compulsion to shake it—in a room by herself, the way many of us might do listening to Arca’s dark and twisted, cuttingly smart and stupid mixtape &&&&&—feels both relatably human and creepily post-human. By complicating the gender and racial politics of the “booty video” (apparently pop culture’s most provocative meme in 2014), Arca—whose many recent accomplishments include a global tour, a Fader cover story, and getting tapped by Bjork to coproduce her next project—can claim the most important title of all: He won pop culture’s Great Booty War of 2014.
Really, this competition to grab attention with booty-centric music videos goes back to the days of MTV, but let’s start with last year, when Miley Cyrus revealed the viral possibilities of cultural appropriation and white-girl twerking with “We Can’t Stop.” The video and VMA performance spawned an endless stream of think pieces—some smart and some troll-y (I’m looking at you, Bustle)—about a white girl profiting from a black dance move. (I myself was guilty of writing about it, too.)
While Miley herself has moved on from twerking—her publicity stunt at this year’s VMAs relied on a photogenic homeless man, not bootylicious back-up dancers—other culture-makers have not. This summer brought us a tiresome parade of music videos organized around the concept of ass, exploiting the subject matter’s tried-and-true ability to cause internet outrage, billed as “conversation” (and benefitting from the link-sharing such outrage brings). The mostly assless-but-cute Taylor Swift and the blissfully tubby-but-boring Meghan Trainor offered an unneeded reminder that yes, white girls like ass-shaking, even when they themselves are not that great at it. In “Shake It Off,” Swift shows that she’s too silly, too innocent to really shake it, so ‘90s-style fly-girl hotties are enlisted in her place, twerking inches from Swift’s doe-eyed stare. In “All About That Bass” Trainor similarly relies on a pop-soul vibe and black back-up dancers to make the point that fat girls are hot. “I’m bringing booty back,” she sings, even though she herself barely moves her hips in the video (not to mention, we’re pretty sure that booty never left). “Go ahead and tell them skinny bitches that.”
Thankfully, as summer wore on, Nicki Minaj stepped up to the plate with a more forceful message for skinny bitches. Remixing 1992’s iconic hit “Baby Got Back,” Minaj’s “Anaconda” was a reminder that not every pop star needs to hire someone else to twerk for them. The jungle-themed video, chock full of ass, mocks the very notion of exoticized bodies, allowing a black performer to rightfully “reclaim the Twerk,” in the words of Grantland’s Molly Lambert. “‘Anaconda’ turns Nicki’s butt into a literal force of nature, causing earthquakes in a jungle setting,” writes Lambert (what Big Sean might call an ‘assquake’). Had Minaj’s assploitation vid finally ended the trend?
Nope. In September, just when we thought summer had ended, we were treated to an ass-themed video in its most stripped down sense: “Booty” by J. Lo and serial appropriator Iggy Azalea. Here, the impact of clapping ass cheeks isn’t measured by “Anaconda’s” Richter scale; it’s as dramatic as a meteor collision, which is how this video begins. J. Lo was once the queen of booty, so it wouldn’t be a Booty War without her, but the staleness of her musical revival and dated aesthetic does little to unseat Minaj’s surrealist ascent to the throne. While Lopez avoids Miley, Swift and Trainor’s sin of accessorizing with tremendously endowed black women, instead she makes us pine for them, inserting the wide-hipped-but-relatively-flat-assed and racist Iggy Azalea into the improbable role of assistant booty shaker.
Lingering racialized booty politics hamper and enhance (in terms of pageview-garnering) all of these videos. All are premised on the notion that #ass is trending; that we’ll discuss and share and be provoked by different configurations of twerking and objectification and the predictable and increasingly stale conversations about ownership, authenticity and appropriation—in an age when no one owns anything, when nothing is authentic, and when everything is appropriated—that turn pop culture into more of a war-zone than a playground.
Into this milieu enters Arca’s video for “Thievery,” whose sound and look feel like they were swept off the cutting room floor from studio session with London sensation FKA Twigs (which makes sense, since Arca co-produced her album, while the “Thievery” visuals were created by Twigs’ collaborator Jesse Kanda). Of course, the prescribed response to this video, in the context of the Booty Wars, would question the right of Arca—a gay Venezuelan man whose real name is Alejandro Ghersi—to objectify the feminine ass or the Twerk, neither of which “belong” to him. Instead, the response has been more celebratory. “The video is mesmerizing in an extremely disquieting way,” raved StereoGum. “It’s one of those rare occasions when you can tell a video is an absolute classic the first time you watch it.”
Part of its success comes from the thoughtful conceptualizing of the character in the video, Arca’s alter-ego known as “Xen,” who he tells Fader is “not really a boy and… not really a girl.” He adds, “her mere existence is kind of repulsive and attractive at once, and so I imagine her under a spotlight, in this room full of people just staring, wide-eyed, openmouthed.”
What he’s describing is the experience we should demand from pop music: to render us speechless, mouth agape from the strength of performance. (This also happens to be the power of an incredible ass, when expertly shaked.) Like “Thievery,” the best music videos model how we ought to react to the music with our bodies. They don’t suggest what we ought to say about the video based on what’s trending. (That’s called trolling.)
Of course, “Thievery” is able to escape some of the problems of race and gender by aiming for a post-human aesthetic. But that zone of uncharted territory is what makes the “Xen” persona fresh. While Stereogum argues that the CGI dancer is desexualized (“There’s nothing sexual about the video”), I disagree. What’s sexy is the dancer’s ambiguity. And regardless, the video’s feeling is crystal clear: Good music, like good ass, frees the mind of bullshit and maybe helps us find a bit of “Xen.”