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The Boston Phoenix Booty Calls

Backside stories

By Josh Kun

SEPTEMBER 7, 1999:  Just when you thought that summer radio belonged to perfectly produced, neck-popping, finger-snapping sister power -- TLC shooing away softboys for roughneck jiggas, 702 getting answers to "Where My Girls At?", Blaque perfecting the erotics of the 808 bass boom, Destiny's Child getting their men to pay their bills, Whitney (yes, Whitney) putting her foot down and checking her husband's caller ID -- along comes the annual booty jam to hit rewind: Juvenile ordering his Magnolia Projects ladies to "Back That Azz Up."

Like most booty anthems, the track rides the line between black-ass-loving praise song and drooling backside objectification paean that you can't stop singing along with. "You a fine muthafucka, won't you back that azz up" Juvenile coaxes while paying "tribute" to the ability of the black female booty to bring a brother to his sagging shorts-covered knees. Sure there's some ass power there, but Juvenile and crew still just want to hit it, flip it, drop it, whatever; it's still a car waiting to be backed up into some playa's overheated garage, a late-'90s addition to the R. Kelly "you remind me of my jeep" school of black-on-black romance.

In the song's typically grainy, carnivalesque video, which last week got comfortable as the #1 entry on MTV Jams (beating out Lauryn, Mary, and Britney), Juvenile holds a rump-shake audition, tossing cash around between shots of screaming crowds and moms with their baby girls while a string of body-beautiful women assume the hands-on-the-hip position and work and roll and pump as the rest of Juvenile's crew look on in judging approval. It celebrates the black ass for sure, but in keeping with booty tradition from Miami to Atlanta, it's the men throwing the party and the thong-flossed women who are carted in to show what they got.

Aphex Twin's "Windowlicker" video, a twisted parody of Miami bass jiggle fests, has fun with this men-watching-men-watch-women triangulation by having all the women's asses graphed onto his own face. So no matter where he turns, he's always getting off not on the women but on a transgendered hybrid of himself.

For all the ideological messiness of "Back That Azz Up," its emphasis on all-black pleasure is still a visual relief from the racial conundrums of most MTV top spins. Take Lenny Kravitz's "American Woman" video, which uses bikini-clad women of color as intermediary foreplay for the reinstitution of the white-bread, tit-grabbed, blonde main course of Heather Graham as the national archetype. And of course, there's the Juvenile antithesis, LFO's insipid "Summer Girls," a three-minute ad for Abercrombie & Fitch by the so-called Light Funky Ones, who use franchise hip-hop to rhyme "New Kids on the Block had a bunch of hits" with "Chinese food makes me sick." They lock shoulders, cruise a boardwalk, have a sunset bonfire -- Naughty by Nature's "Jamboree" clip without melanin and rap-star cameos. Plus, all the girls wear long shorts or Capri pants, not an ass in sight.

These are the kind of contradictions that make grappling with the audio-visual booty so difficult. There is no denying the gazing-male, display-case side to it all, where black women's bodies become collections of fetishizable parts. The cover to the new double-disc Booty Bounce compilation (Virgin) -- which goes from Get Some Crew's "Put That Thang to the Floor" to Splack Pack's "Scrub Da Ground" -- eliminates all parts of the woman's body except for a rounded ass and spread legs. Yet at the same time, most of the tracks rescue the black female body from European beauty myths and hold it up on a pedestal of groveling, graphic desire. This was part of Sir Mix-a-Lot's point on "Baby Got Back" (the booty genre's smartest mission statement), and it gets reiterated by MC Shy D on his Booty Bounce contribution, "Big Booty Girls." "The '90s got these girls on the track," he complains, "working real hard to take off the back."

"The back" is such an unstable pop icon because of its history: in the 19th-century European imagination, the black female ass was a symbol of primitive racial inferiority and deviant sexuality. The legendary Venus Hottentot, whom Susan Lori-Parks paid tribute to in her 1997 play Venus, was exhibited as an ugly fat-bottom freak of nature who generated equal parts fascination and disgust in her gawkers.

Booty music turns the spectacle around and controls it, with black men curating the exhibits and rhyming catalogue essays about booty beauty. Of course, the women still aren't talking, so until they do, until the booty boys hear poet Sarah Jones when she says, "The real revolution ain't about booty size," I'll get a kick out of Juvenile but take shelter in those other ladies of summer.

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