When I heard that the booty quotient in Mastodon‘s video for “The Motherload” was off the charts, rivaling Nicki Minaj or Rihanna’s recent offerings, I was ready for a 21st century “Girls Girls Girls,” rife with cliché raunch and classic metal misogyny. What I saw completely took me by surprise. More shocking than the sheer magnitude of flesh and twerking onscreen (we’re used to that) was the way in which the dancers in the video took up space and how they wielded their bountiful butts in relation to the band. While the song doesn’t stray too far from convention, the ways in which the twerking female body is featured does.
“The Motherload” video begins with shots of Mastodon playing amidst naked people in body paint with plenty of cult signifiers: snakes, apples, chains, hooded figures – nothing out of the ordinary there. By a minute in, the asses appear. Slowly at first, a few twerking women of color soon circle a large, bearded white guy covered in Mardi Gras beads. Then, two lines form in front of the band and the twerk-off begins. When I say “in front of the band,” that doesn’t mean the guys of Mastodon are looking at the women with cartoon wolf eyes, jaws to the floor, Motley Crue style. In fact, in multiple frames, they are just looking down at their instruments, chugging along. NBD. The focus is on the women, and their focus is on each other. The dancers look as though they couldn’t care less about the men in the room as they showboat for the rows of ladies: some white, some black, some tattooed, but all very comfortable with their out-of-control curves and rattlesnake shakes.
The female gaze dominates the scene by the time the acrobatics stop and the queen mother of twerking arrives. There’s a shot of her imposing, laser-focused stare before all eyes are on her. At this point, we’ve almost forgotten Mastodon is even there. Once she begins to move, time stands still as the visuals turn psychedelic and she spins out into space, becoming a glittering rainbow avatar while the guitar solo crescendos into a wail. She is “the motherload” and she owns everything.
But I should stop myself there. One major piece missing from this reading of Mastodon’s video thus far is the issue of black women’s bodies being put on display by a band of white dudes who belong to a genre that is notorious for racial insensitivity and inequality, if not straight up bigotry. (See Laina Dawes‘ masterful writing on the topic here). The oppressive sexual archetypes forced upon black women and women of color make it easy to shut down any conversation about the merits of this hypersexual video before we even begin. I mean, since when does any woman want to be reduced to an avatar? However, if we’re looking at how women of color (and women in general) are sexualized in contemporary music videos, it can be useful to discuss and compare the ways in which twerking and hypersexuality appear, if only to rank them by perceived degrees of dangerous. (Like, say, “Pour it Up” v. “Hard Out Here“.)
A sex positive analysis of “The Motherload” would focus on how much the male subject (who normally dominates videos like these) is diminished by the diverse women who fill the room with their playful peacocking. As they take turns to one-up their fellow dancers with each brutal booty clap and come-at-me-bitch glare, they are smiling and laughing when they aren’t striking poses and dropping to the floor. They are having fun with one another. They are dancing in their underwear. And it’s about their enjoyment, whether we like it or not.
Obviously, if you hate seeing women objectified in any way, shape or form, you will hate this video. Yes, we live in a culture that systematically defines us as nothing but butts and boobs, and that takes daily effort to fight against. Sure, maybe it’d be even ‘better’ if the video featured a successful band of women, or if the video featured no sexual elements at all, but just because this video exists doesn’t mean those cannot (goddess willing).
Within the realm of highly sexualized (pop) metal videos, “The Motherload” is unique. Mastodon, intentionally or unintentionally, have taken the typical video vixen formula and turned it cleverly on its head. They have shown just how easily power dynamics can shift when female sexuality is foregrounded (albeit not without a whiff of irony) and the female gaze takes precedence over the gaze of the viewer. Does it look like those twerking beauties care how we view them? I think not, and it’s because of this twist that “The Motherload” is ripe for ripping open. If you look carefully, in the right light, you can just make out its sex positive seams.
[Ed. note: An in-depth exploration of this topic published in Metal Music Studies can be found here]