Needing a man in 2016 is a little passé. Our greatest female pop stars, even in their coupledom, seem to stand alone in their power. Beyoncé redefined her marriage through Lemonade, Taylor Swift seems to value her gal squad more than her boyfriend, and Rihanna doesn’t want a boyfriend, nor does she seem to have time for one. Last year, Hailee Steinfeld, Ellie Goulding, and Fifth Harmony all sang explicitly about thriving as independent women. We’re living in a post-“Feeling Myself” world, in which selfies can be revolutionary in some circles, female friendships trump romantic ones, and self-love anthems are pop’s crispest currency.
And now Meghan Trainor, who once wrote a song called “Dear Future Husband,” is preaching the gospel of knowing you’re hot shit without anyone’s help, like a Charlotte who woke up one day and decided to be a Samantha. At every turn on her sophomore record, Thank You, we find Trainor kissing her reflection in the mirror, flipping off her legion of haters, and telling persistent bachelors to back the hell off in bachelorette-party-approved retro-pop. “I walk in like a dime piece, I go straight to VIP / I never pay for my drinks, my entourage behind me,” Meghan Trainor sings over a throbbing bass beat on the club-ready “Me Too.” On the militaristic, marching band-esque “Woman Up,” she plays both self-help guru and commander, telling women to raise their hands if they don’t need a man. “I’m the shh, be quiet / I been on a no hater diet,” Trainor sings with a rasp on “Watch Me Do,” which plays like a soul song by way of Bruno Mars.
The confidence Trainor effuses on this album is distinctly different than what she delivered on her creatively named 2015 debut, Title. There, Trainor was a little self-deprecating, singing about drunk dialing, walk of shame–ing, and her insecurities on tracks like “Close Your Eyes.” She sold herself as an outsider, and even got a little flack for “skinny shaming” with “All About That Bass.” But if Title put Trainor on the edge of traditional pop stardom, like a sitcom sidekick, Thank You makes her over as a glamorous star with universal messages. At first glance, this is a feat for Meghan Trainor. She’s done exactly what she was supposed to do, which is to craft a second album that proves to audiences she’s more than just an apron-wearing doo-wop revivalist who pens cheeky songs about her figure. Within the vacuum of Meghan Trainor’s career, Thank You might be growth. But considered as part of the wider pop scene? Not so much.
Thank You consistently echoes older music that delivered the exact same messages in far more interesting tones. When she’s working ‘00s nostalgia on songs like “No” and “Watch Me Do,” she’s building on a history of Remy Ma’s “Conceited,” TLC’s “No Scrubs,” and Keri Hilson’s “Pretty Girl Rock.” In doing so, Trainor captures our nostalgia for a few minutes — until we end up reaching for the real thing. Elsewhere, songs on Thank You seem to wrap themselves tightly around “I don’t need a man!” clichés and/or familiar, revamped vintage sounds — Pharrell’s “Happy” is this record’s guiding light — but fail to elevate them. “They’re gonna try to clip my wings, but I’m gonna fly,” Trainor declares on the vaguely gospel track “I Love Me.” “I know we about to have a good time, ‘cause I got all my friends with me / I know everything’s going to be fine, because I’ve got all my friends with me,” Trainor offers on the choral sing-along “Friends,” which is a song that doesn’t really need to exist at all unless the singer is vying for that coveted school graduation slideshow feature.
Pop music always has a playbook, but Trainor doesn’t add any pages here. Thank You enters a league of pop and R&B that is brimming with exciting self-empowerment for women that makes Trainor’s on-the-nose “you want to be me” positioning feel dull. Trainor is no longer the Top 40 outlier making Grease-worthy tunes — but she’s still indulging in lazy pop mimicry, just for a different era. In the process, she makes a hit like “All About That Bass” actually seem interesting: Love it or hate it, at least that song was specific and a little more creative in its message, turning Trainor’s “ain’t no size two” insecurities into a self-aware hit about loving your curves. Even when these songs are catchy at first spin, though, they never feel built to last. Thank You is a collection of trend-grabbing dresses whose seams will disintegrate by next year.