Chubby Checker Sues Over Penis-Measuring App, But is "the Twist" Artist Really So Innocent?

Remember Chubby Checker, the singer? Neither do I, but you’ve likely heard his famous 1960 R&B hit "The Twist." Checker also popularized the accompanying dance style, a goofy mid-century equivalent to today’s "Dougie" or the "Harlem Shake" (both the real version and the impostor). Back then, if you weren’t “Twisting,” you weren’t anybody.

Checker has recently re-emerged in the spotlight for reasons unrelated to music. He’s filing a $500 million lawsuit against Hewlett-Packard and Palm, Inc. for manufacturing an app that bears his name. Checker’s alleged beef? The app is (hilariously) used to measure the size of a man’s penis based on shoe size. While it’s understandable he’d be upset by this, one has to wonder if there are other factors at play.

First off, put down your smartphone, "The Chubby Checker" is no longer available for download. It was removed from circulation in September 2012, and was downloaded a shockingly miniscule 84 times. Second, even if it was still available, the service it provides is rooted in scientific evidence that’s ... inconclusive, at best.

So what’s really at issue here? Checker’s lawyers claim the app’s existence "blur[s] and tarnish[es]" his trademark by associating his name with "obscene, sexual connotation and images." Ironically-named attorney Willie Gary has said that Checker is "hurt ... He’s worked hard to build his name and reputation over the years." Checker's lawyers are spinning a narrative that the singer is suffering emotional distress because his image is being tarnished by lewd sexual associations.

But a more complicated story emerges when we examine the history of "the Twist" itself. One of the earlier recorded references to the term was made in Jelly Rolly Morton’s 1939 blues song "Winin’ Boy Blues," in which he croons, "Mama, mama, look at sis, she's out on the levee doing the double twist." At the risk of being too blunt, I’ll leave it up to readers to guess what the "double twist" meant in the ‘30s. Okay, here’s a hint: it’s sexual.

Terms are often re-appropriated and take on new meaning over time, but when Checker’s song was released, there were probably people who still understood what Morton was saying. Even more likely is that "twist" meant the same thing in 1960, only it existed in that realm of street vernacular that eludes mainstream audiences. I’m reminded of people singing along to "Crank That (Soulja Boy)" without knowing what "superman"-ing was (Okay, no hints this time. Look it up).

The point is, "The Twist" is about sex. Pair its definition with the suggestive hip movements and vertical motions of the dance, and you’ve got something that’s implicitly sexual in both name and action. There’s little doubt that Chubby Checker is aware of these connotations, making it ironic that he wants a half-million dollars because someone associated his name with them.

If Checker wins the lawsuit, it’ll be because the Hewlett-Packard legal team failed to make these connections. Whether any of this would hold up in court is not for me to say, but the existence of the "Chubby Checker" app is certainly one of the funnier chapters in tech history. I’m only sorry you learned about it after it was too late.