There’s a new Cardi B song out — perhaps you’ve heard? It’s called “WAP,” which stands for “Wet Ass [Expletive],” which is as close as this newspaper can come to printing the title without bursting into flames. Let’s just say the song and accompanying video celebrate a state of extreme female sexual arousal and leave it at that. Even if Cardi B doesn’t.
Predictably, the video has kicked off a tidal wave of shock from outraged commentators who feel that it’s too sexual, too vulgar, too too TOO. The children are watching! Civilization is crumbling!
For pity’s sakes, where have they been for the past 70 years? Vulgar sexuality is a hallowed aspect of American popular culture and has been even before Elvis Presley dry-humped the microphone stand on “The Milton Berle Show” in 1956 (which in turn prompted “The Ed Sullivan Show” to film the singer from the waist up several months later). You could argue that ecstatic, unashamed lubriciousness — sexual frankness — has been America’s primary contribution to world culture for reasons entwined in this country’s very DNA.
Honestly, as directed by the visionary music-video prankster Colin Tilley, the “WAP” video is hilarious — goofily over-the-top and full of cocksure bravado. Cardi B and her partner-in-sin, rapper Megan Thee Stallion, waltz through a mansion that’s like a Jeff Koons diorama, dressed in hot couture that defies gravity while singing about the pleasures of pleasure and being “wet and gushy.” There are cameo appearances by singers Normani and Spain’s Rosalía, and rappers Mulatto and Rubi Rose, plus a wordless drift-through by Kylie Jenner, the contractually required appearance by a Kardashian extended-family member.
The song itself isn’t much — just a grinding rap riff, bedrock for a surreal visual playground celebrating a woman’s right to get off. The vibe is rap-video bling through an M.C. Escher looking glass, with slithering door-handles and anacondas snaking through bedrooms. Tigers and leopards wander around (another aspect that has resulted in social media pushback). Cardi and Megan wear outfits and adopt poses designed to show off their big, Black, beautiful bodies, a rebuke to the emaciated value system that rules America’s glamour industry. The whole thing’s a hoot.
So here’s what I don’t get — where’s the offense? What makes this different from Prince screaming “you got me drippin’ ” at the end of “Lovesexy,” or playing an ejaculating guitar in “Purple Rain”? How’s this “worse” than Madonna’s “Justify My Love” video, which was so scandalous it was banned by MTV in 1990, or Sheena Easton’s “Sugar Walls,” which made it to the Parents Music Resource Center’s “Filthy Fifteen” in the mid-‘80s? In what way is “WAP” nastier than the misogynistic braggadocio that is so many male rappers’ stock in trade? In fact, how’s this dirtier than Warrant’s “Cherry Pie”?
Is there some difference here? Hmmmm, I wonder what it might be.
Oh, right, that. It’s not just a woman but a Black woman — two Black women — singing about the joys of sex with unapologetic glee, reclaiming their power from all those bad boys of rap. The rococo visual accompaniment matters: The Pointer Sisters just sang about a “Slow Hand,” but “WAP” shows you what it looks like, more and (somewhat) less, when a woman of color takes charge. Which is still taboo in many corners of this country.
In fact, it’s the video’s in-your-face outrageousness that bothers a lot of people and ties it into the split personality that has characterized American popular culture ever since its founding as a slave-owning society hundreds of years ago. The Puritans established the denial of pleasure as a religious and civic doctrine, and that ethos continues to course through our veins. But so does the warring impulse to remake oneself and follow one’s bliss that brought so many to these shores in the ensuing centuries. Out of that stalemate — if it feels good, do it vs. if it feels good, you’re going to Hell — rose the curious and unique nature of our arts and entertainments. The things you repress in your head will come back to bite you on the ass — that’s the history of culture in America.
One of the things white Americans historically repressed was the worth of contributions from the people they had brought over in chains and then purported to free. Black music was the devil’s music. Black music had rhythms that could make a woman’s hips do unspeakable things. The blues and primordial R&B could be absolutely down and dirty, from Bo Carter singing “Banana in Your Fruit Basket” in 1931 to Dorothy Ellis recording “Drill, Daddy, Drill” in 1952. (Special mentions go to the Treniers’s 1953 classic “Poontang” and Big Joe Turner singing “I’m like a one-eyed cat peepin’ in a seafood store” in the original version of “Shake, Rattle, and Roll.”)
No wonder the teenage Elvis fell in love with black gospel and R&B; no wonder his first Sun singles found a mass audience of white American teenagers. The music sounded like freedom because it came from people who knew freedom’s worth — literally, metaphorically, physically, carnally — and saw only an oppressor’s value in tamping it down. Every act of white cultural appropriation, from minstrelsy to big bands to rock ‘n’ roll to the Beastie Boys is a borrowing of that freedom, consciously or not, to escape the lockstep of parental Puritanism.
But I guess we have to learn this lesson every generation. Some of the kids who were getting down to Prince on MTV 30 years ago are the adults who are up in arms over Cardi B on YouTube today. Do our cultural arteries harden as we have our own children and forget the youthful yearning to be free? Against our programmed anal retentiveness, “WAP” posits nothing less than a joyful vaginal explosion. It’s the old Funkadelic directive to “free your mind and your ass will follow,” only this time turned on its head. Either way, what on earth are we scared of?