By BEN R. WILLIAMS
Last week, the 63rd Annual Grammy Awards featured a performance of the song “WAP” by rappers Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion.
Nobody noticed this, of course, because no one watches the Grammy Awards. But then a bunch of articles came out talking about how racy the performance that no one watched was, and boy oh boy, were people ever upset.
I saw all kinds of comments on social media blaming this song for corrupting young minds, for sullying the art form of music itself, for being the musical avatar of the moral decay of Western civilization.
The first thing that struck me was that so many people were apparently just now hearing about WAP. The song came out last August, and if anything, we’re currently at the back end of its slide into irrelevancy, the fate destined for all songs that are absolutely everywhere for a period of a couple of months (looking at you “Achy Breaky Heart,” the bane of my existence in 1992). It’s a rare day that I listen to music recorded after 1985, but even I heard WAP when it first came out.
So what is WAP? Well, it’s a song with coarse sexual language, so much so that I can’t even tell you what the title means since this is a family newspaper. It’s a song that I wouldn’t listen to with my parents. In truth, it’s a song I don’t particularly care for, not because of the lyrics, but because it’s just not my thing on a musical level. I like songs where someone sings about an evil wizard and then a three minute guitar solo happens. This is in no way a judgment on the genre, just a comment on personal taste.
However, it’s also a song that managed to reach the top of virtually every music ranking chart around the globe. It’s a song that has been called a celebration of female agency, a song that many women find empowering as a direct response to misogyny in pop music. And while I, a man who looks more and more like late-career Waylon Jennings with each passing day, am wildly unqualified to address any of those claims, I still wish to defend WAP.
Mainly because I’m tired of this debate.
My favorite musician of all time is Frank Zappa, and as a result, I am intimately familiar with the Parents Music Resource Center, the committee formed in 1985 by Tipper Gore, Susan Baker, Pam Howar, and Sally Nevius, the spouses of four prominent Washingtonians who all apparently decided that Americans were having too much fun and something had to be done. Their goal — which was successful — was to introduce “Parental Advisory” stickers on albums, and also to shame a number of musicians for writing dirty songs.
Zappa, Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider, John Denver (yes, really) and others provided an opposing voice at PMRC hearings held in the Senate. Essentially, they argued that the stickers would accomplish little except serve as a form of backdoor censorship because many retailers would likely choose not to carry albums that bore the “Parental Advisory” warning. Which is exactly what ended up happening, at least up until the internet blew the music industry apart and rendered physical media little more than collectibles for diehard fans.
PMRC member and Florida Senator Paula Hawkins made the comment during the hearings that “much (had) changed since Elvis’ seemingly innocent times,” which is amusing considering that middle America lost its collective mind over Elvis when he debuted because he shook his hips in a suggestive manner. And over time, the bands and musicians that the PMRC directed their ire at back in 1985 — Prince, Sheena Easton, Judas Priest, AC/DC, and Cyndi Lauper, just to name a few — have been rendered either completely irrelevant or become beloved cultural touchstones whose music you probably heard playing over the PA system the last time you bought slacks at JC Penney.
This debate has probably been going on since the first caveman beat a rock against a stump in rhythm. There is always a musician pushing the envelope, and there is always a group that insists that this moment is unique, the final evidence of our nation’s moral degradation. Whether it’s Elvis’ hips, or the Beatles’ shaggy hair, or heavy metal, or rap music, or Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl performance, or Shakira and J. Lo’s Super Bowl performance, or next year’s Super Bowl performance (TBD), there is always a generational musical outrage that everyone is convinced will deform the minds of our children. And then, just a few years later, the thing that everyone was so upset about begins to look sort of quaint, and our young people have once again failed to turn into murderous, music-crazed cannibals.
Of course, I could be wrong, and it’s possible that WAP will not be remembered as an ephemeral pop culture touchstone that emerged in the midst of a very strange summer, but will instead be the herald of the End of Times.
Anyway, the handful of people who did watch the Grammys hopefully noticed the parental advisories that aired prior to Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s performance. With any luck, they were able to flip the channel and instead let their children watch an episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, in which former controversial rapper turned beloved TV star Ice-T routinely explains unspeakable real-life sex crimes to a prime-time network television audience, which is completely different.