History has been made. Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s latest release, “WAP,” has crushed the previous record for the most streams by a song in its first week after launch. For the week ending August 13, WAP garnered 93 million streams in the USA alone. In addition to claiming the #1 spot on Billboard’s Top 100—where it remains at this writing—WAP has also reached the number 1 spot in 15 foreign markets, including the UK, Finland, and Kenya. According to the Wall Street Journal, the new record is “a historic sign that women artists are making their mark.”
Record-breaking #1 hit songs can be a clue to the direction of contemporary culture. What is WAP telling us?
The song is a hip-hop hymn to sex, and its lyrics overflow with profanity. Its worship is dedicated not to love but to physical mechanism: vaginal lubrication (the reference of the song’s title), Kegel exercises, and orgasm. In the unlikely event that you don’t understand what the lyrics are about, the video is explicit, with sculptures of bare buttocks, and breasts spurting liquid, while half-nude women gyrate suggestively.
The reaction from female critics has been generally positive, often swooning. According to Rhea Cartwright of PopSugar.com, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion are “spearheading a new wave of female empowerment.” Brittney McNamara of Teen Vogue wrote that “women everywhere rejoiced in the glory — and overt sexuality — of the song.” Sharine Taylor, a writer for Bitch Media and editor of BASHY Magazine, praised the song on the grounds that it “it promotes women articulating sexual agency, prowess, desires, demands and autonomy.” Taylor’s comment has earned more than 112,000 ♥’s on Twitter. The New York Times called the song “a paean to female sexual desire.” A reviewer for the Times wrote that she was “thrilled” by the song’s “homage to female sexuality and vaginal, shall we say, lubrication.”
From one perspective, there is nothing particularly new in WAP’s lyrics or music video. Seven years ago, Lady Gaga crooned “You can’t have my heart . . .but do what you want with my body.” Gaga’s accompanying album art showed a woman, prone, her face not seen, her buttocks bare. Two years ago, Bruno Mars earned the Grammy for Song of the Year for “That’s What I Like,” in which he offers a woman money for sex, telling her that she can “take my wallet” if she will just “turn around and drop it” because “that’s what I like.” Yes, the same Grammy that was awarded in years past to Simon and Garfunkel for “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” Eric Clapton for “Tears in Heaven,” and Adele for “Rolling in the Deep” was awarded to Bruno Mars & Co for a song celebrating sexual harassment. Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion are just taking the next step on the coarse road laid out for them by Bruno Mars, Nicki Minaj, Lady Gaga, Akon, 50 Cent, Eminem, and countless others.
Well, what’s wrong with that? Every older generation complains about the music of the younger generation. When I was a child back in the 1960s and 1970s, I remember the grown-ups grumbling about the “noise” of rock and roll, about the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Parents back then asked, Why can’t kids today listen to Frank Sinatra and Doris Day, like we did when we were their age?
Going a few generations further back, when Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps was first performed, at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in May 1913—when Stravinsky himself was just thirty years old—there was a riot in the theater. The mostly older, mostly affluent Parisians who were in attendance were offended by the dissonant music and by Nijinsky’s choreography, which was denounced as obscene and barbaric.
I judge Cardi B’s WAP lyrics and video to be obscene and barbaric. Am I just an old man who can’t understand the art of a younger generation?
The Cultivation of Taste
How are we to decide what is art and what is trash? I have discussed this question with middle school and high school students on my visits to more than 460 schools over the past nineteen years. Most students reject my suggestion that I, or anybody, can distinguish between art and trash. They insist that there is no objective standard of value by which to judge, no fundamental criterion that allows anyone to say that one work of art is any better than another. “So you can’t say that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a greater work of art than, say, Superbad?” I asked one group of high school students.
“Right!” one boy told me (in front of about forty of his peers). “Personally, I think Hamlet sucks. What a bore! And Superbad was a great movie. One of the all-time best ever. But if you like Hamlet, that’s fine. What you like is none of my business. Whatever floats your boat.”
Children are not born knowing what makes Shakespeare or Beethoven great. They must be taught. If we do not teach them, they look to their peers and to the popular culture. And what might they now find there? Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion. Profanity as lyric. Vulgarity as normative.
In Proverbs 4:23 we read “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” How you choose to entertain yourself influences the kind of person you are becoming. The teen who chooses to entertain herself listening to Cardi B and Bruno Mars will, over time, become a different person from the teen who chooses to entertain herself listening to Brahms or Mahler, or for that matter to Lena Horne or Sam Cooke or Bruce Springsteen or Adele. It’s a matter of taste, yes. But your taste can be educated or ignorant, crude or sublime. Again, no child is born with sublime taste. Quite the contrary. They must be taught.
And most parents are not teaching them. UCLA researchers monitoring actual families found that when a parent and child return home, it’s now typical that at the end of that first hour back home, parent and child are each in a different room of the house, looking at different screens. If the child has earbuds or headphones, the parent may not even know what music the child is listening to.
Choices have consequences. Teens who listen to music with sexually degrading lyrics are more likely subsequently to engage in risky sexual behavior, a finding that was replicated by a second group of investigators following a different cohort of teens. Conversely, teens who listen to uplifting music over time experience positive outcomes, such as a decrease in the risk of becoming depressed.
Ten years ago, I wrote a book called Girls on the Edge, in which I described how the then-still-somewhat-novel phenomenon of social media was adversely affecting girls, more so than boys. Last year, the publisher asked me to update the book, a project that I completed earlier this year. Much has changed over the past ten years. (I thought of changing the title from Girls on the Edge to Girls Over the Brink, but I decided against it.) Instagram did not exist when I was writing the first edition. Neither did Snapchat. Both are now huge influences in the lives of adolescent American girls. Sharing nude selfies is now part of the lived experience of many American teen girls.
Sara Thomas, a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, wondered why so many adolescent girls now feel obligated to share nude and semi-nude selfies. So she asked girls: why do you share these photos? The most common answer: because boys ask for them. Then she asked: why do you do what the boys ask you to do? The girls gave two answers: 1) because all the other girls are doing it; 2) because they don’t know how, or why, to say no.
In the updated 2020 edition of Girls on the Edge, I document that many American girls now find themselves immersed in a toxic culture which teaches them that cool girls share nude selfies. I share the research showing how such self-objectification increases the risk of anxiety and depression among teen girls. I encourage parents to teach their daughters the connection between good taste and self-respect; to empower their daughters to say No. To Walk Out rather than to Lean In.
Back in 2014, at the New York Times, Jennifer Finney Boylan argued that parents should set their children free to discover “the uncensored scientific and artistic truth of the world. If that means making our own sons and daughters strangers to us, then so be it.” That may seem enlightened to some. But it is not enlightened. It is a dereliction of duty. If you set your teen free to discover the uncensored truth of the world, with no guidance from any wise adult, what your teen is likely to discover today is profanity and pornography offered as poetry and art.
Here at Public Discourse, Jean Lloyd recently asked, why are a growing number of American girls fleeing womanhood? Lloyd was reviewing Abigail Shrier’s new book Irreversible Damage: the transgender craze seducing our daughters, in which Shrier documented that the proportion of American teen girls who say that they are actually boys has risen exponentially over the past decade. One part of the answer to Lloyd’s question, I suggest, is that American girls, viewing the gyrations of Cardi B and Kylie Jenner and Nicki Minaj and their minions in various #1 hit videos, say to themselves: if that’s what it means to be female, I want no part of it. If that’s what girls are supposed to do, then I am not a girl.
A Warning to Parents
The record-smashing success of WAP is a warning to parents. You need to know what your kid is listening to. You need to have the courage to limit your kid’s exposure to the most noxious elements of American culture. You need to find a healthier, brighter, truer culture to share with your daughter or your son. As Colin Smothers recently argued at Public Discourse, parental authority is the foundation of a healthy society. If you are a parent, you must exercise that authority to protect your child from an increasingly toxic popular culture.
What does that mean, in concrete terms? Here are some suggestions.
- You need to know what your kid is listening to. When you are driving in the car with your child or teen, you should be listening to her, and she should be listening to you, not to Cardi B or Billie Eilish. No earbuds or headphones in the car.
- No TV in the bedroom. That’s the official guideline of the American Academy of Pediatrics, and that guideline makes sense. You need to know what your kid is watching.
- You also need to know what your kid is watching online. Explain to your son or daughter that it’s your job as a parent to set limits and to teach good taste. Install parental monitoring software that will limit exposure to videos such as WAP.
- Remind your daughter and your son that self-respect means, among other things, no sharing of nude selfies. Good parental monitoring software will alert you to any inappropriate sharing of photos.
- Good parenting has to be about more than saying No. You must also offer a positive alternative to the bad stuff. I am proud that my teenage daughter can recite the lyrics to the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, in the original German, that she can sing most of the songs from Singin’ in the Rain and The Music Man, and that she can sing Springsteen’s Born to Run, by heart, start to finish. That sharing can be a two-way street. My daughter has introduced me to the music of Lauren Daigle, Zach Williams, and Hillsong, none of which I would have encountered if not for her.
The popularity of WAP is a wake-up call to American parents that American culture today is not the same culture that you, the parent, grew up in. If you were to move to Mexico City or to Cairo, you would be sure to learn about the local culture and neighborhoods. You would find out what areas of the city are high-crime, and you would make sure that your kid didn’t wander alone in those areas after dark. You now need to execute the same due diligence with regard to the Internet, YouTube, and social media.
If you don’t, who will?