Who Has Sexual Ownership in Music?
By Lyric Waiwiri-Smith (she/her)
Debate’s music writer, Lyric Waiwiri-Smith (She/Her), critiques how we frame conversations around sexually driven music by women. In a largely masculine and westernised field, Lyric explores whether there is space for empowered women of colour to be afforded respect.
There’s something inescapable about Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s WA P.Released late last year, it made the rounds across streaming services and social media platforms, inspiring dances on TikTok and reactions from the likes of Ben Shapiro (which of course was meme’d, and so the reign of WAP progressed further). It was resurrected again this year when Cardi and Megan performed the song at the Grammys, accompanied by a giant shoe with a stripper pole heel, and a giant bed, upon which Cardi climbed atop whilst performing the song, and laid herself over in a way that had to seem effortless yet seductive. Megan Thee Stallion bounced on Cardi B and flipped her over with all the ease of someone who has DEFINITELY done this before, and the level of artistry showcased by the women provided Grammys entertainment that has surely been missing from the often stale awards show.
The choreography, creative direction, costuming, and set would have no doubt taken weeks to prepare and perfect, however the performance came under an avalanche of backlash simply for being a celebration of confident women of colour showing off their talent and sexual prowess. The USA’s Federal Communication Commission received 80 complaints from viewers, Fox News dedicated a segment in their programme to slam Cardi, Megan, and the ‘left agenda’, and internet trolls took to social media platforms to flex their lamest disses.
“When did the Grammys start giving awards to nasty porn stars?”
“Entertainment provided by two sluts”.
“Dr Seuss is cancelled, but this is acceptable. Welcome to the worst planet e v e r.”
However, there was another song celebrating wet ass pussy at this year’s Grammys that was also performed, and even won an award, but totally flew under the radar of criticism. Harry Styles opened the show with Watermelon Sugar, a song embraced by many as being an oral sex anthem due to its suggestive lyrics (fruit metaphors = pussy, duh). Styles’ performance was still sexy, but in a laid-back and “classy'' way - here’s an unthreatening white man dressed in black, swaggering around the stage with his background singers and musicians cooly swaying behind him, channelling the energy of rockstars before him. Styles and Watermelon Sugar exist in a realm of social acceptability - Styles’ lyrics and his image are ‘cleaner’, and his instrumentals more pop than hip-hop, the latter of which is often thought to be synonymous with ‘trashy’ music, an idea born from racism. Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion are operating in a largely masculine and westernised field as two empowered women of colour rapping about their genitalia (as they should!), and so their artistry will almost never be completely accepted, and if you think this is because WAP is just a trashy song and Megan and Cardi are just trashy artists, and you’re sure this opinion has nothing to do with racism and sexism, then maybe you should think again.
So who owns a woman’s sexual ownership in music, especially the sexual ownership of non-white women? Janet Jackson was a powerhouse throughout the 80s and 90s before the infamous 2004 Super Bowl performance - she pioneered music and sexual liberation the likes of SZA, Lady Gaga and Rihanna are now famous for today - but Justin Timberlake ‘accidentally’ ripping off her costume onstage and exposing her breast in front of millions of viewers effectively buried Jackson’s career and reputation in the dirt. Timberlake went on to enjoy a lucrative and long lasting career in both film and music, coincidentally dabbling in sexuality in both arenas (think the 2012 film Friends With Benefits and the 2006 single SexyBack). Beyoncé was slammed in 2013 when she released her self-titled album, an exploration into her sexuality as an adult woman, wife, and mother. In the same year Kanye West released Yeezus, another exploration into an artist's career and life, while also including sexually explicit songs about fucking hard on the sink and eating pussy.
Because a lot of people see hip-hop/rap as not being as artistic and complex as other genres, and believe women of colour are naturally dangerous and overly sexual?
The way we frame conversations around sexually driven music made by women for women has changed very little over the years despite a significant rise in female artists taking control of their own narratives in their music. Recently a YouTuber vocal coach uploaded a video of her crocodile tears over the WAP Grammys performance, claiming Megan and Cardi possessed no real talent, and that it “grieves her heart” to see ... women having sexual ownership? Because Cardi B was dancing on a stripper pole, and we associate pole dancers with sleaziness? Because it’s hard for us to see and accept something outside of our realm of thinking? Because a lot of people see hip-hop/rap as not being as artistic and complex as other genres, and believe women of colour are naturally dangerous and overly sexual?
At the end of the day, WAP is just another song in an enormous catalogue of female artists expressing agency over their bodies and sexuality. And for as long as women have been celebrating sex in musical format, men have too - the “whores in this house” sample used in WAP was originally released by Frank Ski in 1992, and has previously been sampled by Lil Wayne and Outkast. It’s easy to write off a song literally titled Wet Ass Pussy as being sleazy and gross, and harder to question our thinking around this. Looking past the coded language of Watermelon Sugar and outright sexiness of WA P, why do we consider Harry Styles and his art to be clean cut and acceptable, and don’t afford Cardi and Megan the same thinking? Why is it still taboo to talk about sex? If you’re afraid of children listening to explicit lyrics, you could take a leaf from Cardi B’s book - when the rapper was playing the song on an Instagram livestream and saw her toddler enter the room, she immediately turned the song off. Easy as!
The critical reception around WAP and sexually empowered female artists will likely never end. Women will continue to release music about sex, as will men, and the latter will likely walk away with less critique. So long as we appeal to racist and sexist ideals, we’ll keep shaming women for fucking and talking about fucking, an act as old as time.
Anyway, BRB, me and the girlies are going out this weekend, and I’m really trying to get down to City Girls and Megan Thee Stallion and have a good ass time