I haven’t listened to “WAP,” the obscene song with the unprintable full title that’s topping the summer charts, and I don’t plan to. I take warnings about bad art seriously.
So when Alyssa Rosenberg of the Washington Post came to the song’s defense, I was curious. I’ve read and appreciated Rosenberg’s cultural analysis for years, and I can sympathize with part of her case for “WAP.” She calls the music video by Cardi B. and Megan Thee Stallion “among the filthiest things I’ve ever seen in mainstream American popular culture,” but she’s excited because she views it as a crowbar applied to the calcified pop culture edifice. In work that deliberately alienates part of the potential audience, Rosenberg sees hope for more “long tail” creative works—art that doesn’t strive to be as bland as possible in order to be marketed to everyone, including kids.
Rosenberg is right that popular culture should include more work that’s not aimed at a broad audience. I’m a fan of films like Muppet Christmas Carol, which parents and children can enjoy together. But I also look forward to watching some films for adults only (like Hell or High Water) once my daughter is safely asleep.
Rosenberg is right that popular culture is increasingly homogenized, with studio executives terrified of failing by being novel. It’s one thing if your movie bombs when it was another franchise attempt. Everyone agrees you were following the right playbook and got unlucky. But back a project that diverges from the cultural lockstep, and if it fails, everyone will blame you for the foolish risk you took.
We would both like to see a wider range of stories told, but the compromise Rosenberg puts forward is hard to swallow. “The mistake conservatives who attack raunchy or violent pop culture always make is to argue that culture should be smaller rather than more expansive,” she writes. She imagines a broader cultural landscape with more songs like “WAP” but also more romances about people who wait for marriage and families that, unlike the Crawleys of Downton Abbey, show their prayer lives on the screen.
One objection to Rosenberg’s argument is that no one is actually offering this deal. “WAP” has hit the top of the charts. Netflix is debuting a French film that frames an eleven-year-old joining a scantily-clad, twerking dance crew as “build[ing] self-confidence through dance,” and has already had to apologize for its soft-core promotional images of children. These works feed on controversy for free publicity. The gatekeepers who green-light them aren’t interested in purchasing conservative silence with a broader slate of pictures.
But the most important objection isn’t that Hollywood is unwilling to trade tat for tits. We should object to prurient songs and stories not because they made our cultural landscape too narrow, but because they are fundamentally untruthful—and thus bad art.
It’s the same reason we should object to airbrushed skin and photoshopped waists. It’s the same reason we should object to sending barely pubescent girls or anorexic teens down the catwalks to model clothes ostensibly being sold to adult women. False images distort our vision, and they feed misogyny. Fashion designers openly admit that their collections presume that “the ideal body shape [is] a female on the brink of hospitalization from starvation.” Why should we give them the benefit of the doubt that their destructive vision is merely thoughtlessness rather than an active war on women?
Exploitative and untruthful storylines and songs—like “WAP”—are just as destructive. Young men and women are increasingly likely to learn about sex from pornography, long before they’re doing so much as kissing a crush. Pornography distorts by nature—everything is staged not for the enjoyment of the participants but for the absent viewer.
When partners try to recapitulate what they’ve learned, they are, at best, indulging in a fake hedonism, the performance of pleasure for a non-existent third party. At worst, men imitate the violence they’ve seen, slapping and choking their partners. Sadism isn’t necessary—as the college boys interviewed by This American Life explained, they’re driven more by anxiety about being good at sex. They’ve learned from a pernicious model of proficiency.
The damage done by non-X-rated art is less obvious, but still serious. Consider Game of Thrones’ “sexposition.” The directors set exposition-heavy scenes in a brothel, in order to use women’s naked bodies as set dressing. Other examples are more subtle—like montages of musical beds in raunch comedy with no indication that sex could lead to pregnancy. (Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up is a notable exception.)
These works are marked by a sense of unreality—they take important things lightly. They treat human relationships and loves in an uncanny way. They remind me of the unsettling CGI Yoda that appeared in the Star Wars prequel trilogy. Frank Oz’s Yoda puppet was a weathered, physical presence in the original trilogy, mentoring and irritating Luke in turns. He is there in a way Luke can’t escape. In the prequels, Yoda enters battle as a weightless illusion, barely skimming the ground as he spins and leaps. He doesn’t come across as heroic—he’s too insubstantial to us to imagine him being at physical risk.
The Mandalorian was a course correction. The baby Yoda of the series is a puppet. The child does not speak—its whole character is presence. Show creators Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni pushed back against studio suggestions to make the creature less detailed and strange, preserving sharp teeth and stray hairs. They succeeded in making a character come alive by showing it in unairbrushed detail—so much so that Werner Herzog reportedly began giving direction directly to the puppet, rather than its operators.
Effective art shifts how we see the world. We might look at a puppet and see a vulnerable child who needs our direction. Or we might look at a woman and see a collection of parts, to be manipulated and used. Training our eyes requires more than content-neutral abundance—it means raising up art that tells the truth and avoiding works that warp our vision.
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