Song for a Future Generation
On the night of February 23, 1983, I was sitting on the couch watching the 25th annual Grammy Awards with my 74-year-old grandmother when Marvin Gaye slinked onstage in a black tux.
“Oh my,” my grandmother said as the music started to play. “He’s a good-looking man.”
Then Marvin launched into his chart-topping “Sexual Healing.” Familiar with the song from hearing it on the radio, I felt my 14-year-old self cringe internally as Gaye declared he was hot like an oven and couldn’t hold it in much longer. As he approached the chorus, I glanced at my grandmother and saw the expression on her face turn dark. And when the man she had so recently complimented informed her that he needed the titular remedy, Estelle Rose Mahoney Barnard turned positively crimson.
“I can’t believe they allow this kind of thing on television,” she said primly. “It’s indecent.”
Fast forward to 2021. I haven’t watched the Grammy Awards in years. But the day after this year’s televised ceremony, my social media was lit up by people complaining about another supposedly indecent performance. This time it was Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s rendition of their megahit “WAP” that had folks in a tizzy. If you don’t know what “WAP” stands for, well, you can do a quick search and find out. I’ll wait.
All caught up? Okay, so listen. I get that the lyrics to “WAP” are maybe a little bit…descriptive. And no, it’s definitely not “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me).” But on the Grammy performance, pretty much every potentially blush-inducing word was either changed to something innocuous (there were a lot of “cookies” being eaten) or left out altogether. The lyrics that were sung were largely meaningless, and unless you knew the song ahead of time, not much of what aired was all that scandalous.
And yet, people were outraged that two women were daring to be sexual on stage and singing frankly about how their vaginas drive men crazy. I remember when Madonna writhing around fully clothed in a wedding dressing singing about wanting to feel like a virgin again was going to bring about the end of the world. Had my grandmother seen Cardi B and Megan popping their Ps on a giant bed, she probably would have had a heart attack.
Not long after this, Lil Nas X, an out queer rapper who had one of the biggest crossover hits of recent years with “Old Town Road,” debuted the video for his song “Montero (Call Me by Your Name),” in which among other things he gives a lap dance to Satan. The song’s lyrics, while not quite as in-your-face as those of “WAP,” are nonetheless filled with frank declarations of queer desire and sexuality.
Again, people were outraged. Now, outrage at sexuality in music lyrics is nothing new. In 1985, Tipper Gore founded the Parents Music Resource Center because she was so upset about Prince talking about masturbation in “Darling Nikki,” and Cyndi Lauper extolling the joys of self-love in “She Bop.” Most of us thought Gore was a joke, and she was, but she was absolutely convinced that hearing people sing about getting off was going to turn the youth of America into sex-crazed perverts.
The outrage over “WAP” and “Montero (Call Me by Your Name)” is more insidious. It feels like attacks not just on sexuality, but specifically on the sexuality of women (especially women of color) and queer people. Men—particularly straight white men— have sung about their penises since, well, probably forever. When Black men started to do it, especially Black rappers, people got a little edgy. They were still straight men, though, so they got over it. But when Black women do it, or queer men? Then it’s apparently a problem.
Songs like “WAP” and “Montero (Call Me by My Name)” aren’t just about shocking. They’re about putting female and queer sexuality in the spotlight. They’re about not remaining quiet. That they upset some people isn’t just about prudishness. It’s about fear of people who have historically been controlled taking that control back. That the artists who recorded the songs also wrote them is important.
As a queer teenager, I watched performers like Bowie and Annie Lennox and Boy George on MTV and felt a glimmer of hope for my own life. While their antics and lyrics seem positively quaint compared to those of Cardi B and Lil Nas X, I think these songs do the same thing in a more direct way. They demand our attention. They say, “This is who we are, we’re not ashamed, and we’re not going away.” Good for them.