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A Tale of Two Rap Songs
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A Tale of Two Rap Songs

And what they say about the power of politics over culture.

Before I dive deep into hip-hop (words I never thought I’d type), I’d like to introduce you to a term you may not have heard. The term is “condensed symbol,” and it’s recently been revived by my friend Rod Dreher. He explained its roots in a 2015 post, but it dates back to the 1960s and the sociologist Mary Douglas. Essentially it means that certain ideas, practices, or controversies can become symbolic of an entire world view or cultural trend. 

Because most of us don’t think in terms of data and charts, but rather more through stories and experiences, condensed symbols can have enormous cultural and political power. For example, the celebration surrounding Caitlyn Jenner after Jenner’s transition was a condensed symbol of cultural changes around gender identity. 

To take another example, Rod recently pointed out that the fight over masks may well be another condensed symbol. The conservative resistance to masks was a symbolic expression of resistance to progressive experts. The refusal to mask was an expression of “folk libertarianism.” 

Condensed symbols can be so powerful that a large percentage of our political and cultural fights can be summed up as a battle over symbols. To what extent is any given event symbolic of larger truths and trends or just one of the inevitable quirks of a large, pluralistic democracy? Look hard enough, after all, and you can find basically any kind of behavior in a country this big. 

Now, let’s get back to hip-hop. While a small slice of the American population was spending the last few days fretting over Joe Biden’s vice presidential pick, a much larger number of Americans were listening to, sharing, and talking about a song called “WAP” by Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion. I’m not going to link to the video or the lyrics—they’re extremely explicit—but suffice to say that however explicit you think they are, you’re wrong. They’re worse. The artists are celebrating sex in extremely graphic terms.

As soon as I saw the song trend on Twitter, I thought “here we go again—another battle over rap lyrics.” If you pay any attention to music, you’ll know that somewhere someone is always rapping something offensive. Every now and then those offensive lyrics make news, and then we go through the cycle. Each new song is a condensed symbol of our cultural decline. 

And to an extent, the critics are right. While it’s easy to overestimate the influence of song lyrics (or movies or violent video games) on young minds and hearts, the wildly enthusiastic reception to a song that is built from the ground-up to celebrate sexual excess is hardly evidence of cultural health. 

In fact, Rod wrote about the song Monday in the context of the cultural triumph of the left, asking how many children of Christian conservatives are listening to the song “and enjoying her degenerate work.” The answer to that question, he writes, will “reveal more about the future of that community and its traditions than who wins the presidency his fall.”

Rod is right about the power of culture over politics, but I’m not so sure that Cardi B has nearly as much sway as he fears. To help us understand both of these realities, let’s go back to a condensed symbol from the year 1989. It involves the rap group 2 Live Crew and a song that was, if possible, even less subtle than WAP—a song called “Me So Horny.” (Again, no lyrics link is forthcoming).

I first heard the song my sophomore year at a Christian college. A prankster put giant speakers in the window of someone else’s dorm room, faced them outside, and blasted the song for all to hear at ear-splitting volume. It played on loop until the RAs no-knock raided their way into the empty room to turn it off.

If you’ve spent any time following the twists and turns of the conservative civil wars, you’ll note that there has emerged a cohort of mainly young and mainly Catholic writers and thinkers who have declared that now is the time to exercise political power to more dramatically influence cultural outcomes. 

This was the impulse behind New York Post editorial page editor Sohbrab Ahmari’s essay “Against David French-ism.” It was the impulse behind Harvard Law School professor Adrian Vermeule’s Atlantic essay advocating “common-good constitutionalism.” As Ahmari wrote, one of the objects of political power is to “fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.”

Or, as he said in our debate at Catholic University, “I am willing to ban things.” 

Had I been faster on my feet (or, if I’d even remembered the controversy), I could have immediately reminded him that we’ve tried that before, and we tried it with 2 Live Crew. In fact, 2 Live Crew was a condensed symbol of the way in which political power can perversely make its targets even more culturally potent. 

Public officials looked at 2 Live Crew’s song and didn’t just wring their hands about the decline of public morality. They acted. In some jurisdictions, they banned the song. They arrested the group for performing it live. Political power was brought to bear in the attempt to rescue the culture. 

Twenty-five years ago this week, members of the rap group 2 Live Crew were arrested. Not for DUIs or assault like today’s musicians and celebrities, mind you, but for performing obscene songs at a concert.

More: 

In 1990, attorney and anti-obscenity activist Jack Thompson sent letters to state leaders including then-Gov. Bob Martinez (R) and Janet Reno, who was a Dade County state attorney and future U.S. attorney general under Bill Clinton, about Miami-based hip-hop group 2 Live Crew’s album, “As Nasty As They Wanna Be.” The album definitely deserved a “Parental Advisory” label, with songs about sex like “Me So Horny” and “The F— Shop” — songs that left no doubt about what they were about, without any double entendre or euphemisms. In letters, Thompson called for an investigation into whether the album also violated obscenity statutes.

Following a Lee County judge ruling there was “probable cause to believe” the album was obscene, he sent letters to every governor and lyrics from the album to sheriff’s departments across the state. Judges in other Florida counties as well as some counties in Alabama, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin issued similar rulings, according to a 1990 Los Angeles Times story.

The Obscenity Wars were back, but instead of the record industry policing itself and letting consumers decide what to purchase and listen to, the government was calling the shots. Motley Crue’s Tommy Lee was arrested in Georgia for mooning the audience, and a member of Skid Row was arrested in Utah for a particularly vulgar (apparently) pelvic thrust. In June, a Fort Lauderdale record store owner was arrested for selling 2 Live Crew’s album, and members of the group were arrested in Miami for performing songs from it.

So what ultimately happened? It’s a short story, really, because in the battle of political power versus cultural power, cultural power won in a rout. Efforts to ban music and arrest musicians hardly deterred rogue performers. Instead, it made them free speech martyrs and spurred record sales. It turned them into celebrities, and it turned their music into the anthem of rebellious kids across the land—kids like the prankster who blasted obscene lyrics all over a Christian campus. 

The law fought rap, and rap won. 

But here’s where the story gets more complex. What did it truly mean for rap to win? What was the effect on the American culture? Can we draw straight lines from artistic vulgarity to cultural decline? Well, one effect is that we got more rap music (and massive amounts of obscene lyrics across all genres of music). But was this musical evolution a harbinger of cultural oblivion? 

Lots of folks will immediately say yes, but this is where I part company with many of my declinist social conservative friends. They look at American life and see nothing but social conservative retreat. After all, not even 2 Live Crew could have imagined Caitlyn Jenner.

Yet would you believe me if I told you that a number of key indicators of social health and public morality have improved—some of them dramatically—since the days when social conservatives had the political power to arrest rappers? The violent crime rate is roughly half what it was. The divorce rate has declined by more than 25 percent. The abortion rate has declined by almost half. America is more peaceful, families are more stable, and more babies are carried to term than in times that many conservatives look back at with real nostalgia. 

The point of course isn’t that obscene rap elevates America (but rap often gets a bad, umm, rap)—or that parents should adopt an “anything goes” view of pop culture consumption—but rather that culture is both extremely powerful and extremely complicated. It’s multifaceted. Cardi B is not without competition. In fact, not long ago the “most-sung artist on the planet” was a Christian worship singer named Chris Tomlin. On any given Sunday morning, between 60,000 and 120,000 American churches were singing his songs.

I find it alarming that an increasing number of conservatives perceive a political solution to cultural setbacks. Conservatives can’t work at HBO, the reasoning goes, but they can win elections. Thus, they must use the power they have. But every conservative has immense cultural power in his or her own home, and it is not a cop-out or a sign of “surrender” to argue that while political power can’t beat cultural power, parents can trump pop music. 

There are many condensed symbols in this great land, and we tend to focus on the symbols of our decline. It contributes to the intense feeling of anxiety across the entire political spectrum. Social media serves up those symbols every hour of every day. But we are far less helpless than we sometimes feel, and we are far less vulnerable than we fear. 

One last thing … 

On Monday my podcast co-host Sarah Isgur and I welcomed The Atlantic’s space reporter, Marina Koren to Advisory Opinions for a fantastic conversation about crewed spacecraft and a potential journey to Mars. Can it happen? I think so. I hope so. Here’s the vision for SpaceX’s Starship. Fascinating stuff: 

Photograph of Cardi B by Prince Williams/Wireimage/Getty Images.

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.