Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP” is explicit enough to make cars careen off roads, to make fire hydrants pop open. The song hinges on the most graphic oral-sex reference to appear in mainstream culture since Tiffany Haddish fellated a banana: “I wanna gag, I wanna choke, I want you to touch that lil dangly thing that swing in the back of my throat,” Cardi hollers, the beat dropping out entirely just in case something was distracting you. In just a few weeks, “WAP” has become the song of this bizarre summer—a ripe, split-open sex jam dropped into a world where the bars and strip clubs are empty, where nobody is meant to touch each other without undergoing a 14-day quarantine, a ritual out of some Midsommar-style horror flick.
When bodies become the source of contagion, physical lust assumes new intensity. To have this song arrive into this world is to contemplate the ways in which our erotic imaginations have reacted to being ferreted away or asked to retreat. The song has inspired a floor-humping TikTok dance, and the comments surrounding it on social media offer an outpouring of suppressed lust that feels pitched close to anguish. There’s a reason the metaphor is not “hunger” but “thirst”—thirst kills you quicker.
As we’ve gotten deeper into quarantine, we’ve learned things about ourselves and our relationship to sex that we didn’t used to admit to strangers. Quarantine culture has changed or exponentially accelerated nearly everything about our relationship to sex online—the 2017-vintage term “horny on main” (describing the practice of posting thirst trap photos or lustful thoughts from your “main” social account, not an alternate specifically designed for horniness) has lost its meaning, as the distinction has been all but erased. There is no “horny on main” anymore because everyone is horny, everywhere, on every account.
Of course, pop music has always been a realm of boundless horniness. Sex is the river that feeds nearly every pop song—the lack of it, the need for it, the pressure it creates. Listening to party music, with its calls to the body and to the dancefloor, already felt strange and sad in the spring, when we were newly cloistered. Now that we are months deep into quarantine, our refigured relationship to sex is starting to exert its warping effects on our pop music.
Six months into a world of social distancing, certain sex songs sound tame: Harry Styles released an exuberant video for “Watermelon Sugar” on May 18, in which he and a bunch of beautiful people munched insolently on juicy watermelon slices and rolled around on the beach, running their hands over each other. “This video is dedicated to touching,” read the clip’s introductory title card. Back in May, when the memory of unbridled touch was fresher, the song and video felt like a palliative, a reminder of the sort of life that was almost certainly just around the corner again. Four long months later, in the culture-acceleration tunnel of the pandemic, it looks and feels like an artifact of the Before Times. Worse, Styles sounds sated; his voice is sleepy, self-satisfied, eternally just post- or pre-coital. He sounds like he has never endured the sting of physical longing for longer than an hour and a half.
The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” is another recent hit that feels addressed to another sexual universe: In the song and the video, Abel Tesfaye sounds exultant, sure that sex is minutes away. The triumphant anthem is the preamble to what seems like an imminent encounter. “I can’t sleep until I feel your touch,” he sings—but we don’t live on those kinds of timetables anymore.
By and large, sex songs by men are fumbling, awkward, embarrassing, or unsavory—and this heightened time of horniness generally does not change that. On the remix to “WHATS POPPIN,” Kentucky upstart Jack Harlow treats us to the nose-wrinkling “I left it in, now I got a 1-year-old,” while the disgraced rapper Tory Lanez, who allegedly shot Megan Thee Stallion last month, brags about not offering oral sex to women and offers the even creepier “I’m out here with somebody daughter/She callin’ me daddy, I’m somebody father.” This sort of sniggering embarrassment and proprietary grossness sounds even sadder than normal at this moment, a squandering of a gift that most people didn’t imagine could be taken away.
For millions of people right now, sex is a rumor, a phantom limb pain, something on a long list of things we used to do, and interacting with pop culture that explodes with sexual energy feels a bit like reading about the rituals of a bygone civilization. True COVID-era sex songs feel both more vivid and more remote than the usual fare. Kehlani released several videos from May’s It Was Good Until It Wasn’t in what she called “Quarantine Style.” In some of them, she is the performer, writhing in soft, grainy laptop-camera light. In these videos, her need for sex seems to be almost a spiritual affliction, something to pray for deliverance from.
In the clip for “Can I,” billed as a tribute to sex workers, she is the viewer alongside us; the video features a number of women performing for Kehlani on her computer. She doesn’t dance or perform her sexuality at all, she just sits back, reacts, appreciates. The sexual charge of the video comes, in part, from its implied loneliness: When even mundane social interactions must be planned out like military exercises, the answer to the impromptu question in the chorus (“Can I stop by to see you tonight?”) is probably “no.”
Camgirl aesthetics are ubiquitous now. OnlyFans, a service where people pay to gain access to racy content from their favorite models, influencers, and porn stars, reported a 75 percent increase in signups during quarantine. (The platform is so mainstream now that Beyoncé rapped about it.) Indie singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers’ recent pictorial for Playboy paid tribute to camgirling. And in his own recent video for “Sum Bout U,” a collaboration with FKA twigs, the squeaky-voiced rapper 645AR sits down at a table full of computers, alone in a dark room, as twigs dances and coos on his screen. Like the Kehlani videos, “Sum Bout U” is both profoundly intimate and lonely; the Private Chat window is as close as these two can get to one another.
COVID sex songs are about ravenous longing, about needing and not receiving. Haim’s “3am” is a COVID sex song. The timestamp is a clue, as is the lyric “It’s fun to think we could” and the rhyming of “the screen” and “my jeans.” “Pushed off the sheets from my bed,” they sing, indicating the kind of restlessness that descends on a body when it feels its solitude most acutely.
The now-infamous video for “WAP” echoes this remove. As the song ends, Cardi and Meg peek into various rooms of a Crayola pastel mansion where guest stars, including Normani, Rosalía, and rapper (and OnlyFans star) Rubi Rose—twerk, drop, and gyrate. None of them move toward the camera, which maintains its distance, and each shot only lasts a few seconds. The aesthetic is one part cam-girl, one part old-fashioned peep show. Everyone is looking, no one is touching.
Maybe this is why “WAP” is so joyfully explicit—Meg and Cardi are helping us bridge the gap between our erotic imaginations and the world as it is right now. There is none of the clean-minded pornography of typical mainstream pop in these verses. Sex will always involve power, and there’s no mistaking who’s in charge here, but the sex in “WAP” is sex-first—glorious, filthy, and full of graphic detail. The song belongs to a generations-deep canon of explicit female performers who pushed societal boundaries and endured censure, from early blues to disco to funk to Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown and Trina. But even after decades of sex-rap songs, I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard a mingling of intimacy and bodily fluids as profane and familiar and intimate as Cardi’s command to “Spit in my mouth, look in my eyes.” The contrast between the two acts offers a bridge for people who’ve never thought about both of them existing along a spectrum of respect and consent. And while there have been a million lines about body ownership in rap, Meg still finds her angle, promising to spell her name while riding a dick.
As in any good song, the gusto with which Cardi and Meg demand what they want matters as much as the demands themselves. Listening to the song (and watching the endless TikToks it has inspired) is invigorating precisely because it is not pornographic: Pornography is a theater of types, but each line here is about individual expression and its attendant ownership. Each one is gleeful. Pornography is depersonalized, but Cardi and Meg are exacting.
During quarantine, it has become common to talk about the sorts of rituals and customs that might thrive and persist in a hypothetical, vaccinated future, where we all return to packed clubs and lean on each other in bars and make out in corners again. Just as prohibition helped shape drinking culture in America, maybe quarantine can shape sex culture, and refine our appreciation for it. Right now, for so many people staring into screens, it’s a fantastical activity, like playing table tennis on the moon. When we are no longer afraid to touch, maybe songs like “WAP” can help remind us of a time when physical contact still seemed miraculous, impossible.
Originally Appeared on Pitchfork