It seems like the internet is down for maintenance again. Apparently, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion broke it Aug. 7 with their hit single “WAP,” which stands for “wet ass pussy” (or its censored equivalent, “wet and gushy”). Granted, the polarizing flurry of criticism from conservative political commentators and affirmation from fans of the song’s sex-positive energy has effectively boiled the soup of the internet into foam and sizzle. What does it mean to “break the internet”? The internet, an intangible force of pure evil and joy — how do you break it?
I’ll say it now. We’ve been fooled. There’s nothing so special about “WAP” besides Cardi B’s incredible coinage of the phrase “punani Dasani.” Besides that, the hype around “WAP” and its accompanying music video is undeserved — “WAP” owes that to its proximity to pure vulgarity, pure shock factor. An outstanding performance from its creators, who have scammed us all.
An old American aphorism, the Pottery Barn rule, goes like this: “You break it, you buy it.” It’s a warning to customers to take care and to hold personal responsibility. Broken things are the unfortunate products of accidents — to break is to lose value. And yet, when Kim Kardashian West bared her famous derriere as Paper Magazine’s covergirl, the title of the cover was “Break the Internet: Kim Kardashian.” It was an anticipation of virality, of a public reception so far and wide and instant that it could effectively damage something as powerful as the internet. What is art that anticipates not merely its aesthetic impact, but also its register on the shock meter?
“WAP” anticipates its own iconicism by employing a number of subconscious visual references to other iconic moments in entertainment’s past. The video opens from the ground up — water overflows from a Barbie doll mansion. Inside, the floors are laid in dizzying chevron and the Tiffany-blue halls twist in trippy spirals. It’s a house for Alice, if her wonderland was in Calabasas.
Every beat drips down with crass desire, but the moneyed visuals have rebranded crassness and its every expression into something more brazenly luxurious, more richly celebratory. The screen vixens include Kylie Jenner, a controversial choice and convenient example of new money’s welcomed proximity to the lewd and lascivious. Her sister before her, Kardashian West, has long been the muse and centerpiece to many projects, including her cameo in Fergie’s 2017 flop single “M.I.L.F. $” (pronounced “MILF money”).
Kardashian West’s torch to Jenner is one of many callbacks. In the first fantasy room, Megan and Cardi’s outfits, coupled with the yellow Burmese python slithering in the sand, is a nostalgic reminder of Britney Spears’ iconic VMA performance of “I’m a Slave 4 U” in 2001, belly bared with sweat and green bra on full display.
“Iconic,” in the internet’s nascence, was more literal. In the year 2000, Jennifer Lopez wore a green Versace dress to the 42nd Grammy Awards. The lush tropical print cascaded past her ankles into a whimsical train — silk chiffon, sheer to a breaking point. The neckline plunged below her navel, where the dress was clasped together by a citrine brooch. As she walked onstage to present best R&B album, a breeze hit her ankles — the audience went nuts. At the time, Google had previously offered only text and links. Image search was developed partially to fulfill the astronomical demand for Google’s most searched query: Jennifer Lopez’s green dress.
Girlish smile, bared navel, a vision of jungle green — the iconicity of J-Lo in that dress is undeniable, seared into the world’s collective memory. There are certain cultural moments that have made iconographic marks on entertainment history — provocative lyrics, unforgettable outfits, gossipy antics. A few come straight to mind: the paparazzi pictures of Nicole Kidman as she exited her lawyer’s office, freshly divorced from Tom Cruise; Miley Cyrus dancing in an outfit that sparked comparisons to raw poultry; and Bradley Cooper cradling Suki Waterhouse’s head on his lap in a Parisian park as he read “Lolita” to her (she was 21, he was 38).
“WAP,” however, offers nothing original. It is purely iterative — it only gives the illusion of originality, by way of its cousin, sensationalism. Every detail, from the heavy-handed innuendos to the visual homages to sex symbols past, are part of a conscious effort to break the internet. And break it did — “WAP” gifted Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion with record-breaking titles. Upon its release, the single debuted at No. 1 on Billboard Hot 100 and hit a record first week count of 93 million U.S. streams, the most of any song in Billboard history. It made Cardi the first female rapper to achieve Hot 100 No. 1 singles in two separate decades. Directed by Colin Tilley, the “WAP” music video broke Youtube’s record for biggest 24-hour debut for an all-female collaboration.
There’s another version of that old Pottery Barn rule: “If you break it, you remake it.” The creators of “WAP” saw broken internets past, and simply remade them.