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Cardi B’s ‘WAP’ Proves Music’s Dirty Secret: Censorship Is Good Business

Scandalized parents and politicians ushered in warning labels in the 1980s. Now making clean versions of explicit songs means taking advantage of every possible revenue stream..

By Ben Sisario. Oct. 27, 2020

Doc Wynter still remembers the first time he heard “WAP.” A top radio programmer for decades, Wynter has come across countless explicit rap tracks and “blue” R&B songs that required nips and tucks before they could be played on-air. But even Wynter, the head of hip-hop and R&B programming for the broadcasting giant iHeartMedia, was taken aback by “WAP,” Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s brazenly graphic anthem of lubrication, when he was given a preview before the song’s release in August.

“It hits you at the very beginning — like, whoa! — and then it just keeps on going and going and going,” Wynter said, still marveling at the song’s barrage of suggestive imagery. “Thank God we have systems in place,” he recalled thinking, “that prevented that record from hitting the airwaves.”

Of course, “WAP” did hit the airwaves, and the streaming services, in a big way. One of the year’s most inescapable hits, it held No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart for four weeks and drew 1.1 billion clicks on streaming platforms. An instant social media phenomenon, the song spawned remixes and memes galore, including a subgenre of outraged-slash-titillated parental reaction videos.

To an extent not seen in years, “WAP” also became something of a political lightning rod, decried by pearl-clutching commentators like Ben Shapiro, who saw the song as a “really, really, really, really, really vulgar” embodiment of liberal hypocrisy. (Cardi B has been a vocal supporter of Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.)

Yet despite the song’s uninhibited raunch, its popularity was partly earned from one of the music industry’s oldest bugaboos: self-censorship. Before “WAP” could be played on the radio, its most explicit verbiage was pruned by Cardi B’s engineers. Wynter recalled that the ostensibly sanitized copy first offered by Cardi B’s label, Atlantic — the “clean” version of the song, in industry jargon — was still too racy for broadcast, leading Wynter to ask for nine additional, last-minute edits.

And the music video for “WAP” that caught fire on YouTube was elaborately censored. If fans listened only to that version, they wouldn’t have learned what its title acronym stood for — instead, just that something was “wet and gushy.”

The success of “WAP” highlighted one of the music industry’s dirty little secrets: that even in an age of rampant vulgarity — and 35 long years since a crackdown on lyrics by the Washington elite — the bowdlerizing of pop songs remains deeply ingrained in the work of artists and their marketers.

Today, most major releases that have some naughty words — including the latest from Taylor Swift and even Stevie Wonder — also come out in censored versions. Decades ago, that may have been done in part to avoid political controversy. Now business is the driving force, as labels chase down every click and playlist placement to maximize songs’ streaming income.

“There is definitely a market for edited content,” said Jim Roppo, the general manager of Republic Records, the label of Drake, Ariana Grande and Swift. “If you are eliminating yourself from that market, then you are leaving money on the table.”

Self-censorship was present at the beginning of rock ’n’ roll: Little Richard famously snipped “good booty” from the original lyrics to “Tutti Frutti.” But its current role in the music industry dates to 1985.

That was when Tipper Gore, who was married to Al Gore, then a United States Senator from Tennessee, helped start the crusading Parents Music Resource Center after being scandalized by a Prince song. Her group called for warning stickers on albums, a suggestion echoed during a Senate committee hearing the same year, which stirred fears of encroachment on musicians’ First Amendment rights. “If it looks like censorship and it smells like censorship,” Frank Zappa said at the time, “it is censorship.”

Then as now, race played a complex role. Black art has always been policed aggressively, particularly in popular music genres — a continuum that stretches from jazz to rock to hip-hop. But in the 1980s, rock and metal came under fire as well, and seemingly anything on the radio was a potential target. In one of the most surreal moments of the 1985 Senate hearings, John Denver defended his song “Rocky Mountain High” against accusations that it glorified drug abuse.

Record companies soon agreed to affix a “parental advisory” sticker on albums that they — not an outside regulator — deemed to include “strong language or depictions of violence, sex or substance abuse.”

That move may have staved off further scrutiny in Washington. But it led to complications in the market as big box retailers like Walmart, Best Buy and Target came to dominate sales in the 1990s. Some of them refused to carry explicit content, which meant that anything that bore the labels’ black-and-white warning sticker risked not being stocked — and could lose as much as 40 percent of potential sales, music executives said.

“The public controversy — the regulatory threat — never felt as great as the retail threat,” said Hilary Rosen, a former chief executive of the Recording Industry Association of America.

The record companies’ solution: produce copies of albums scrubbed of their most provocative vocabulary. A golden age of self-censorship followed, with profanities and violent lyrics often simply deleted — leaving hit songs dotted with brief silences, like holes. “We used to call it Swiss cheese,” said Paul Rosenberg, Eminem’s longtime manager.

Disliking that effect, Eminem sometimes wrote new lyrics for clean versions. Rosenberg recalled one such rewrite with wincing regret: the “Pizza Mix” of Eminem’s 1999 song “My Fault.” In the explicit original — a classic example of Eminem’s silly-scary storytelling style — a young woman has a drastic reaction after being given too many hallucinogenic mushrooms. In the cleaned-up version, the garden-variety mushrooms are on a pizza, and the woman is merely “allergic to fungus.”

“All of a sudden it was not this fun dark comedy,” Rosenberg said, “but literally a record about putting mushrooms on a pizza, which ended up just being ridiculous.”

Midway through our conversation, Rosenberg excused himself, saying that “Marshall” — a.k.a. Eminem — was on the other line. When he returned a minute later, Rosenberg said he told his client that he was “doing an interview about your explicit lyrics.”

“He got excited about that,” Rosenberg added. Eminem was not alone in willingly tweaking his work. In 1999, when the New Orleans rapper Juvenile released “Back That Azz Up,” his label knew it was too risqué for radio. So they cut a new version, “Back That Thang Up,” which went to No. 19 and ended up a nostalgic favorite. In an interview, Juvenile — who has recently taken on a second career as a furniture maker — recalled that he eagerly compromised.

“I wanted to get it to the masses,” said Juvenile, calling from a Home Depot while shopping for paint. “Sometimes you have to make sacrifices on the lyrical content — take a hit on being profane in order for your music to be heard.”

In time, as big-box retailers’ power over the industry faded and the consumption of music moved online — and as social mores and media standards evolved — the pressure for clean versions waned.

Although edited versions are still released for many new albums, there are puzzling exceptions. Recent releases by major acts like Travis Scott, Lil Uzi Vert, Roddy Ricch and Tyler, the Creator, to name a few, came out only in explicit editions. “Everybody’s Everything,” a posthumous collection by the rapper Lil Peep, did not have a clean version, but XXXTentacion’s “Bad Vibes Forever,” which came out after the rapper’s killing, did.

Record executives and artist managers offered various explanations for the inconsistency, although many were not willing to speak on the record. Some musicians, they said, object on principle to the censoring of their work. Though once seen as a bold and risky stance — Green Day, for example, refused to edit its albums “American Idiot” (2004) and “21st Century Breakdown” (2009), and forfeited sales at Walmart — that rarely draws wide notice today.

Another reason was structural: In the streaming age, music can be made and released so quickly that little time is left for edits. Those albums may not get a clean version until days or weeks after their initial release, or never. If no edited version is available, radio stations — or random YouTube users — may simply make their own.

Ghazi, the founder of Empire, an independent distribution company that specializes in hip-hop, thinks that much of the industry fails to grasp the importance of clean versions. “It’s a lost part of the business,” he said.

He noted all the standard opportunities that would disappear without a clean song, like licensing for television and being piped into restaurants and retail shops. But Ghazi, who uses only one name, also pointed to outlets like JPay, which provides music — clean only — to prison inmates, as well as to online platforms in Asia and the Middle East that block explicit content. The existence of a clean version can increase some albums’ sales as much as 30 percent, according to Ghazi.

And the artistry of clean edits has made huge progress since the Swiss cheese days. Jaycen Joshua, a mixing engineer who has worked on releases by Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna and many other artists — including Megan Thee Stallion — described an elaborate tool kit of sound effects, stretched-out sibilants and patched vowels to preserve the musical fingerprint of an altered word.

“Anything to give the illusion to the brain that a word is still there, even if you don’t hear that explicit word itself,” Joshua said. For artists who do not self-censor, the risk may simply be invisibility.

Music’s consumer landscape is now rife with family streaming plans and parental content-filtering. For customers who set their devices to weed out explicit material, Apple and Amazon automatically substitute edited versions of songs when they are available, and skip them altogether when they aren’t. Most of the time, virtually every track on Spotify’s powerhouse “Rap Caviar” playlist is marked explicit; for a tween on a content leash, it can take three or four arduous clicks to see if a clean alternative is available.

Among radio programmers, streaming curators and record executives, the standard scenario to explain the need for clean versions is that of a bystander child: Would an adult object if they heard a particular song with their child in the car, or in earshot of a smart speaker?

“I have a 3-year-old daughter,” Ghazi said. “I’m not going to play her Chris Brown singing ‘[expletive] you back to sleep,’ but I might play Chris Brown ‘sex you back to sleep.’”

In the 1980s and ’90s, the public discourse about explicit music was centered on parents’ ability to restrict their children’s access to it. In some ways today’s content controls are a powerful manifestation of that goal. Yet in the ocean of online content, nothing is truly hidden.

Van Sias, a freelance writer in Brooklyn, said that when he and his wife gave their 12-year-old daughter her first iPhone for Christmas last year, they set it to block explicit content on Apple Music. But they know she may come across some on YouTube or Instagram anyway.

“There’s only so much you can do,” Sias said. “You can’t obsess over things you can’t control.”

For those who lived through the controversies of the Parents Music Resource Center, 2 Live Crew’s arrest and Body Count’s “Cop Killer,” however, the brouhaha around “WAP” was a jarring throwback. In a way that now seems quaint, rock and rap were once vilified as threats to basic civility.

“There was a constant cultural war around whether music was at fault for coarsening society,” said Rosen, who is now a Democratic strategist. “But when you look at it today, I don’t think anyone is accusing Cardi B of coarsening society — that’s Donald Trump’s job.”

Cardi B herself stoked controversy around her song, which is equally uninhibited in celebrating female desire and in demanding service from men. In an Instagram clip, she said the music video used the “the censored version of the song” because “YouTube was like, hold on, wait a minute, the song might just be too [expletive] nasty.”

A spokeswoman for YouTube, however, said that the raw version of “WAP” did not violate its community guidelines — that version exists on YouTube as an audio track — and that Atlantic provided only one edition of the song for its official music video, using edited lyrics.

Cardi B and Atlantic declined to comment. But it may have been that Cardi and her label simply strategized that a censored version would generate the most clicks, and anyone interested would probably hear the dirty version anyway. Indeed, “WAP” may be the raunchiest No. 1 single of all time.

Two decades ago, Juvenile had it both ways, too, putting the dirty version of his song on his album and releasing the cleaned-up track as a single. But he made it clear that when he performs in concert, his material is uncensored.

“I’m definitely street everything,” he said. “I never do a radio version live, unless they pay me a lot of money.”

Ben Sisario covers the music industry for The New York Times.