On ‘WAP,’ the Blues and the ‘Big Long Slidin’ Thing’

The song of the summer had roots running through the history of Black American pop — or, rather, American pop, period.

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“I blow through here — then I work my fingers and my thumb,” the legendary jazz and blues artist Dinah Washington sang in 1954. “I slide it right up, then I slide it back again, and I get a lot of wind, and then I slide it back again.” The song, “Big Long Slidin’ Thing,” is cloaked in the thinnest possible veil of propriety; in it, Washington describes the “playing” of her partner, who just so happens to be a trombonist. 

Even to modern ears, the track sounds baldly licentious. At the time, though, there was minimal concern about the moral implications of the single. “There is little doubt that ‘Big Long Slidin’ Thing’ won’t get much airplay,” Billboard noted matter-of-factly. “But there is also little doubt that it will grab juke loot … it’s socked over solidly by the thrush.” 

Remove the dated lingo and you have what seems to be a much more pragmatic and cosmopolitan take than has greeted the most potent pop hit of our concluding summer, “WAP” — that’s “Wet Ass Pussy.” The first collaboration between two of 2020’s biggest rappers, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, “WAP” topped Billboard’s Hot 100 with record-breaking streams and a fair amount of backlash (which, realistically, only helped it). The song has little pretense or euphemism; instead, its authors relish graphic descriptions of various sex acts alongside a sample of a man named Al “T” McLaran saying, “There’s some whores in this house.”

“WAP” was clearly designed at least in part as an artful provocation, but the song’s flammability has still been somewhat surprising. You don’t even need to dig through the crates for precedent: “My pussy feel like a lake/He wanna swim with his face,” Cardi rapped on her breakout hit, “Bodak Yellow.” “Ain’t nobody got up on they tip, tip toes then rode to the tip like me,” Meg insisted on “Big Ole Freak” (she also astutely noted, “You must be a pussy, boy, if you get offended”). And those are hardly aberrations in their catalogs — both rappers have brought their sexuality into focus, claiming it as an avenue to assert themselves rather than a taboo to … pussyfoot around.

It’s true that the track might lie at the intersection of the most successful and most profane songs recorded by mainstream women artists. The vivid depictions of “WAP,” though, didn’t come out of a vacuum. Not only have decades’ worth of women artists tapped their sexuality for inspiration, but those expressions exist within the very bedrock of American popular music via the blues. Yet for all that important history, the same force that made Dinah’s winking single unremarkable drives much of the criticism of “WAP”: racism and, specifically, misogynoir.

Dirty Blues Power: Dinah Washington performs in New York City in 1952. Credit: PoPsie Randolph/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.

When Washington released “Big Long Slidin’ Thing” and a few other singles that centered similarly strained metaphors, she was working within what was by then an established tradition for blues singers. Basically since the dawn of recorded popular music — see Mamie Smith and 1921’s “I Want a Jazzy Kiss” — blues artists of both genders had released a whole litany of songs loaded with innuendo. 

There are so many examples that to list them would actually misrepresent the situation — especially when you consider that recordings made up a tiny fraction of music listenership during this nascent era. (The recorded versions of songs were also necessarily more prudish than what would have been performed in a live setting.) “WAP” could be considered a new take on Sippie Wallace’s 1929 record “I’m a Mighty Tight Woman” (famously covered by Bonnie Raitt 42 years later) — yet that, in and of itself, is not the most important takeaway.

Instead, it can’t be overstated how heavily all of today’s popular music rests on a storied tradition of, specifically, Black women singing explicitly about sex. Knowing that “Big Long Slidin’ Thing” was one of many heavy-handed pop-music innuendos sort of helps explain the unbothered reception it received. But “WAP,” too, is one of many: Not only have Cardi and Meg both described their desires in detail previously, but plenty of their fellow women in hip-hop take a similar tack toward discussing sex (see City Girls’ recent single “Pussy Talk,” among countless others).

It’s essential to note that in 1954, jazz and blues — despite their wide influence and popularity — were still seen as inherently sordid, the stuff of red-light districts and other areas where supposedly “respectable” people wouldn’t go. “Respectable” generally meant white, or anyone else trying to attain some degree of security in a deeply discriminatory society. Jazz and blues meant Black people, and all the offensive stereotypes that too often persist today. Billboard wasn’t surprised by “Big Long Slidin’ Thing” or any of the “dirty blues” that had preceded it, because no matter how many glistening pop hits she would release, at the end of the day, overt sexuality and taboo behavior is what they expected from Dinah Washington. It was just one facet of the trenchant unfairness that Washington, and Black women artists before and after her, would face as they expressed themselves.

Trying to unpack what’s changed since then — and what has sparked such transparent concern-trolling over the past month — is tricky. It’s impossible to name a genre that hasn’t seen women singing about sex, even in the most explicit terms. From those so-called dirty blues came R&B, rock, country and pop music that played on similar taboos; especially within the lineage of Black women artists, funk and R&B musicians like Millie Jackson (“All the Way Lover”), Labelle (“Going Down Makes Me Shiver”) and Betty Davis (“Shoo-B-Doop and Cop Him”) found new, uncompromising ways to play on the work of those pioneering blueswomen. The history of hip-hop, of course, is also chock-full of women who flaunted their bawdier sides, from Salt ’N’ Pepa to Lil’ Kim to Missy Elliott. 

Nasty Gal: Betty Davis in the 1970s. Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.

So what about “WAP” is different? What about Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” was so provocative, when it relied heavily on a profane song recorded by a man three decades earlier? The answer, as it so often is when it comes to issues of sex and culture, is power. Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion have influence and money and fame that even blueswoman Bessie Smith and Dinah Washington, who were both enormously successful, could never have fathomed. Cardi and Meg’s reach is undeniable, and it is reach that both rappers have used to assert themselves not only as women but as artists unafraid to fight for equality.

Moreover, “WAP” arrived at a moment when the establishment that would deem it illicit is more threatened than ever — when there’s wide awareness of just how meaningful it is to have two Black women debut at the top of the Hot 100 with an ode to their wet ass pussies. Unfortunately, that’s made them the scapegoats of conservative-minded people who see the world as changing too fast. But the kind of people who may have been able to ignore Bessie Smith and Betty Davis in the past simply can’t ignore the influence of fearless Black women artists today. As much as it’s a change, it’s a long overdue one. 

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