If you had any lingering doubts about the state of America’s culture industry, they should have been violently laid to rest by Elizabeth Eden Harris, whose recent interview with the News contained almost as much smut and swearing as do her songs. Since being invited to perform at Spring Fling back in February, Harris — less flatteringly known as “Cupcakke” — has become the subject of countless encomia and appreciations, mostly from the progressive left. One student gushed that, “by being open about her sexuality, [Cupcakke] normalizes it in a way that is both unique, refreshing and inspiring.” Another defended Cupcakke on the grounds that she “does not negatively target any demographics or groups.” Having cleared this loftiest of bars, the Chicago-born rapper is ready to take Old Campus by a storm, and in her words, “make everyone scream, ‘Suck dick.’”
Needless to say, Cupcakke apologists have their work cut out for them. Every argument advanced on her behalf has proven comically specious and easily rebuttable: That something is not always wrong does not mean it should be normalized; violent, tonsil-ripping sex probably has the same moral valence as euthanasia, OK under certain conditions but quite dubious under others. That something is “subversive” does not mean it will be perceived as such; I highly doubt that inebriated 20-year-olds are going to hear Cupcakke’s lyrics and think “bell hooks!”
As for the claim that Yale students know better than to make harmful generalizations about women’s carnal preferences on the basis of one isolated example — really? So people can magically separate groups from individuals when it comes to kinks and fetishes but not when it comes to affirmative action, genetic differences or the Google Memo? Yup. Makes sense, guys.
Of course, the poo-pooing of Cupcakke from conservatives evinces several contradictions of its own. True, songs like “Deepthroat” and “Vagina” aren’t exactly textbooks on how to treat a lady, but neither are ASAP Ferg’s paeans to coke-fueled orgies or Eminem’s glorifications of domestic abuse. If your argument is that violent, objectifying lyrics cause violence and objectification, singling out Cupcakke specifically does betray something of a double standard, one less divorced from race and gender than her detractors might like to think.
But what Cupcakke lacks in cruelty, she makes up for in vulgarity. The thing that most distinguishes her from other artists — the thing that makes her so shockingly offensive — is the way she transgresses norms and boundaries and other signifiers of distinction until everything is reduced to the same pitiable equality, the same plane of value. This probably explains the discomfort many people feel at Cupcakke’s enjoinder to, among other things, “Nut in my pussy hair”: It demystifies what should be mysterious, makes ugly what should be beautiful and, in doing so, it sterilizes intimacy.
That sterilization — if you can call such lyrics “sterile” — has been well-received by critics and connoisseurs from Yale all the way to The New Yorker, no doubt because it accords with our culture’s transactionalized view of sex — indeed, of human interaction writ large. Here then is one hypothesis for why moralists tend to focus more on Cupcakke’s violence than her crudeness: We have become so anesthetized to vulgarity — and vulgarians — that we lack the vocabulary to articulate what’s wrong with it. High and low, beautiful and base, worthy and unworthy — such distinctions cannot be made once distinction itself becomes taboo. Cupcakke thus embodies the democratic sentiments of her age, which grants her a certain sort of impunity; it’s hard for us democrats to criticize democracy, even one as depraved as our own.
I know, I know: What about free speech, artistic liberty, thinking the unthinkable and all the rest? Anyone making those arguments would do well to consider how vulgarity enhances self-expression in the first place. Deployed strategically, coarse language can challenge taboos and slaughter sacred cows; it can also serve as a point of emphasis, a declaration that something is important enough to be worth violating convention.
But for it to do that, there must be some conventions to violate — otherwise transgression loses its meaning, nay, its very possibility. When artists like Cupcakke normalize smut and sin and skin-flick sighs, they inevitably act as parasites, draining our culture of the strictures and shalt-nots which allow norm-breaking to matter. Cross the proverbial line too often, and eventually there will be no line left to cross, no avenue to shock, startle and offend. Far from promoting free expression, excess vulgarity corrodes the standards on which much of that expression — particularly the outrageous parts — depends. Sooner or later some restraint, some decency, must be imposed for cultural dynamism to flourish — for sex and swearing to move us and for rebels and renegades to find purposive rebellion.
So to those excited for Spring Fling’s trenchant social commentary, I have only this to say: Give me a f—ing break.
Aaron Sibarium is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .