Women in this world are taught to believe that every problem must have a buyable solution. Not sleeping well? Get a lavender-vanilla pillow spray. Overrun with stress? Buy a skin-care routine. The market is rife with solace for sale — a product on offer for anything that ails. This past year, our own systemic subjugation was no exception. With a former beauty-pageant owner in the White House, Clinton in Chappaqua and high-profile men being exposed for their crimes, feminism reached its most shoppable form: pink pussy hats, enamel pins of vulvae, shirts that proclaimed “The Future Is Female.” These trinkets and tchotchkes brought comfort to their owners, but as a political response, they felt comically feeble. In a culture that tolerates violence against women, denies our health- and child-care needs and polices our sexual conduct and bodies, why would empowerment ever look cute?
Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow” arrived as a valuable 3 minutes 44 seconds of frankness in a year of feminist pandering. The song debuted on June 16 and climbed the charts until it reached the top, spending three weeks at No. 1. It opens with a sparse and foreboding beat — the trap-music answer to the “Twilight Zone” theme. Cardi begins with an outright provocation: “Lil [expletive], you can’t [expletive] with me if you wanted to.” Her tone is confident in a way that feels easy. To paraphrase one commenter on YouTube: It’s a song that will make you want to fire your own boss.
Cardi B, 25, grew up in the Bronx and worked her way to independence as a stripper. She first appeared in the public eye when she started posting charismatic videos on Instagram: infinitely watchable micromonologues on everything from dating, love, family and friends to media, terrorism, grammar, orthodontics and the finer points of three kinds of oral sex. As a public figure, her image is capacious, a mix of the bawdy antics of Fran Drescher and the quotable wisdom of Ecclesiastes. Cardi embodied these contradictions with ease, while other stars floundered. With public declarations of empowerment in fashion, many defaulted to a vapid middle ground, positioning themselves as generically “relatable” (Jennifer Lawrence) or taking a stand for wan concepts like love (Kendall Jenner).
Compare “Bodak Yellow” with Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” — the soundtrack to Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Over swelling piano, Platten strings together blithe imagery about hearts, voices, friends and oceans. By avoiding precision, she tries to please us all. When she gets to the chorus, she belts out: “This is my fight song/Take-back-my-life song/Prove-I’m-alright song/My power’s turned on/Starting right now I’ll be strong.” Is it a song about a breakup? About asking for a raise? About electing a woman president, or all of the above? Who could say? The hook is perfectly pitched for group singing, but Platten seems afraid to offend. What kind of anthem runs on nervous trepidation? In “Fight Song,” empowerment is just another pursuit in which women must bend over backward for approval.
Cardi B, by contrast, does not speak on behalf of womankind. On “Bodak Yellow,” she talks about herself and herself only: her Louboutins, her mixtapes, her checks from the television mogul Mona Scott-Young. (Between dancing and rapping, Cardi honed her persona on Scott-Young’s VH1 reality show, “Love & Hip Hop.”) “I’m a boss, you a worker,” Cardi raps. When she deigns to think of other women at all, it’s only to write them off as a nonissue: Other women pay to party, while she gets paid to party. These sentiments are far from Platten’s brand of rising-tide empowerment; here, Cardi has the only ship. If the song does not toe any feminist party line, then it certainly empowers more than many things that do. Nobody listens to “Bodak Yellow” and imagines herself as the girl who pays to party.
“Bodak Yellow” does not seem to care whether you think it’s an anthem. In a world where women reflexively say “sorry” for walking past other women in the hall, Cardi knows that the truest act of power is exercising the right to remain silent. “If I see you and I don’t speak, that means I don’t [expletive] with you,” she raps. Other anthems aim to please; Cardi’s conjures a world in which women don’t need to please anyone at all.