Introduction

This blog post examines YouTube comments on ‘WAP’, performed by Cardi B and featuring Megan Thee Stallion. The aim is to demonstrate some of the data collection and thematic analysis methods that inform the Digital Flows research project, so it can be considered a small pilot study of sorts. In what follows, I’ll introduce the track with some brief context, then discuss the methods I used, explaining their benefits as well as various limitations. The second half of this piece describes seven major themes that emerged in my analysis of comments by male and female users, pointing out gendered differences in listener/viewer responses. These comments indicate the different values that men and women express in their appraisal of ‘WAP’. As this is a blog post, I freely combine analysis and discussion, although I encourage you to consider other conclusions to the ones I make. This work might form part of future publications, and the post will persist here akin to a pre-print (in the spirit of Open Science). I’ll share my dataset too.

‘WAP’ is an interesting choice for analysis because it is one of the most prevalent hit songs of 2020 in mainstream rap as well as broader pop culture. Over the last couple of months, it is perhaps the most discussed song in what I think of as the ‘online rap mainstream’, a virtual public space for discourse on rap music and culture. Its chart success speaks to its popularity: it debuted at #1 on the Billboard Top 100 and it spent 3 weeks at #1 on the UK official charts. Its official music video has 289 million views as of 20th November 2020. These stats aside, it has broader significance and spread on social media, such as having sparked a TikTok dance trend and various memes. Although the song received substantial critical acclaim – let’s face it, it’s a bop – it also drew comments from conservative media personalities, including Candace Owens and Ben Shapiro, in the run-up to the 2020 U.S. presidential election. It warrants examination of gendered differences in commentary as it is an extremely popular song performed by two women in a historically male-dominated field (Lafrance et al. 2011; Strong and Raine 2019), and it has been received as overtly sexual (e.g., McClinton 2020; Holt 2020). ‘WAP’ has prompted discussions about expressions of female sexuality, sex-positive feminism, and empowerment, the latter being a term which my forthcoming monograph How Music Empowers (Routledge, 2021) tackles directly. Here’s the YouTube link:

Methods

These notes on method take up a substantial portion of the post, because I’m still early on in the project, and part of what Digital Flows offers is methodological innovation in the use of digital ethnography for studies of popular music and digital culture. Hence, a lot of what I’m working out here is quite crucial to the research practices going forward, as I try to develop robust methods that take advantage of digital tools for the study of online data. If you’re not interested and just want to read the discussion of results, you can click here to skip ahead.

To undertake data collection and analysis, I used the free program Mozdeh, developed by Professor Mike Thelwall at the University of Wolverhampton. I also followed the WATA (Word Association Thematic Analysis) method described in his forthcoming book on using Mozdeh for such purposes. (Thanks to Mike for the pre-publication copy). This is a two-part method which proceeds according to an initial stage of quantitative statistical analysis followed by a stage of qualitative thematic analysis: an objective, automatic calculation of the proportions of given comments and their statistical analysis, then subjective and context-sensitive interpretation of the quantitative findings. 

As for the sample, I collected 126,345 comments from three YouTube pages: the official video, the official audio, and a third-party lyric video of the song. Although the primary focus is the single and its accompanying music video, using the additional videos ensured enough comments were collected in total to achieve a decently sized set of texts from which to draw statistically significant findings: Thelwall recommends 100,000 as a baseline. Naturally, some comments only relate to the audio and some to the video, although the pilot data collection showed that generally similar topics emerged in each comment section. The majority of texts in the sample were drawn from comments on the official video. Only one comment per user was collected in order to cut down on spam and avoid skewing the sample towards the words used by prolific commenters.

The identification of commenter gender is perhaps the largest limitation of the study, but practical steps are taken to reduce the difficulties such analysis presents. Mozdeh infers participant gender by matching a commenter’s first name as used in their YouTube username to a comprehensive list of male- and female-associated names. This is not entirely adequate, but nor is it worthless given that a substantial proportion of YouTube users do indeed use a name on their public YouTube profile that associates accurately with the gender with which they identify: most likely, their preferred real name. (No erasure of non-binary and other-gendered folks is intended by this method, and it is worth noting that Mozdeh can identify non-binary authors on Twitter by reading gender-neutral pronouns, e.g. they/them, in their Twitter profile description.) The large size of the dataset slightly reduces the problematic nature of gendering by username. From the sample of 126k comments, 12.3% can be associated with male commenters, and 16.6% can be associated with female commenters. This doesn’t necessarily mean more women than men commented on the video. After all, the gender of 71.1% of the commenters (from Max Smith to CardiBFan123, approximating some usernames) could not be reasonably assumed, and estimates of the gender ratio in that majority would be extremely speculative. 

In my discussion, I will use the term ‘men’ and ‘women’ to refer to YouTube commenters using commonly recognisable male or female first names as their usernames, to avoid harmful associations with ‘females’ when used as a noun. However, ‘male’ and female’ is the more precise assumption being made: there is no age information collected (thus technically distinguishing, e.g. a ‘boy’ from a ‘man’) and, although YouTube has minimum age policies, I do not verify for age. At the time of writing, the video is not marked as explicit and does not require login or age confirmation on YouTube (though the music video uses the ‘clean’ audio version). I use the word ‘song’ to encompass the multimediated artefact that is the recorded track and its accompanying music video, in line with commenters’ common use of the word ‘song’ to refer to both the audio and visual content. (The word ‘song’ is used around three times more often than ‘video’, even in reference to visual elements). A final reiteration of the methodological assumptions about gender in the discussion that follows: a phrase like ‘men tend to X’ stands in for ‘people who have posted YouTube comments using male-associated first names in their username tend to X’. From here onwards, I’ll elide that distinction. Let’s get into it!

Writing And Posting: Discussion on ‘WAP’

There are seven main themes I will draw out, presented roughly in order from the most to the least significantly gendered differences. 

1. Appraisal

This label refers to personal opinions posted on the song, aligning with the general purpose of YouTube comments (alongside assisting Google’s data harvesting & surveillance practices). Compared to women, men overwhelmingly share negative views of the song, using the terms ‘trash’, ‘garbage’, and ‘worst’. ‘Trash’ and ‘garbage’ are two of the most statistically significant differences between men and women commenting on the song. Note that these words are not as associated with personal feeling as, for example, ‘bad’, ‘boring’, or ‘annoying’, but demean ‘WAP’ in terms of objective value. They attack the worth of the song. It can be inferred that, by comparison, women less often undermine the value of the song in itself, and are more likely to take issue with specific elements, or interpret negative responses as their individual opinion. In other words, women are less likely than men to dismiss ‘WAP’ as a piece of work altogether.

Men also make broader (false) claims about the song as representative of cultural decline, using the terms ‘society’, ‘humanity’, and ‘porn’. To paraphrase for context (preserving anonymity), texts like ‘this is what is wrong with our society’ or ‘this song makes me lose my faith in humanity’ appear much more commonly in the sample of male-associated comments. This trend is a ‘slippery slope’-style expansion of the commentary in the previous paragraph, whereby men are more likely to describe their dislike of the track in terms of an objective social ill rather than their personal view: ‘WAP’ both is worthless and represents a real social problem. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the surge in publicly broadcast conservative criticism in the last decade or so, the words most closely associated with ‘society’ are ‘our’ (whose exactly?), ‘decay’, and ‘western’. I should clarify that this is an extremely small proportion (0.2%) of all comments. In any case, at least twice as many men mention ‘society’ than do women.

Women express significantly more enjoyment of the song, especially using the word ‘love’. They also describe their surprise more often, disproportionately employing the term ‘omg’. Such a finding aligns with media reportage on the song, where journalists have described ‘WAP’ as “truly provocative” (Haider 2020) and “among the filthiest things I’ve ever seen in mainstream American popular culture” (Rosenberg 2020). Thelwall (2018) has found ‘omg’ to be strongly female-associated in other studies. It may therefore not be the case that women are more surprised by the video than men, but that they are more likely to express their surprise using that specific term. Women are also more likely to consider other peoples’ views more, especially that of their ‘mom’, and make more frequent reference to ‘man’ (usually as in ‘my man’). The reference to ‘my man’ in relation to the song makes sense given that ‘WAP’ spotlights sentiments of female (cishetero)sexual desire. That said, ‘man’ also has frequent usage by all commenters as an exclamation or for generic emphasis, like ‘gee!’.

2. Language

While most comments are written in English, there is a considerable portion of comments written in Portuguese, and a smaller body of texts in Spanish. Common words in Portuguese and Spanish sentences including ‘que’, ‘eu’, ‘la’, ‘de’, ‘essa’, ‘esta’, ‘o’, ‘q’ (que), and ‘en’ are largely used by commenters with female-associated first names. The gendered difference here appears to evidence Cardi B’s large female Brazilian fanbase, which seems plausible considering the artist’s well-known collaborations with Latin American artists like Anitta and Bad Bunny. By contrast, men write more sentences using common words in English (‘this’, ‘is’, ‘of’, ‘to’, ‘an’, ‘a’, ‘the’, and ‘with’). The exceptions to a male preponderance of English sentence terms are ‘my’ and ‘I’, both of which women write more in English. From this, we can infer women describe their personal responses more frequently in comments (and this maps on to the earlier discussion of women appraising in terms of opinion, by contrast to men appraising in terms of objective quality). Indeed, the second most statistically significant gap overall (of all words) is for the term ‘this’, suggesting men implicate themselves far less in their comments about the song (writing, for instance, ‘this is great’ rather than ‘I love this’).

3. Naming

There are pronounced gender differences in references to specific public figures. In general, men write more names of recognisable people. However, this trend swings significantly in the other direction for Kylie Jenner, whom women reference considerably more. Women mentioned ‘Kylie’ 749 times compared to men at 281 times, with a similar though narrower gap for ‘Jenner’. There is support for two obvious conclusions here, which are that (a) Kylie Jenner has a larger female audience and is recognised more frequently by women and (b) that Kylie Jenner’s performance in the ‘WAP’ video is especially worth commentary among women. The gap for ‘Jenner’ closes somewhat because men tend to write full names of public figures (i.e., ‘Cardi B’ rather than ‘Cardi’). Though slightly speculative, this observation implies that women (who are more likely to write only ‘Cardi’) feel more personally connected to the artist, which suggests a stronger parasocial relationship with female consumers.

Of the performing artists mentioned in the comment section, Cardi B is unsurprisingly mentioned most (with no statistically significant difference by commenter gender), followed by Kylie Jenner (whom significantly more women cite), then Megan Thee Stallion, Nicki Minaj, and Anitta. Only the first three of these feature in the video, and other featured performers, including well-known artists Rosalía and Normani, are lower down this list. Their less remarked-upon presence, despite critical acclaim and vast audiences, might speak to the stranglehold and cultural dominance of Kylie Jenner as a popular figure. However, she appears in the video for a full 25 seconds, interrupting the song altogether, whereas the others share around 10 seconds of screen time as the beat plays out at the end, so the video emphatically spotlights her presence. None of the featured performers except for Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion are listed in the YouTube credits, though this is reasonably conventional for pop music videos.

Mentions of Nicki Minaj are particularly interesting given she has no involvement in the song or video, but is a major ‘competitor’ of Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, with a passionate fanbase who appear to express loyalty by insulting artists who are deemed rivals. The director of the ‘WAP’ video, Colin Tilley, also directed Nicki Minaj’s 2015 video for ‘Anaconda’, a song which bears a number of similarities: it also featured prominently in popular culture, was received as ‘sexually explicit’ and, like ‘WAP’, its beat is developed around a male voice sample from early 1990s hip-hop/dance music. Anitta most often appears in comments mentioning her song featuring Cardi B (and Myke Towers), ‘Me Gusta’, which was released in the same period as ‘WAP’. Given how many of these posts instruct readers to listen to ‘Me Gusta’ and announce the release date and performers with no other commentary, I suspect a large presence of bots for this particular trend, or perhaps a fan campaign to synergistically create awareness of the ‘Me Gusta’ video.

Men write more male names (and more names in general) than women do. For instance, Tory Lanez is exclusively referenced by men in the sample. Around the time of the release of ‘WAP’, the artist was reported to have shot Megan Thee Stallion and, in reference to this event, ‘shot’ also appears statistically significant, at 32 male to 5 female mentions. Men also reference more conservative commentators: ‘Ben’ appears with a wide gap in commenter gender (as does ‘Shapiro’), with a narrower but still significant gap for ‘Owens’ (usually accompanied by ‘Candace’, but occasionally misspelled ‘Candice’). These two figures made public statements in response to ‘WAP’, and evidently became part of the cultural conversation surrounding the track (especially in men’s subsequent commentary). 

4. Audience and listening context

Women disproportionately mention TikTok in their comments on the video. There appears to be little consensus on whether the platform name is one or two words, with both ‘Tik’ and ‘Tok’ more frequent among female comments, as well as the combined ‘TikTok’. Many such comments also use ‘dance’ to reference TikTok dance trends, especially the routine inspired by ‘WAP’. For instance, several users linked the timestamp for ‘the WAP TikTok dance’, pointing to a section of the music video that has become popularly recreated on the short-form video-sharing platform. It can be inferred that this is a phenomenon generally more associated with female participants, at least in their public postings about the track. 

There is also much more frequent reference to ‘brasiliero’ (Brazilians) by women, often to point out the prevalence of this audience either listening to the song or virtually present ‘in the comments’. By contrast, men more commonly used the word ‘people’, perhaps (with reference to my earlier discussion about men’s tendency towards objectification) generalising broad responses to the song as a way of expressing their own views. Many such comments suggest disbelief, though they are not always negative: (paraphrased) examples like ‘why do people like this?’, ‘I can’t believe people get upset about this’, and ‘remember when people said women couldn’t rap?’ abound.

5. Censorship and comparison

There is a statistically significant gender difference in the use of the terms ‘cold’ and ‘outside’. The context for these words is the song ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’, which became the subject of intense social media discussion in the run-up to Christmas in 2018, after a handful of radio stations removed it from their seasonal playlists citing concerns about the lyrics in the context of the MeToo movement (which have since returned it to regular play). The backlash was substantially more heated than the initial decision to question the lyrics that evoke male sexual predation (and, perhaps more ambiguously, the original context of the line ‘what’s in this drink?’, either implying date rape drugs or ‘merely’ joking about alcohol intoxication). The charge of political correctness and opposition to censorship that emerged in late 2018 are reinvoked in responses to ‘WAP’, where overwhelmingly male commenters question the decision to censor ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ yet ‘allow’ the sexual content of ‘WAP’. This trend clearly engages with discourses of women’s sexual expression and the feminist critique of rape culture. Essentially, it appears to be more about ‘Baby…’ than ‘WAP’ per se, with a continual spilling over of outrage claiming the innocence of the popular Christmas song. It can be assumed that the ‘explicit content’ of ‘WAP’ feels less permissible than the casual misogyny of ‘Baby…’ for many male users.

Besides contrasting ‘WAP’ and ‘Baby…’, men generally use more comparative terms in their comments. One tendency is to compare the performers directly, such as in the comment ‘Megan’s verse is better than Cardi B’s’. As well as ‘better’, there is a greater prevalence of the terms ‘YouTube’, ‘has’ and ‘than’ in men’s comments, which often draw connections between the song itself and broader changes, in a similar vein to the ‘cultural decline’ comments discussed above. These are typically used as a means of interpreting the song’s value, with a variety of expressions including outrage (‘how has this become popular?’), commentary on genre (‘hip hop has really changed’), and further censorial views (‘why has YouTube not removed this?’, ‘this is dirtier than porn’). Men also make more generic comparisons about ‘WAP’, such as ‘this is better than Cardi B’s last song’.

6. Misogyny

This category comprises the ugliest terms used with statistically significant gendered differences. Men write more misogynistic comments, though it should be noted that the overall proportion of explicitly misogynistic comments is thankfully very small: certainly less than 1% of the entire sample, and possibly as low as 0.5%, i.e. 1 in 200 comments. This says little about the implicit misogyny of many of the comments on the video, however, and it is perhaps worth mentioning that no male humans feature in the video, so all comments are directed purely at audiovisual content featuring women (notwithstanding the Frank Ski voice sample). The misogynistic terms men used disproportionately in comments were ‘smell’, ‘std’, and ‘plastic’. Men were 15 times more likely than women to write ‘smell’, referring to vaginal odour (and women’s body odour more broadly). This is notable given that the lyrics rarely mention smell, focusing instead on sensory aspects of touch and later taste, though Cardi B’s verses offer the occasional olfactory suggestion: ‘swipe your nose like a credit card’ and ‘a weed smoker’. (‘Macaroni in a pot’ evokes sound rather than smell, at least in its reference to a popular meme.) 

Furthermore, men more frequently suggested that the performers have sexually transmitted diseases. It is reasonable to conclude that men explicitly mention sex much more often (so the song’s affordances of cisheterosexual desire are evidently landing) although women may allude to sex more commonly, as in comments describing ‘my man’, discussed above. For a song that takes sex quite unambiguously as its focus, relatively few comments (estimated less than 5%) are explicitly sexual. Although men were still much more likely than women to use the word, the gap closes slightly for mentions of the term ‘plastic’, most often referring to (posited) plastic surgery or the otherwise fake appearance of the performers.

7. Humour

A short observation to close this discussion out: men slightly more often make jokes about the song title. The gist of comedic comments is that users stumbled upon the ‘WAP’ video while searching for instructions about a ‘Wireless Access Point (or Protocol)’ and were surprised by the song instead. The ambiguity of the acronym evidently invites such attempts at humour, with which men are more likely to engage, using the terms ‘wireless’ and ‘protocol’ (although ‘point’, a more multivalent word, does not appear with statistically significant gender difference). Note also that, because the word ‘WAP’ in itself does not invite censorship, the song does not require an alternate title for the ‘clean’ version (even though the ‘clean’ chorus lyric, one would assume, calls for ‘WAG’). Moreover, I might speculate that such comments indicate slight discomfort with ‘the real’ meaning of ‘WAP’, in that they make the user’s sensibilities the subject of attention (as in, ‘I just wanted to know how to use a wireless access protocol…’), although they are just as likely to highlight the inherent ‘shock factor’ of the song, given cultural constraints on women’s sexual expression.

Summary

Comments collected on Cardi B’s ‘WAP (feat. Megan Thee Stallion’ demonstrated statistically significant gender differences between male and female commenters. Across seven main themes, men were much more likely to attack the song’s objective worth while women far more often wrote ‘love’, women tended to write more Portuguese and Spanish sentences while men wrote more common sentence words in English (save for a female preponderance of the terms ‘my’ and ‘I’), men named specific public figures more often (except for Kylie Jenner whom appeared disproportionately in women’s comments), women were more likely to mention TikTok dance trends, men more frequently decried the censorship of ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ given the ‘explicit’ nature of ‘WAP’, and more overtly misogynistic comments were written by men, as were jokes about the song title being an acronym for something else.

In the spirit of making research more collaborative, iterative, and responsible, I’d be grateful for comments on any aspect of this blog post, whether about the form or methods or discussion. The research methodology is still in its formative stages, and gender analysis is only one part of Mozdeh’s capabilities, not to mention other tools for data analytics that might be used down the line. Would you be interested in reading more things like this? What’s lacking (or overrepresented) in the analysis? Please feel free to get in touch with any thoughts. Thanks for reading!


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