The Grammys are an annual recognition of musical talent marked by live performances and the presentation of awards for best songs, albums, and emerging artists. Held earlier this month, 2021’s event was a frightful exposé of the collapse of Western culture.
The on-stage entertainment was provided by up-and-coming rapper Cardi B. Unfortunately, the title of the song she performed is so pornographic that it can’t even be named; barely a line of the lyrics could be quoted on a family-friendly news site like this; and the performance defies description for the same reason.
So why bother mentioning the unmentionable? I refer to Cardi B’s performance because it did not take place on a seedy city street or a shady corner of the internet, but under the spotlights at an internationally-renowned event that has been an icon of Western pop culture since the 1950s.
Angry critiques of culture are a dime a dozen. I don’t wish to be the next person complaining about the demise of the West. But I do hope to offer some insightful commentary on the trajectory of our once-Christian nations, and what Cardi B can tell us about our present moment.
The sociologist Philip Rieff (1922-2006) provided a great framework for understanding cultural shifts like the one we are experiencing. The terminology he used was that of First, Second and Third World cultures — though take note that he wasn’t referring to issues of wealth or poverty.
First Worlds, according to Rieff, make sense of life through myths — whether the gods and philosophies of Ancient Greece, the dreamtime stories of Australia’s indigenous cultures, or the beliefs of any traditional society that emphasise folklore, fortune or fate. Though they vary greatly, the common thread in First Worlds is a sense of accountability to something transcendent.
Second Worlds take this a step further, finding unity in the idea of a single, transcendent God who rules over creation and to whom we are all accountable. The major examples are of course Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Second Worlds are different from First in that they reject earlier superstitions in favour of a creed: a single set of beliefs revealed in a sacred book which provides a vision of justice extending to all of humanity.
Third Worlds provide a radical break from the previous two. Third worlds question, interrogate and rebel against their roots. Ultimately they reject any kind of sacred order or religious creed, and actually seek to deconstruct the Second World from which they have emerged.
The terrible weakness of a Third World culture is that it lacks any internal stability, ultimate purpose, or transcendent reference point. A Third World is forced to justify its existence purely on its own terms. As such, Rieff warns that Third Worlds suffer from a rumbling emptiness; they never last long; and they grow increasingly unstable with time.
In fact, Rieff is even more pointed. He labels Third Worlds not as cultures but as “anti-cultures”. And he uses the term “deathworks” to describe the efforts of a Third World to deconstruct and tear apart all that has come before. The online journal Public Discourse has published a brilliant essay which describes Rieff’s “deathworks” in this way:
A deathwork is something that takes the idioms of the Second World and subverts them in a way that destroys the very foundations on which the social order was built…
The adulation of iconoclastic figures such as rock stars, the constant sneering at traditional Second World beliefs and social practices in movies and on television, and the popularity of the vulgar, amoral anarchy of reality TV — these all represent aspects of the Third World and its deathworks and anti-culture.
There is no doubt that Philip Rieff would have described Cardi B’s Grammy performance as a deathwork. It was a mockery of femininity; a subversion of sexuality; and an attempt to offend any remaining moral conscience of Westerners. It was shock merely for shock’s sake.
What prompted me to link Cardi B’s performance to the sociology of Rieff was a recent Daily Wire Backstage podcast. In this long-form chat, a group of cultural commentators made some very insightful comments on the Cardi B saga.
Host Jeremy Boreing — who has clearly read Reiff — remarked that, “We don’t have a culture anymore; we have an anti-culture.” He went on to explain that there is no ideology behind the Cardi B performance. “It’s an anti-ideology,” he quipped. “Whatever system you adhere to is wrong and must be torn down in favour of… individual expression.”
Ben Shapiro leaned in to the obscured fact of Cardi B’s humanity. “She’s acting animalistic but she’s not an animal and so she’s degrading herself,” he explained. “She’s so much more than that,” he continued, lamenting that her song and dance “rips away at her humanity and the humanity of those who watch it.”
Matt Walsh insightfully compared Cardi B’s rejection of femininity with another prominent woman who rejected her femininity, though in an equal and opposite way. Actress Ellen Page this month appeared on the cover of Time Magazine as Elliot Page — with a new name, a double mastectomy, and the appearance of a frail man. While remarkably different in expression, Cardi B and Page have both cast aside all that is feminine in a search for existential meaning.
Michael Knowles offered his insight on this contrast. The Cardi B approach is materialist — the idea that we are simply “meat puppets” and sexual objects who are untouched by sexual degradation. The other, that of Page, is gnostic — the idea that a person’s material body is entirely unrelated to their metaphysical beliefs about who they are internally; that someone can be a “man trapped in a woman’s body”.
Negative reactions to the Cardi B performance have been met with predictable accusations of conservative prudishness. Andrew Klavan responded to this, cynically joking that one is no longer allowed to “point out that our culture is now almost universally trash” — and rather that, “You’re just supposed to watch the decadence and think, ‘Wow, it’s really brave that our culture is now garbage’.”
An entirely different podcaster, Tim Pool — who is neither a conservative nor a Christian — had surprisingly similar reflections on the events of last week. He spoke with sadness about the rapid cultural decay taking place in America.
Tim Pool pointed out the staggering ratings drop of the Grammys — some 53 percent fewer viewers tuned in this year compared to 2020. Pool noted that a comparable phenomenon took place with the recent Super Bowl; and he lamented that in film, recent blockbusters have tended to be bombastic superhero remakes rather than new, thoughtful and creative storytelling.
“Most people are tuning out, they’re turning it off, they’re not paying attention,” Pool said. Speaking of “the ratings collapse and the shock content,” he lamented that “there is no unified American culture.”
It is possible to hear all of this commentary and view it as a personal attack on Cardi B. But this is shortsighted. Someone who performs onstage at a global event has by definition presented herself for cultural critique.
There is no question that Cardi B has been made in the image of God and is dearly loved by Him. But she is also a signpost of our times. Western culture is in rapid decay. As our Christian roots wither, we are running out of ways to react and even things to react against.
What all of this points to is that we need something transcendent — a reality beyond ourselves — to live for and to build our life and culture upon. Jesus Himself warned that when we reject and disobey His teachings, we can expect any edifice we build to collapse as though on sinking sand in the midst of rains, winds and flood. But here’s the good news:
Anyone who listens to My teaching and follows it is wise, like a person who builds a house on solid rock. Though the rain comes in torrents and the floodwaters rise and the winds beat against that house, it won’t collapse because it is built on bedrock.