“She probably felt like she was rolling with Berry Gordy or something,” Rodgers, sporting his trademark beret and dreadlocks, told The Washington Post in a recent video interview. “I was just this lucky musician who was doing the job that I loved and got a hit record, and I was in my environment with all my good friends.”
Her attempt to use his celebrity to push people around was a dealbreaker. “No, no, no, I don't do that,” Rodgers remembered explaining. “I don’t play that card.”
Sitting at home one night, some time later, he replayed the bad date in his head. Rodgers, who is obsessed with television — he says he keeps it on in every room of his house, 24/7 — came up with some lyrics:
Watchin’ the late show
I made up my mind, oh
A love that is free like a love should be
Fallin’ behind, oh
Don’t you see you are the one
I couldn’t have begun
No, your love is cancelled
The song, “Your Love Is Cancelled,” which appeared on Chic’s 1981 album, “Take It Off,” was not a hit. But the metaphor Rodgers had invented — the idea of “canceling” a person for unacceptable behavior, such as a network executive pulling the plug on an unsuccessful TV show — has taken its own journey. Recently it turned up in Central Florida, in the mouth of a 57-year-old White Republican from Ohio.
“All right, who’s next?” asked Rep. Jim Jordan. “Who’s the cancel culture going to attack next?”
Jordan, sans jacket, hiked up his pants and smiled at the young right-wing activists who had gathered in an Orlando hotel ballroom for the final day of the Conservative Political Action Conference. The congressman scanned the crowd before continuing. "You see last week they tried to cancel Kermit the Frog and Mr. Potato Head? They backed off Mr. Potato Head. I think he told them his preferred pronouns are he/him/his, right?" Jordan said with a smirk.
The theme of the conference was “America Uncanceled.” Attendees shelled out between $330 to $7,500 to see Jordan and other pro-Donald Trump politicos vow to protect Americans from the “woke” hordes demanding the removal of statues celebrating white supremacists, among other perceived offenses.
In his speech, Jordan was invoking the specter of “cancel culture” in reference to Disney’s decision to add a content warning at the beginning of some episodes of “The Muppet Show” on its streaming service, because the shows depict harmful stereotypes and “mistreatment of people or cultures.” (In one episode, country singer Johnny Cash performs with a Confederate flag in the background.) As for Mr. Potato Head, the toymaker Hasbro had announced that it would drop the “Mr.” and “Mrs.” from its famous potato dolls, prompting a backlash that included some specters of its own. “It’s time,” wrote one right-wing pundit in response to the Mr. Potato Head news, “for Republican states to secede.”
The courtesy titles, a company official explained to Fast Company, were “limiting when it comes to both gender identity and family structure.” After seeing the outrage the news had created, however, the company canceled the change.
Neither the Muppets nor Mr. Potato Head had faced extinction — only modification in light of companies’ evolving sense of what customers consider to be respectful and inclusive. But among those who are offended by the notion of being offended by “Mr.” or “Mrs.” in a doll’s name or the presence of a proslavery battle flag on a kids’ TV show, “cancel culture” is a new favorite way to describe what’s making them upset (way punchier than “political correctness”).
“Cancel” and “woke” are the latest terms to originate in Black culture only to be appropriated into the White mainstream and subsequently thrashed to death. Young Black people have used these words for years as sincere calls to consciousness and action, and sometimes as a way to get some jokes off. That White people would lift those terms for their own purposes was predictable, if not inevitable. The commodification of Black slang is practically an American tradition. “One of the biggest exports of American culture,” said Renée Blake, a linguistics professor at New York University, “is African American language.”
Terms such as “lit” and “bae” and “on fleek” — or, if you’re a little older, “fly” and “funky” and “uptight” — have been mined by White people for their proximity to Black cool. The word “cool” itself emerged from Black culture. “I do not know what white Americans would sound like if there had never been any black people in the United States,” James Baldwin wrote in 1979, “but they would not sound the way they sound.”
With “canceled” and “woke,” there’s a twist: Not only have these words been appropriated from Black culture, but they have also been weaponized to sneer at the values of many young Black liberals.
“When I hear stuff like ‘America Uncanceled,’ what does that even mean? What are you talking about? What are you really trying to say?”
Screenwriter and journalist Barry Michael Cooper was reflecting on how “cancel” ended up in Orlando.
“It’s really weird, man.”
But for Cooper, there’s also amusement and pride, considering he was largely responsible for the term entering the American lexicon.
Thirty years ago, he was working on the screenplay for “New Jack City,” a film that would become a 1990s Black gangster classic. One of the characters was Nino Brown, a “malignant narcissist” of a Harlem drug boss (played by Wesley Snipes). After sacrificing the life of a child to save his own, Nino finds himself back at his headquarters being castigated by his girlfriend. Suddenly, he grabs her by the head, throws her on a conference table and douses her in champagne.
“Cancel that b----!” he hisses, as a lieutenant collects her from the table and takes her away. “I’ll buy another one.”
The scene, Cooper says now, is “about Nino’s sense of power, and it’s about dismissal: I don’t need you. I made you, I could break you.”
Why did Cooper pick that word, “cancel”? Simple: “Your Love is Cancelled” happened to be coming out of the screenwriter’s speakers around the time he was writing the scene. Rodgers’s harmless kiss-off to a rude date transformed into a gangster’s ruthless desecration of his relationship.
Nino’s profane dismissal proved quotable, and it followed “New Jack City” into the wider world. In 2005, rapper 50 Cent quoted the line on his song “Hustler’s Ambition.” Four years later, Lil Wayne used it on “I’m Single.” Variations on the expression jumped to reality TV: “Get away from me — you’re canceled,” music producer Cisco Rosado tells girlfriend Diamond Strawberry in an episode of VH1’s “Love & Hip Hop.” (“I was just watching ‘New Jack City’ the night before,” Rosado said later.)
Ultimately, the expression took root in that great incubator of creativity: Black Twitter. And that is where the meaning of “cancel” started to evolve.
Declaring someone or something “canceled” on Twitter was not really an attempt to activate a boycott or run anyone from the public square. Cancellations were more of a personal decision, a way to say we don’t really kick it anymore: You stepped out of line, and now I’m done with you. (Think Black fans expressing disgust with Justin Timberlake for dissing Prince.) Saying someone was “canceled” was more like changing the channel — and telling your friends and followers about it — than demanding that the TV execs take the program off the air. The power of cancellation lay with the canceler: How much social capital were they divesting, and how many others would follow suit?
Cancellation notices were “a way to wield power, where we haven’t been able to really do it before on a cultural level,” Cooper said. “Twitter has allowed us to say, ‘We’re here, we’re not going to be discounted, and if you say anything to try to diminish us, we’ll cancel you.’ ”
The concept of online "call-outs," aimed more at public accountability than low-key channel-changing, really took hold in the mid-2010s, with people pointing out behavior or artistic statements from celebrities they deemed problematic. Sometimes it was for their words, as when Kanye West insisted that slavery was a choice and that Bill Cosby was innocent of the rape charges against him. After decades of sexual abuse allegations against R. Kelly, in 2017, Black fans made a concerted effort to have the singer barred from performing and pressured other artists to cease collaborating with him.
In the wake of #MeToo, the online atmosphere became even more charged as accusations made against abusers were sometimes followed by swift repercussions for the accused. A similar dynamic regarding racism emerged after George Floyd’s killing in police custody — a watershed of horror and urgency over systemic abuse followed by a wave of accountability for people and institutions who were called out as being part of the problem.
As call-outs led to greater consequences, some people became nervous about how social media had changed power dynamics in the court of public opinion. “Cancel culture” was the diagnosis, and the term became a catchall defense for those trying to evade public criticism of any kind.
Publisher decides to revoke your book deal after you try to intervene in the certification of a presidential election and a mob storms the U.S. Capitol? Cancel culture. Members of your party calling for your resignation after multiple women accuse you of sexual harassment? Also cancel culture. Dr. Seuss Enterprises decides to stop selling certain Dr. Seuss books that contain racist images? “Cancel Culture Comes for Dr. Suess.”
“It’s just a joke now,” said civil rights activist Johnetta Elzie.
“Cancel” is now just another word that White people have taken and run into the ground.
Rodgers wrote “Your Love is Cancelled” in the wake of a different kind of cancellation.
Chic had been a pioneer in disco music, a genre that was associated with the Black, Latino and gay communities. By the end of the 1970s, however, disco was facing a backlash from resentful rock fans. In 1979, the Chicago White Sox collaborated with Steve Dahl, a DJ and anti-disco crusader, to hold “Disco Demolition Night” at Comiskey Park. Fans got discounted tickets for bringing disco records, which would be collected and ceremoniously blown up on the field between games of a doubleheader.
Dahl later said that he was unaware at the time of the importance of disco to marginalized groups and that there was no racist or homophobic intent behind Disco Demolition Night. (“Sometimes a stupid radio promotion is just a stupid radio promotion,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 2019.) But, in any case, the event turned out ugly.
The rowdy anti-disco crowd rushed the field and trashed the stadium. Some people had shown up with records by Black artists of other genres, according to Vincent Lawrence, then a teenager, who was working as an usher. “Someone walked up to me [and] said, ‘Hey you — disco sucks!’ and snapped a 12-inch in half in my face,” Lawrence told the Guardian in 2019. “That’s when I started feeling like, ‘Okay, they’re just targeting me because I’m Black.’ ”
The cancellation of disco was not total, but it hit Chic hard. “We were basically scorched by the whole ‘disco sucks’ thing in the summer of ’79,” Rodgers told The Post.
A two-time cancer survivor who works constantly, Rodgers says social media gives him a way to stay in touch with fans. He’s the kind of celebrity musician who replies to individual tweets. “If you look on my Twitter feed, it’s always the same names popping up, and they become my friends,” he said.
One time, Rodgers recalled, someone suggested to him that, if he was such a big deal, then he should be too busy to respond to “anybody and everybody.” The woman unfollowed him, he said, but not before introducing him to a phrase he’d never heard before.
She told him he was canceled.