All this wrangling over their feminist credentials is just a lot of noise.
Nicki Minaj wants to be the Marilyn Monroe of hip-hop. So let’s just say she is. After all, being a member of Minaj’s audience is all about submitting to her will, just as inducing submission was one of the main objectives of Marilyn’s art. This Sunday was the fiftieth anniversary of Monroe’s death, and the occasion brings to mind how much Monroe and Minaj have in common as musical performers, and how different they are in important ways. Like Marilyn Monroe, Nicki Minaj is a sex symbol for her time and a magnificently theatrical self-construction, and she has no singing voice to speak of.
Identity is a wildly elastic thing in the world of pop stardom, and it always has been. As human objects of fantasy, pop stars provide a way for their fans to project their maddest dreams of transformation. Eleanora Fagan escapes a torturous childhood, slips a gardenia in her hair, and becomes Billie Holiday. Robert Zimmerman shakes off his middle-class Jewish background, takes on a rockabilly persona and starts singing under the name of Elston Gunn, only to change his mind and go with a third identity, Bob Dylan. Farrokh Bulsara turns into Freddie Mercury. Onika Maraj becomes Nicki Minaj.
There’s always a strain of porn in pop music—not just sexiness or sensuality, which are different things, of course, but an industrially strategic manipulation of words, music, and images to manufacture desire. Clever performers have exploited this, sometimes upending it to comment upon or to subvert that desire, since Josephine Baker petitioned for African American equity in a snake dance. I grew up with disco and “Push, Push in the Bush” on top-40 radio.