She and her funhouse pal Kanye West have been called the pop wing of weird rap, but in their outlandish show-and-tell staginess they share a lot less with Odd Future than with Katy Perry and Lady Gaga, a set of new-model pop stars who seem to be gazing out through the other end of fame’s crazy kaleidoscope. All of whom, remember, grew up in the nineties, getting their first glimpse of stardom through Hype Williams’s bugeye on Total Request Live. And getting a first taste of it, in Nicki’s case anyway, through MySpace peep-show performance art.
Once upon a time, dance pop was about self-affirmation, and the thing being affirmed was usually some sort of identity—ethnicity, gender, sometimes class, and maybe even sexuality. The Nicki generation seizes a whole new subject for pop: not who you are and how you made it, but the meaning and experience of celebrity once you have it. In place of identity, these prima donnas are performing fame. And doing it with what you might even call “taste”: an idiosyncratic aesthetic vision for everyday life, one that has nothing to do with where they’ve been and everything to do with synthetic aspiration. Minaj isn’t being inauthentic about celebrity—celebrity is the most authentic thing about her. Making it now doesn’t require pantomiming the big dreams of a little Italian girl from Detroit or the troubled life of a Trinidadian-born drama tween from Queens. Stardom can actually porter whatever baggage you bring to it. All it asks is that you embrace its bonkers logic and then perform it back to us, dancing your ass off in that hypercolor dreamscape, all decked out for the fame-drag ball.
But “drag” is a touchy subject for Minaj, given career-long rumors that she’s “really” a lesbian whose upscale-femme get-out is all actually put-on. (“Nicki Minaj is butch!” go the conspiracy-theory comment threads.) But as neither-here-nor-there as the rumors are, they’re also a tribute to her perfect plastic versatility. Minaj herself has described the style with which she first made her mark as Harajuku Barbie, and, for all the otherweirdliness of her constant costuming, it might be the dress-her-up-yourself-doll part of that packaging that’s most important—and “butch” just another way of saying, “Bitch can get away with anything.” She can.
The first time I saw Minaj perform it was on YouTube, as it probably was for many of her super-devoted fans. (When I last checked, one video, for “Superbass,” had been viewed over 220 million times, and like most of her songs had spawned an entire ecosystem of tribute videos and impersonation clips.) The clip begins with Katy Perry on stage, at a December 2010 USO-style gig at the Miramar Marine Corps base. Perry was finishing up her set, wearing a latex-y dress somewhere between dominatrix and storm trooper and launching into a bouncy finale of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” At the chorus, thousands of troops bopping along with her, Perry turned stage right and shouted Minaj’s name, and an inscrutable pastiche apparition strutted onto the stage, in a slinky laser-show dress that looked like it might actually be electrified and underneath a two-foot-wide blonde pyramid wig that could have been a spotlight from an alien spaceship. In the front row, the girls in uniform were going nuts.