Wednesday, October 31, 2012

‘Nicki Minaj – Pink Friday: Reloaded Tour' at the O2, 30th October 2012

"I would hope that people know at this point that I'm smart enough to know what I'm doing.” – Nicki Minaj
There is no difference between high and low culture, and anyone that says otherwise is a mug.  It’s with this philosophy in mind that I approached Nicki Minaj’s Pink Friday: Reloaded show at the O2.  I’ve been, if not a fan, then at least an admirer of her since I saw the transcendental video for “Stupid Hoe” earlier in the year.  It’s a towering musical and visual achievement, and I realised she was someone to keep a close eye on.  So when I was asked if I wanted to go and see her perform at the o2 I jumped at the chance.  It’s important to remember when watching a pop concert like this that every little thing on stage has been carefully calculated.  A lot of effort and money goes into these things, and every musical and visual clue must to some degree be someone’s decision.  It’s a mistake to consider them as unconnected and unsymbolic, especially as in shows like this, there is a clear narrative and philosophical process being enacted in front of us.

Unpicking exactly what and who Nicki Minaj is and what she is trying to do is more complicated than it looks.  For example just for starters, Wikipedia lists two birthdays for her.  She was born (at some point) in Saint James, Trinidad and Tobago as Onika Tanya Maraj and her family moved to New York when she was five.  She had a tumultuous family life; her father drank heavily, took drugs and once tried to kill her mother by setting the house on fire.

So by what process of transfiguration do we get from this inauspicious beginning to the ultra-professional, plasticised pop star that I saw last night?  I think this show partially explains how, and outlines the consequences.  Becoming a pop star takes a lot out of you, in some cases literally and fatally.  Like a freshly caught fish, a person stepping onto the conveyor belt of pop can expect to feel a knife filleting them, spilling their guts out and tossing them away.  They can rebuild bodies, making people harder, better, faster, stronger.  They're provided with new personalities, new identities, new opinions.  Then the unsuspecting popstar is thrown into a chaotic universe where they’re a resource to be strip-mined, exploited by powerful people with an eye to vast profits.  Only the strong can survive.  The rest burn out spectacularly, going insane and/or dying.

Unlike most people, Maraj had what it takes to pull off this metamorphosis.  Her personality type is impregnable and perfectly prepared to the pop star life.  Describing her childhood, Minaj says:-
 “To get away from (my parents) fighting I would imagine being a new person.  ‘Cookie’ was my identity – that stayed with me for a while. I went on to 'Harajuku Barbie,' then 'Nicki Minaj'. Fantasy was my reality."
Prior to her fame she describes a miserable life eking out a wage waitressing in Red Lobster, or working office admin roles.  At one point she held a position as an office manager on Wall Street where she describes the intense frustration and resultant aggression she felt, resulting in crippling stress pains.  Clearly, Minaj is not cut out to be anybody's wage slave.  But she HAS got the motivation, talent and the psychological tools to shed the skin of base humanity and become a fantastic pop star.  The show last night explores the consequences of what it means for human being to ascend to the top of the cultural heap.

On stage Minaj is a whirl of contradictions.  She stalks around, a gaggle of dancers at her heels  alternately spitting out machine gun fast lyrics and fluffy, almost dainty melodies.  Her songs, as my friend astutely pointed out, seems to be three or four separate songs mashed into one.  You’ll get the fast shouty bit, the light singing and maybe a big drop and a few bars of ultra happy, processed dance.  It’s almost like a ‘cut up’ style of music composing.  All of this is infused with a take no prisoners attitude, with typical Minaj lyrics frequently asserting her identity and her status as the alpha woman in the room. But every time she asserts that she’s on top, she begs the question, ‘which of you is on top?’  Because there’s not just one Nicki Minaj on stage.

There’s ‘Nicki Minaj’, who seems to be the basic default pop star personality.  She sooths the crowd with platitudes “I’m so proud of you!” or “There’s three things I want to tell you: I Love You I Love You I Love You!”.  It’s important to remember that although ‘Nicki Minaj’ is the foundation stone of this identity complex that it’s as unreal and calculated as any other the other personae.  Within ‘Nicki Minaj’, there are a number of sub-characters too, we see Nicki the Boss, Nicki the Ninja, and Nicki Lewinski, all of which represent different aspects of her past or her personality. The other roles she adopts are Roman Zolanski “a gay lunatic”, Martha Zolanski, Roman’s mother who speaks with a British accent and Harajuku Barbie, but the list goes on, possibly into infinity.  She plays with these parapersonalities like she’s shuffling a deck of cards, deciding on ‘who’ she is going to be seemingly at random.

The fact that she can cycle between these identities so fast makes her fantastically suited to life at the cutting edge of popular culture.  We’ve all got our own rolodex of personalities, fictionsuits we can don to explore aspects of ourselves or interact more freely with others.  To some extent this isn’t a new thing, but internet culture has thrown this jagged, overlapping free-for-all multiple psychology theory into the mainstram.  People have a multitude of online identities, posting IDs on forums or fantasy characters in an online roleplaying game – even the ‘Facebook Version’ of the individual has recently gained some currency as a viable separate personality. 

It’s this recognition that you need a wardrobe full of masks to cut it in the digital world that Minaj exploits.  We can be anything we want or need to be at the drop of a mouseclick.  Externalisation  and overt theatricality enables Minaj to navigate the high-octane world she inhabits and allows her to become a person-as-corporation, the one-woman brand. 

The over-riding visual theme to the show is this conversion of the idea ‘Nicki Minaj’ into a brand or product.  The video backdrop allows the scenery to become almost anything, whether it be a projected set, or a psychedelic whirl of colours.  Most of the time it shows us a world where ‘Nicki Minaj’ is everything.  We see ornate Nicki Minaj branded hotels and department stores full of Minaj branded merchandise.  This is as much stage dressing as it is manifesto; a demonstration of the power of her shifting identities.  ‘Nicki Minaj’ is adaptable, ‘Nicki Minaj’ is for sale, and ‘Nicki Minaj’ can and does encompass anything.  

While us fans have to battle to define our personalities in personal and social terms, Minaj fights for idea space with brands like Coca Cola and Hilton Hotels, taking the fight to the real big boys.  Her background projections underline over and over again themes of sublimation of the human being to the brand, the casting aside of the human form/mindset and what it means to personally adopt a shifting and amorphous corporate psychology.  If it’s a principle in US law that “corporations are people”, then Minaj asks, why can’t people be corporations?

Later in the show we see a more explicit connection, something that posits her chosen identity within an artistic tradition. In an Andy Warhol-themed backdrop we see shelves and shelves of spinning ‘Nicki Minaj’ branded products.  Minaj’ed Warhol paintings flash behind her.  The concept of the lifestyle as a part performance, something you live rather than take time off from is exactly relatable to the rootless, globetrotting pop star.  By visually aligning herself with a Warholian philosophy the show becomes reflexive; consumerism fuels the Minajplex (herself, her retinue and so on).  The identical Minaj branded products rotating away on the shelves behind her reminded me of this famous Andy Warhol quote:
What's great about this country is America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you can know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good.” - Andy Warhol
But this is a show that takes pains to satirise the culture of consumerism and takes particular pains to subvert the symbolism and imagery that it uses to suck us into its perpetually out of reach dream world. This is explored further soon after in the set, when Minaj takes to the stage riding a giant rubbery inflatable pink car.  I think the important question to ask here is why make the car so malleable?  It would surely have been easier to just hire a real pink convertible for this segment?  As far as I can see, the thinking behind it is to get us to consider her and the car as a reflection of each other.  She literally sinks into it at times, giggling and laughing as she plays in and around it.  Here the car, the traditional symbol of masculine consumerist desire is rendered soft, feminine and ultimately penetrable.  If we’re being led to equate this prop with Minaj herself, what does this tell us about her? My interpretation is that we’re forced to see the car as a subverted image of desire and to view Minaj in the same way.

Nicki Minaj’s public image is consciously doll-like.  In her videos, photo shoots and live shows she frequently distorts her body, showing an image of herself with huge, staring eyes, brightly coloured hair, long spindly legs or pumped up collagen lips.  This overt sexuality is combined with heavy use of pink, with the disturbing effect being that she is at once sexy and childlike.  This conflation is a common advertising tool, but Minaj caricatures it, taking it to the logical conclusion, exposing the ridiculousness at the heart of it.

The final important part of the presentation is also the most thuddingly obvious.  The backdrop is replaced by a vast money-minting machine, spewing through dollar notes.  Throughout the show, above the stage is an ‘NM’ logo, but here it’s evolved into something more abstract, a corporate brand logo like the Nike swoosh.  If all the thematic elements in the show have been relatively subtle so far, this is like a bash on the head for the audience members not playing attention.  "Look, this IS Nicki Minaj" is the message.  It's the final transformation and the most literal.  We've seen the evolution from human to money making machine.

The thing is I can't quite work out if this is genuine corporate idolisation or a way of subverting and satirising the corporate system.  Even if it IS a satirisation, the Minajplex is a very real thing, and I've always held that actually doing something that you're satirising defeats the point entirely.  I guess the most positive way of looking at this is that we have a girl who's risen from some pretty miserable sounding circumstances to become a person who's the master of their own fate.  While it may be an example of making the machine work for you, you're still working a pretty exploitative machine.  

Nicki Minaj puts on a damn good show, and the only minor criticisms I can make are that maybe the costume changes are a bit long and that I didn't know who the guest stars were.  But Nicki Minaj is clearly one of the most dangerously efficient and effective people working in pop music today.  Who knows what she's going to do next?  Whatever it is, I'll be there.

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