Thursday, July 30, 2015

That Stupid Zeppelin vs. Minaj Meme

I've seen this meme floating around my social media feeds recently, and it really gets under my skin. I wouldn't necessarily argue that Nicki Minaj is some intellectual paragon of our modern era, but I've frequently seen her boiled down as vapid, and used as a sign of the decline of our intelligence, which is unfair and reductive.

On the one hand, comparing Nicki Minaj to Led Zeppelin is unfair due to the differences in their statuses in our culture. She is, after all, only a pop artist, whereas Led Zeppelin has been elevated since the 70's to iconic status. It's sort of like comparing some boring, butt rock band like Nickelback or Creed to Frank Sinatra.

It's not just comparing what could be a simple pop fad to musical icons that's unfair, though. The musical styles aren't really comparable in a "better vs worse" kind of way. Rap and rock are pretty substantially different genres.

Also, comparing Minaj to Zeppelin ignores the almost assuredly stupid and/or vapid stuff that was popular in the '70s that was forgotten because it wasn't interesting or good enough to keep around taking up pop-culture space. (I can't verify anything about "Thank You"'s placement in the music charts. I'm not sure it was released as a single? The only reference to it as a single that I can find is on Wikipedia, which is noted with a "citation needed," so...less than useful.)

And on yet another hand (so many hands!), using "You a Stupid Hoe"'s chorus is cherry picking the least representative song from her catalog. She's certainly written other stuff that's pretty deep:

"I look beyond what people sayin', and I see intent
Then I just sit back and decipher, what they really meant
Cherish these nights, cherish these people
Life is a movie, but there will never be a sequel
And I'm good with that, as long as I'm peaceful
As long as 7 years from now, I'm taking my daughter to preschool
Cherish these days, man do they go quick
Just yesterday, I swear it was o' six
Ten years ago, that's when you proposed
I look down, yes I suppose" -- "All Things Go"

"I fly with the stars in the skies
I am no longer trying to survive
I believe that life is a prize
But to live doesn't mean you're alive
Don't worry 'bout me and who I fire
I get what I desire, it's my empire
And yes I call the shots, I am the umpire
I sprinkle holy water upon the vampire
In this very moment I'm king
In this very moment I slay Goliath with a sling
In this very moment I bring, put it on everything
That I will retire with the ring" -- "Moment 4 Life"

It's a common thing I've seen among people (especially certain corners of the internet) to try to use rap as some kind of example of our stumble toward IDIOCRACY, but excepting African-American Vernacular, a lot of the stuff people wind up talking about is stuff that's always true in music, but doesn't usually become a problem until black people and/or women do it.

Just as an example, I've seen people pearl clutch because rap is often very frank and open about drug use and sex, often intertwining the two. However, drugs and sex have been referenced in music since the stone age (the time period, not the queens of).

“Squeeze my lemon till the juice runs down my leg" - Robert Johnson (1937)

"She take you down easy
Going down to her knees
Going down to the devil
Down down at ninety degrees" AC/DC "Giving the Dog a Bone

Particularly in the 60's and 70's, when our culture was having a pretty strong love-affair with this stuff, it made its way into music as well as basically all other aspects of art--books, poetry, paintings, movies, etc. While the rest of the country has moved on, drugs stick around in poor communities, and given various economic issues, the black population is overwhelmingly poor--especially when compared to whites. So, of course people coming from those communities will write about that stuff. That's where the phrase "write what you know" comes from. That isn't to say all black folks come from poor or high crime areas, but redlining, white flight to the suburbs, and other types of racist housing segregation have had their effect in some areas.

And sex, because we're all living in the shadow of the Victorian era, even still, is often dealt with in a humorous way because it still makes us a bit uncomfortable, and humor is how we deal with uncomfortable things. "Anaconda" is a silly song. Just like the song it's sampling, "Baby Got Back" was silly. And just like "Giving the Dog A Bone" and "Big Balls" by AC/DC are silly, and "Big Ten Inch Record" by Aerosmith is silly.

And as for silly, nonsensical lyrics being a problem:

"Semolina pilchard climbing up the Eiffel Tower
Elementary penguin singing Hare Krishna
Man you should have seen them kicking Edgar Allan Poe" -- "I Am the Walrus" - The Beatles

"Here come old flattop, he come grooving up slowly
He got joo-joo eyeball, he one holy roller" -- "Come Together" - The Beatles

Again, I'm not claiming Minaj is the intellectual voice of our generation. But it's easy to cherry pick lines from a few well-known and silly songs and point to those as examples that Minaj is some dim-witted know-nothing when she can, in fact, write interesting and probing stuff.

People often mock the way hip-hop approaches subjects, frequently bluntly. That's how you get lines like:

"Now that bang bang bang,
I let him hit it 'cause he slang Cocaine
He toss my salad like his name Romaine
And when we done, I make him buy me Balmain
I'm on some dumb shit" -- Nicki Minaj - "Anaconda"

But if you look at the context of "Anaconda," cocaine has made Minaj's beau of the verse extremely wealthy, and sex is how she gets and keeps herself in that wealth. Sex is her currency.

There's, like, 50 conversations we could have about just that part alone: women pop artists being forced to adopt sexualized personas to succeed, black women in hip hop being pushed out of the genre by men and being similarly forced into mostly sexual personas and song subjects, the oversexualization of black women and the role of the market in boxing women into those roles, women using sexuality as a tool to attempt to balance the inequalities in a patriarchal system, the bias against African-American vernacular for sounding "unintelligent" and how that can be reflective of white colonial ideals, and several others.

Men historically have basically never been forced into a situation where sex is their only recourse to try to navigate and succeed in the world, and as such, men are almost never depicted as having to resort to such strategies in fiction or pop culture. The only example of such that I can think of played straight is Finn in Catching Fire. Any time men get put in feminized and emasculated situations like that, it's played as a joke, like "Boy Named Sue," or even how people treat Oprah's partner, Stedman.

Another thing that bothers me about this comparison: Minaj is no Kendrick Lamar or even Queen Latifah, but comparing her act to Led Zeppelin's is unfair because they're two different types of performances. If you wanted to compare Minaj to an iconic act, a more apt comparison would be Madonna. Both Minaj and Madonna are celebrations of sexuality and femininity. Their acts are meant to be cheesy and sexual and flashy. (Or, if you want to stay more "rock" than "pop," she's kinda sorta similar to Twisted Sister and KISS, two bands that aren't really meant to be deep, but rather silly fun.)

One more thing: these types of posts assume that boring and/or repetitive lyrics, isolated from the context of the song, is representative of the song as a whole. This isn't exactly fair. "You a Stupid Hoe" is not only those four words repeated throughout the whole song. In fact, doing some research into the meaning of the song, "You a Stupid Hoe" has an interesting history. It's apparently a reply to woman rap star Lil Kim, who claimed that Minaj was stealing her act--i.e. being sexy. The song disses her like crazy, and the chorus is repetitive and irritating because it is a taunt. It's Minaj saying "Nanny nanny, boo boo" to Lil Kim, challenging her. Which is, at the very least, interesting if it doesn't fully succeed. I feel the same way about "Anaconda"--interesting if not totally successful.

The thing is, if you want an example of the sign of our boring-ass lyrical times, you can look to the reductive-gender-politics mess that is Meghan Trainor's "Dear Future Husband," or the blatant attempt to lazily coast on previous success that was Green Day's "Know Your Enemy" (as well as the entirety of 20th Century Breakdown...zzzzzz).

It's weird to be arguing so hard for Minaj when I have listened to very little of her stuff--although I've been tempted to start since she's one of the only successful female rappers in the game right, which I feel deserves attention. But whenever I see this meme passed around, I get uncomfortable.

I'm not saying folks can't dislike the song, or think the lyrics are lazy, repetitive, stupid, boring, whatever. But sometimes people just mean "lololol, dumb lyrics." Which, maybe they are. But sometimes it's clear that the lyrics are being used as a smokescreen to piss all over hip hop as a musical style at least and often black culture as a whole. And I think taking a moment to really consider what you think and why you think it can be a useful exercise.