Symptomatic Minaj and the Politics of Fun
A couple of months ago, when I was moving to New York from Minnesota, and doing a lot of cross-country driving, I noticed that two of the most often played pop hits on the radio were Nicki Minaj’s “Starships” and Fun’s “We Are Young.” And I’m not embarrassed to admit that I quite like both songs. At some point during the many hours on the road, I began to ask myself what about these songs were so appealing. What made them so popular? And I began to entertain the notion that they seem to express the way young people today have reacted to the long economic recession. However, after I got to New York and started building my new life. I sort of forgot about the many random speculations I had on my long trip and didn’t think any more about it, until a month later, when a bunch of journalists, e.g., see [here], started asking questions about Nicki Minaj’s politics after a recent performance in which she rapped “I’m a Republican voting for Mitt Romney, you lazy bitches is fucking up the economy.” Personally, I didn’t think that lyric was an indication of a political position one way or the other. Few people would assume from her performance of “Roman Holiday” that Minaj believes herself to be possessed by the devil or is a member of the secret Illuminati order, so why take one line from another song and attempt to construct a partisan position out of it? Nevertheless, the relationship of pop music to political ideologies and economic issues is a question that interests me. The kind of reading of the songs that I am doing here is what cultural and literary theorists, from Louis Althusser to Stuart Hall, call a “symptomatic reading,” and I want to contrast “symptomatic reading” with something the journalists seem to me to be doing and what I will call, for lack of a better phrase, “ideological reading.”
The songs by Fun and Minaj are both about partying and having fun; as is typical of pop songs, the chorus and the verses seem to contain opposite messages. For instance, listening casually to the song “We Are Young,” the chorus that goes “Tonight, we are young, so let’s set the night on fire, we can burn brighter, than the sun” would seem to be a celebration of youthful desire. The driving, anthemic music contributes to this feeling.
However, reading the lyrics of Fun’s “We Are Young” verses tells the opposite story. The song is told from the point of view of a young man who has, apparently, physically abused his girlfriend in the past, probably while intoxicated, and now they are both again so drunk at the bar that they need someone to take them home. Not only does the story the lyrics tell haunt the chorus, but also the anthemic style of the music is beautifully haunting as the music’s notes drop at key moments to create a depressing, dark counterpoint to the hopeful message of youthful desire.
Nicki Minaj’s song is similar in the way its form contains contradictory ideas. The music is club music, with a strong beat for aggressive dancing, and the chorus seems to promote the party at which, we might imagine, the song would be played: “I’m on the floor, I love to dance, so give me more… Starships were meant to fly, Hands up and touch the sky, Can’t stop ’cause we’re so high, Let’s do this one more time.” Brilliantly, these lines seem to tell the music, and therefore also the bodies of the listeners, what to do; put your hands up and dance (and also drink) one more time.
However, like in the song by Fun, a closer reading of Minaj’s lyrics reveals its dark, cynical irony. The character that the song is about is someone who will “blow all my money and don’t give two shits” and “ain’t paying my month’s rent.” Not only does the song make fun of itself, but it is also a perfect synthesis of form and content in which the lyrics and the music seem to be having a conversation. The music, lyrics, and video all express longing for escape, as they fuse drinking, sex, vacations at primitive beaches, and starships. The idea of the starship as a utopian escape from a frustrating reality has a long history, from Parliament’s “Mothership Connection” to Kanye West’s “Spaceship.” My favorite moment is when Nicki Minaj sarcastically quotes the famous children’s song “Twinkle twinkle little star” after the character says you can “fuck who you want” — a juxtaposition of vulgarity and innocence that indicates just how much the song’s character is lost in space, pursuing her childish dreams of fun.
So, what are the politics of their songs? An ideological reading would have a hard time locating any political view, since both songs express the desires, frustrations, and contradictory feelings that people have. Nicki Minaj presents us with a Barbie-doll image but seems to mock it at the same time. How do we begin to analyze the politics of having fun, poking fun, and dropping puns?
In contrast to an ideological reading, a symptomatic reading will put the song in its socio-economic context, observe how the symbolic content of the song expresses the psychologically repressed problems, and observe what about those problems are absent from the song. In other words, both Fun and Minaj’s songs seem wonderful expressions of the frustrations and desires of young people in the midst of an economic recession. Fun’s song focuses on an abusive drunk, but neglects to explain what provokes a man to be abusive and to assert his identity in such a way. Moreover, why do we feel we can relate to this troubled character? Minaj’s song focuses on a party girl who is — as so many Americans discovered in 2008 when the economy crashed — in chronic debt. One effect of this recession is that the “youth unemployment rate” (ages 16 to 24) is very high, and it seems to me that the sort of schizophrenic nature of Fun and Minaj’s songs is an indirect response to these troubled times. In my view, Minaj’s lively wordplay is somewhat more attuned to the broader economic problems than Fun’s more anthemic style, even though it lacks the emotional content that Fun’s song has. Both songs, I believe, are wonderfully symptomatic of the contradictory feelings we have about the current economic recession much in the way that a runny nose and sore throat are symptomatic of the virus that causes them. However, in saying that, I don’t want to suggest that the songs are merely symptoms and therefore naive and stupid, because I actually think the lyrics are quite sophisticated and self-aware enough to draw attention to the problematic of the contradictory feelings we have in our twenty-first century consumer-driven society that demands of us that we all believe we are special despite our lacking the means to be truly special. However, their “diagnosis” of these symptoms (if I may continue the medical metaphor of my mode of reading these songs) merely notes the contradictions at play in the way we live our lives, but not the deeper viral problems that are the root of them. In the end, there is no escape from our pathetic lives except for the fantasy of the escape narrated in the song that is already structurally a part of our lives.
So, what are Nicki Minaj and Fun’s politics? Heck if I know, but this question is an entirely different question than the question of the political problematic of their songs.
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