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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Hypersexuality and the Video Vixen: What’s at Stake in Nick Minaj’s Music Videos

From time to time, academics get looked down upon for wrestling with popular culture. It’s no secret that I’ve spent a lot of time and energy as an undergrad focused on pop culture idols—Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Christina Aguilera— and yet as a graduate student, I am now forced to make a case for the importance of my scholarly obsession. As female pop, hiphop, and rap artists occupy a space in the industry that grows increasingly commercialized and polished, it’s hard to tell if these women are real, or if they exist as bodies attached to the strings of record labels, existing therefore as a semi-masqueraded extension of capitalism. Because I don’t find the record label critique particularly interesting, I’m turning to the artists who have a reputation for running their own show, namely, Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj. The following that both artists maintain is difficult to collectively quantify, which is one of many reasons I choose to work with music videos. Thanks to YouTube, scholars can accurately trace the number of times a video has been watched. To date, Nicki Minaj has received over 1.8 billion music video hits on YouTube/Vevo, as both a lead and featured artist. The first artist to do this was Lady Gaga, in March, 2010.

As I’ve reflected on my defense, I find moments of academic confirmation in essays like “Living the Funk: Lifestyle, Lyricism, and Lessons in Modern and Contemporary Art of Black Women,” by Carmen Phelps, included in Tony Bolden’s The Funk Era and Beyond: New Perspectives on Black Popular Culture. As Phelps argues that artists rely upon visual marketability and commercial appeal in order to be successful (especially in the absence of talent), the importance of the music video as a framework for the visual is increasingly important. A movement perhaps initiated by Lady Gaga and her team of directors, artists are slowly including music video-as-short film into their video repertoire. If visual narratives now accompany chart topping singles, and if response is measured in views, then we need to pay attention to those artists who continue to hold the records for most collective views.

As we work the word “hypersexuality” into our vocabulary, there’s no doubt that black women artists like Beyonce, Rihanna, and Ciera, might have it attached to their own names. Nicki Minaj, however, continues to push hypersexuality in new directions. Hypersexuality accounts for Nicki’s overwhelming visual popularity, and Phelps would agree with me: “Black women artists, singers, and musicians who conform to visual ideas of femininity and who project images of hypersexuality within the specific context of “blackness” are assured more success than those who do not,” (Phelps 187).

Phelps and I agree on the economic implications (rewards?) of hypersexuality (here I’ll suspend my feminist critique of the commodification of black women’s bodies), and would also agree that hypersexuality, in general, doesn’t really challenge “the myth.” Phelps states that “the success of contemporary artists—Black or white—depends upon their ability to conform to mainstream interests and/or sensibilities regarding race, sex, or gender, and such conformity must occur in a multimedia context—visually, theatrically, and linguistically,” (Phelps 187). However, Nicki Minaj breaks traditional codes regarding race (as a black woman), sex[uality] (the video for “The Boys” is a cheeky, homoerotic response), and gender (hyperfemininty, combined with Nicki’s performance as the black Barbie), and is ultimately rewarded with an overwhelming amount of success both as a lead artist, and as a feature artist in the industry.

The definition of  “success” will be the ultimate question that I want to answer; but the definition of success as it pertains to Nicki Minaj may generate a problematic definition for black women, for disabled women, and ultimately, for feminism. Many of the videos are at first glance problematic, and “the impact of these sexually suggestive videos is undeniably regressive in terms of gender politics” (Sharpley-Whiting 26). However, Nicki is never cast as a video vixen— she stands among male rappers, if not in front of the guys. Similar to the video work of Lady Gaga, I believe Nicki Minaj is smarter than than she is credited to be—I’m of the opinion that Nicki has tricked us into consuming a complicated critique of the nasty American rap/hiphop industry.

Works Cited

Phelps, Carmen. “Living the Funk: Lifestyle, Lyricism, and Lessons in the Modern and Contemporary Art of Black Women.” The Funk Era and Beyond: New Perspectives on Black Popular Culture. Ed. Tony Bolden. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. 183-91. Print.

Sharpley-Whiting, T. Denean. Pimps Up, Ho’s Down: Hip Hop’s Hold on Young Black Women. New York: New York UP, 2007. Print.