The hype over Nicki Minaj‘s “Anaconda” has been a long process. It started when the cover, which featured a controversial image of Minaj’s behind, leaked on the Internet to much dismay; it continued to play out after the track’s audio release as the lyrics were heralded as feminist gold, and it all came to a much-needed climax in the form of the music video featuring Minaj, some backup dancers, and Minaj’s ass. Oh, and Drake was there.
Folks are now, as usual, scrambling to decide: empowering, or not empowering? If anyone had actually been paying attention to Nicki all these years, they’d already know the answer.
When Beyoncé‘s feminist credentials came under fire by feminists in the past year, there was hell to pay. It was fire-and-brimstone kinds of hell, too. People who expressed distaste for the “Mrs. Carter” tour title or Beyoncé’s subtle sexuality were called into question as fellow feminists lifted her up to prominence as the epitome of Goddess. Look, I’m all for Beyoncé and I used to listen to “Why Don’t You Love Me” on repeat, but her feminism is not everyone’s feminism. Beyoncé is married with a child — married to the man she’s been assumedly exclusively sleeping with and dating for pretty much my entire life. She’s been raising money for feminist causes, reclaiming the movement for women’s social, political, and economic freedom, and penning additions to the Shriver Report in her free time. In terms of the image Beyoncé conjures up in the minds of men and women across the nation, it’s pretty clear that it’s one of moderate respectability and responsibility. Beyoncé is not Nicki Minaj.
Nicki Minaj is not a woman who easily slides into the roles assigned to women in her industry or elsewhere. She’s not polished, she’s not concerned with her reputation, and she’s certainly not fighting for equality among mainstream second-wave feminists. She’s something else, and she’s something equally worth giving credence to: a boundary-breaker, a nasty bitch, a self-proclaimed queen, a self-determined and self-made artist. She’s one of the boys, and she does it with the intent to subvert what it means. She sings about sexy women, about fucking around with different men. She raps about racing ahead in the game, imagines up her own strings of accolades, and rolls with a rap family notorious for dirty rhymes, foul mouths, and disregard for authority and hegemony. While Beyoncé has expanded feminist discourse by reveling in her role as a mother and wife while also fighting for women’s rights, Minaj has been showing her teeth in her climb to the top of a male-dominated genre. Both, in the process, have expanded our society’s idea of what an empowered women looks like — but Minaj’s feminist credentials still frequently come under fire.
To me, it seems like a clear-cut case of respectability politics and mainstreaming of the feminist movement: while feminist writers raved over Beyoncé’s latest album and the undertones of sexuality and empowerment that came with it, many have questioned Minaj’s decisions over the years to subvert beauty norms using her own body, graphically talk dirty in her work, and occasionally declare herself dominant in discourse about other women. (All of these areas of concern, however, didn’t seem to come into play when Queen Bey did the same.) Minaj’s perspective has always been multi-dimensional; she comes forward as an immigrant, as a black woman, as a female rapper, as a sexual being, as an artist, as a storyteller, as a survivor, as a bad bitch. She comes forward in order to tell her own story, be it one of domination or declaration. Minaj has even come forward as a feminist. She’s actually done it over and over again. And yet, instead of simply embracing her own discourse on the topic, feminists often can’t wrap their heads around it.
I’m not here to pit Beyoncé and Minaj against one another, of course. I love them both. But it frustrates me that feminists can so obliviously overlook a perspective rooted in self-determination, and it grates on me because the reason is rooted in respectability politics.
“Anaconda” was praised for being a track that both reclaimed the gaze-inspired “Baby Got Back” and also for reversing the narrative of human sexuality in which women’s bodies are worthy of appreciation only when they please men. And when the “Anaconda” album artwork premiered online, feminists were quick to claim the Minaj ass-shot heard ’round the world as revolutionary, despite much debate over how the image of her behind played into the male gaze. “Whenever black women own their sense of sexuality and it appears to not be controlled by the hetero-male gaze, the whole world gets into a tizzy,” Feministing writer Mychal Denzel Smith wrote. He continued, “If black women aren’t allowed to own their sexuality, then who does it belong to?” What his piece touches on is the ways in which women, and black women especially, are often criticized for expressing themselves sexually despite the repression those expressions fight with every inch of skin. To say Nicki Minaj is modest would be a damndable lie; Minaj has been scantily clad and sexual since the beginning. But are any of us modest? When I put on a short skirt or a crop top, I do so outside of the male gaze, and I am not alone. Women who choose to express their sexuality are not contractually obligated to do so in line with the male gaze, and Minaj’s own choices often call that gaze into question. The integral spirit of defiance that exists within Minaj’s self-imagery is undeniable. The perfect example of this defiance is the video for “Lookin’ Ass,” in which Minaj poses in a revealing outfit while literally destroying the male gaze.
Minaj also frequently juxtaposes sexualized imagery with lyrics about her own sexual desires or the men she is accepting — or, frequently, rejecting — as partners. In Big Sean’s “A$$,” which was literally about men appreciating women’s rear ends, Minaj questions Big Sean’s own endowments. “He like it when I get drunk, But I like it when he be sober,” she tells us in “High School.” In “Barbie World,” she remarks: “Yes, sir, I am that bitch. Fuck you silly like the rabbit,” right before giggling. These lyrical decisions make it clear that she exudes sexual desire, not sexual availability. She owns and defines her own sexuality, time and time again — be it in conjunction with or in opposition to the desires of men, desires which she repeatedly calls into question. And when feminists make the mistake of questioning Minaj’s depiction of her own sexuality, they fall into oppressive and problematic matrixes which situate sexual pleasure as antithetical to self-respect or empowerment. This is what brings me to the latest feminist point of contention in Minaj’s career: her lap-dance with Drake in “Anaconda.”
“The song ‘Anaconda’ is a bold, sex-positive statement about a woman’s ability to own her own body and sexuality. The video, though, completely fails to follow through on the song’s potential for a powerful feminist message, instead relying on the tired trope of hypersexualizing women’s bodies,” Sophie Kleeman wrote for Mic when the video dropped online. “It opens with Minaj and a gaggle of backup dancers in a jungle setting, writhing and sweaty as they grind against the ground and each other. It also features Minaj in a kitchen, chomping down on a banana and covering herself with whipped cream. Drake also makes an appearance — but only as a prop for a lap dance during which, as Gawker informed us, he got a ‘boner.’ This maybe doesn’t count as empowering anyone except Drake.”
What Kleeman misses in this analysis, however, is critical. Drake’s own sexual pleasure has nothing to do with that lap dance, and his “hover hand” says it all. Throughout the lap-dance montage, Drake sits absolutely still, unpermitted by Minaj to touch her at all as she gyrates and grinds on and near his body. As Kevin O’Keefe wrote for The Wire, “He’s just here to experience Nicki’s butt.”
Throughout that lap dance, Minaj is the one in control, and she’s acting on her own sexual desires. She’s simply expressing her sexual desire. Her lap dance is an act of seduction, not of submission. So is the rest of the ass-slapping, ass-sliding, ass-centric hot mess of a video. Making a video about her own ass might seem contradictory to the values of feminism, but if you take a closer look, it’s happening outside of and in defiance of the ideal beauty standards that hold women down and the male gaze that controls their bodies.
As Lindsay Zoladz wrote for Vulture:
Plenty of people — prominent among them, Nicki Minaj — are happy to talk about Nicki Minaj’s ass, but fewer want to confront a certain sense of unease that she creates in her most provocative videos, like the stark, black-and-white clip for the 2014 single “Lookin’ Ass” (in which she quite literally guns down the male viewer) or her great 2012 collaboration with Cassie, “The Boys” (which plays out like a candy-store-hued pop-art Thelma & Louise). And it’s there in “Anaconda” too. These videos enact a certain bait-and-switch violence toward the viewer who has the audacity to think Nicki is shaking her ass for him; they draw you in with their neon-bright, sexually charged imagery, and then they suddenly, unexpectedly turn confrontational.
It isn’t the male gaze, dominant narratives of sexuality, or hegemonic femininity which reigns true throughout Minaj’s work. It’s her own sexual state of being. And when Nicki Minaj struts out in a string bikini or exudes her own sexuality in the middle of something otherwise empowering, it isn’t an inherent contradiction or a cause for debate. It’s simply a reflection of how many women — women who, often, feel comfortable with and empowered in their choices — are living their sexual lives. As sexual beings, we’re allowed to indulge in self-directed pursuits of pleasure without shame. We’re allowed to be frank about our own exploits. We’re feminists who fuck, and a lot of times it looks like both things happening at the exact same time. That’s what central to the revolutionary aspect of Minaj’s work: She’s never been shy about her own sexuality, nor has she been subtle or polite about it. Her lyricism has been consistently vulgar, shocking, and delightful — and often, has embraced a more realistic narrative about sex than songs which describe it using only metaphor. Whereas Beyoncé might say “it’s sweetest in the middle,” Minaj is more likely to say, “I let him play with my pussy then lick it off of his fingers.” Same sentiment, but with a much different place in the matrix of respectability politics, gender politics, and mainstream music.
“Anaconda” wasn’t an isolated incident, and it wasn’t Minaj’s first time articulating her own identity nor her last. Throughout her feminist declarations, however, has appeared the same specter of doubt. Feminists refuse to take Minaj’s statements seriously, continuously torn between embracing her sexually raw and eccentric persona with her own self-declared girl-power focus. It’s clear that when Minaj is making feminist statements in a language that resembles mainstream feminist discourse, folks are giddy to jump on the bandwagon — but her oversexualized state of being, her sexual aggression and occasional sexual dominance, often worry them. This is hugely problematic. It’s the impossibility of ultimately marrying the image of a sexually empowered woman to her state of existence which allows for the distorted view of women’s sexuality to prosper. When feminists honor Minaj’s feminist lyrics, as they did with “Anaconda,” and then admonish her for expressing herself with sexually charged images and videos, they are playing into the same dominant narratives about women’s sexualities that perpetuate victim-blaming, slut-shaming, and the subordination of women.
Despite the debates over “Anaconda,” Minaj remains one of the few artist willing to explicitly confront the gender parsing that puts pressure on her career every day, be it in music or in interviews. Early on, Minaj declared herself apart from the other, more submissive girls of the world. She declared her intent to “Go Hard.” She was open in her own self-doubt on “Can Anyone Hear Me?,” articulating her desire to stay true to herself as she progressed as an artist. She spoke out about her intent to make room for other women in rap in “Still I Rise.” In “Here I Am,” she describes an abusive relationship — and articulates her own self-worth as she breaks free from it. She spoke frankly about her power to represent unseen and unheard voices in popular music in “I’m the Best.” In “Fly,” she spoke about breaking out of the constraints placed on her in her industry. She partook in some navel-gazing on “Dear Old Nicki,” publicly lauding and embracing the rap persona she’d presumably laid to rest since hitting the mainstream in a brave act of self-acceptance. She compared herself to Marilyn Monroe in a track named after the starlet herself, admitting both her faults and her own self-determined self-worth. She “Endorse[d] These Strippers.” She sang about being the shit with Ciara on “I’m Legit.” The proof is in the pudding, respectability politics be damned.
Nicki Minaj is a feminist, and she expresses that in her work. In the long run, what Minaj has contributed to the existing and ongoing dialogue of women’s oppression is the perspective of someone who refuses to be defined by any categories she doesn’t claim for herself or constrained by the desires of other people. Today’s feminist blogosphere can get super hung up on who self-identifies as a feminist and who should be allowed to, but what that conversation ignores are both the variances among us as women and the real, lived experiences of women living in those variances. In a universe in which we are still enslaved to the dichotomy of “slut” or “virgin,” Nicki Minaj has chosen to live within her own spectrum of sexual expression — and she’s proven that at no matter where we land on that spectrum ourselves, we’re still whoever we damn well please, feminism and all.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: All credit for the phrase “Hover Hand” should be directed toward Brittani Nichols.
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Carmen is the Digital Editor at Ms. , Managing Editor at Argot, a Contributor at Everyday Feminism, and Co-Host of The Bossy Show. She previously served as Straddleverse Director, Feminism Editor, and Social Media Co-Director at Autostraddle. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr or in the drive-thru line at the nearest In-N-Out.
Carmen has written 924 articles for us.
The spectacular release of Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade earlier this year, and the critical response to it, has fleetingly put the music video in the spotlight. For a ubiquitous and influential art form, music videos tend to be easily dismissed and under-analysed, which means it took something as extreme as Beyoncé’s approach – an entire album complete with extraordinary visuals and social commentary – to draw attention to them.
This Sunday, the MTV music video awards will be held at Madison Square Garden. Beyoncé has received 11 nominations and there is even a new award category called Breakthrough Long Form Video, suggesting her influence continues to ripple through the industry. Adele has received eight nominations. Two videos featuring the late David Bowie, Lazarus and Blackstar, have been nominated for three awards.
Still, the lack of attention generally paid to music videos was noted at a recent event in Sydney, where a panel of music video directors gathered to discuss the state of the art form, and to celebrate the best examples in Australian video making (including award winning local clips Born Dirty by Butter, Love is My Disease by The Jezebels, and You Were Right by RUFUS).
Discussion of the music video reached its peak in the 1980s and early 1990s when these short, catchy clips accompanying pop songs exploded into popular culture. While promotional clips for songs had been produced in the 1960s and 1970s and collated on television shows like Top of the Pops and Countdown, MTV’s constant 24-hours-a-day broadcasting, (which began in 1981) made music videos all but compulsory viewing and revitalised the music industry.
MTV’s change of focus from music to reality TV in the 1990s and 2000s created a perception that the music video was on the decline. But today, music videos have branched out from 3-minute clips on dedicated music channels to a variety of forms on numerous media platforms. Music video style – attention-grabbing imagery (with or without a proper narrative), fast editing, and (usually) a visual representation of the music it goes with – now influences film, television and all types on visual culture.
Music videos can be long or short, filmic or fragmented, watched on television or the internet, and also folded into feature films and narrative TV (think of the musical sequences in films like Pitch Perfect and TV shows like Glee, Empire, Nashville) and then released online as stand-alone clips.
Pitch Perfect’s Cups, for instance, is sung by lead actress Anna Kendrick when her character auditions for the Barden Bellas acapella singing group. The spinoff music video with Kendrick in character has received more than 280 million views on YouTube.
The development of the music video
The very early days of MTV saw directors grappling with what the medium could do. Directors such as Russel Mulcahey, best known for his work with Duran Duran, created spectacular and often bizarre imagery in their clips.
In this example of Mulcahey’s work from 1984, we can see what became known as the “MTV aesthetic” clearly. There is fast and constant editing. The images are suggestive of post-apocalyptic visions such as those contained in the Mad Max films. There is, however, no more than a vaguely hinted-at narrative. The visuals respond to the music and lyrics but are not entirely beholden to either.
Not all responses to the rise of MTV were positive. Criticism included the idea that pairing music with images detracted from the music itself. There was also concern about the mode of viewing that MTV promoted, which was interpreted as being more about distraction than traditional forms of television. The non-stop parade of colour, glamour, and disconnected images offered by MTV was seen as a reflection of a superficial, consumer culture.
Concern also arose about the way particular groups were represented in music videos. MTV infamously took a number of years to start playing any videos featuring black artists. (The rise of Michael Jackson was a major factor in the change in this area.) The sexualised portrayal of women in music videos also drew criticism – and has continued to do so. They can dehumanised women by reducing them to little more than attractive body parts as the Robin Thicke video for Blurred Lines exemplifies.
The 1990s saw the rise of the music video auteur, directors who developed more cohesive bodies of work. These pairings enhanced the credibility of both director and band when done well. The most prominent examples of these auteurs were Chris Cunningham, Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry and David Fincher.
This video to Aphex Twin’s Come To Daddy, directed by Cunningham in 1997, demonstrates how images can be combined with music to create something greater than the sum of its parts. Cunningham draws on imagery from horror films, and uses a bleak urban landscape to match the harsh sounds created by Aphex Twin, with the subordinated sci-fi elements of the narrative echoing the electronic music.
The music and visuals are both simultaneously futuristic and gritty. That this is a music video and not a short film is obvious in the way the sound and vision connect throughout without mirroring one another, with glitches in the vision matching the stammering rhythms.
Many of the features of this video – particularly blue filters and grotesque, distorted or disrupted representations of the human body – can be seen elsewhere in Cunningham’s work, creating a sense of connection between different pieces (for an interesting point of contrast, see his video for Madonna’s Frozen).
The music video moves online
What almost disappeared – after MTV switched its focus to reality TV – was serious academic analysis of the music video. There are only a small handful of researchers working in this area today. This is problematic because the music video is far from a dead media form, and is no less important in its popular and cultural impact than it was in the 1980s or 1990s. Videos have simply moved to different platforms and taken on new and diverse forms.
YouTube is now the primary location for music videos, with views in the tens of billions, making them one of the main ways music is consumed. Videos are also watched on streaming services, downloaded to personal devices, and can range anywhere from 3-minute clips to Lemonade’s one-hour long premiere on HBO, to Pharrell Williams’ continuous 24-hour music video Happy.
Music video’s migration from television to the internet has affected its content, aesthetics, and the way we think about pop stardom. As critic Maura Edmond points out, music video has been heavily influenced by the media convergence and web 2.0 practices of the last ten years.
In particular, the music video’s economic rationale, distribution, exhibition, reception practices and aesthetics have all been affected by its shift from television to the Internet.
While videos still appear on dedicated music channels and countdown TV shows, integrated distribution and exhibition structures such as syndicated hosting site Vevo are now the norm, as is the supply of music videos on-demand through search functions on YouTube, Tidal and Vimeo. This means participatory culture practices such as sharing, liking, commenting, making, and remaking of videos, are more commonplace for the average music fan.
Edmond argues music videos are the most-watched and “spread” content across YouTube because they fit the aesthetic demands of online video clip culture – they are short, catchy, and visually striking – and are therefore perfect viral content or spreadable media.
Gotye’s Somebody That I Used To Know is a good example of the way a simple low-fi video can go viral.
Meanwhile, comedian Amy Schumer’s Milk Milk Lemonade shows how the parody video (a staple of YouTube culture) can look much like the real thing.
(See Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda for comparison).
This changing landscape has led to new trends in the style and aesthetics of music videos. Very high budget music videos continue to be made for those at the top of the star spectrum, and these increasingly emphasise bright colours or simple colour schemes that translate as well to small screens as large ones (see, for example, Taylor Swift’s Bad Blood).
An example of how this type of aesthetic (although not at the high end of the budget scale) can be used in creative and political ways is MIA’s Borders.
This self-directed video has stark, but beautifully framed and affecting images that use the bodies of actual refugees to illustrate MIA’s take on the current crisis in Europe.
In one shot, the lurid gold of hypothermia blankets calls to mind the greatest wealth of the West while covering the bodies of those rejected by it. This connects with the lyrics, which ask for an honest evaluation of our society’s values in relation to refugees.
A new lo-fi aesthetic
Still, overall budgets for music videos are down. For this reason, and due to technological advances, more bands are making their own lo-fi videos. In turn, even artists who have no need to make cheap videos are drawing on this lo-fi aesthetic to make an impact.
Kayne West’s video for Only One, for instance, was shot entirely on a phone camera, giving it a DIY, home-movie style well-suited to a song about his daughter. The cutting-edge filmmaker and music video auteur Michel Gondry is the director of this clip.
This changed landscape for music video aesthetics also means shifting narratives of pop music celebrity and stardom. Music videos are the primary place now for selling a musician and their music.
With the new accessibility provided by search engines and video streaming sites, they are a constantly available link to the star presence. This makes it interesting when artists decide not to be in their videos, as Sia does in most of her clips, which often feature teenage dancer Maddie Ziegler, and Justin Beiber did with most recent album Purpose.
Beiber released a series of dance clips to accompany Purpose, in collaboration with young choreographer Parris Goebel from New Zealand. The clips for PURPOSE: The Movement were released one at a time, on the hour, every hour, on November 14 2015, but can now be watched as a continuous 40-minute dance film or visual album. It has been nominated at this year’s MTV awards in the Breakthrough Long Form category.
Beiber’s removal of himself from these clips, and Goebel’s free reign on choreography and direction speak to the way music video culture is interacting with other YouTube genres, particularly in relation to dance music and choreography. (See popular choreographer Tricia Miranda’s video for Rihanna’s Bitch Better Have My Money as an example).
The video for the lead single Sorry (nominated in three categories at the MTV awards), is extremely simple, featuring just Goebel and her brightly costumed dance crew performing to Beiber’s vocals in a blank, white, infinity space.
The immense popularity of this video is because this simplicity allows the incredible choreography to shine, rather than relying on Beiber’s star presence. It also attracts a diverse audience outside of Beiber’s dedicated tween fan base, including dance fans and Goebel followers who can watch, rewatch, learn and share the choreography.
While PURPOSE: The Movement is a triumph for Goebel, who has also worked with Nicki Minaj, Jennifer Lopez and Janet Jackson, the popularity of Sorry of course still ultimately promotes Beiber and his music. It is therefore a clever move by Beiber to diversify his fan base and star image through non-traditional means.
As a pop star who was first discovered on YouTube, Beiber is a musician made in the click, like and share era. Purpose was also his “growing up” album as he attempted to put numerous bad-boy image problems behind him. Releasing a dance film that takes the spotlight off himself works with the album’s theme of humility and is part of this rebranding.
As music videos continue to evolve they are influenced by, and influence, other visual art forms. For many people now, they are inseparable from the very experience of music.
They are a place of creative experimentation and an opportunity for film-makers to cut their teeth. They are a key platform for artists to tell us something about who they think they are.
Given the purposes they can fulfil, more thoughtful analysis of them (beyond the frequent outrages that controversial videos can produce) would be good to see.
The MTV music video awards will air on Foxtel in Australia on Monday August 29.