Sunday, November 9, 2014

We're Not Here For Nicki Minaj's Nazi-Inspired New Music Video

Nicki Minaj's latest music video is an example of why people should consult with their local historian before making important decisions. Called "Only," the song sounds sinister, powerful, and dangerous even though the lyrics don't match in tone (she makes a punch line out of the phrase "duct tape" and is proud of it. I can't even). But that's not the problem:

Do you remember in my previous post about Gesamkuntswerk and music videos how I argued that the visual can become intimately intertwined with the aural? Yeah. Nicki and Co. succeeded in creating the same effect here. Unfortunately, they create this sinister aura by employing Nazi aesthetics.

Already there's some push back from viewers and enthusiasts who claim that the video captures more of a Soviet-era style aesthetic, or that it's simply a stand-in for any 20th century totalitarian dictatorship. I'm not sure I can agree with that.  To me at least, this video is straight-up Leni Riefenstahl, Triumph of the Will-level crazy.

First, a brief primer on Nazi aesthetics: they do, as other scholars have already written about, have a "terrible beauty" about them. The mass parades, rallies, banners, flags, and architecture were all designed to promote an ideology of cult-like power. As a spectator or a participant during the Third Reich, one was encouraged to see themselves as part of a uniformed mass of humanity ready to carry out the vision of national socialism.
As plenty of historians such as George Mosse, Saul Friedländer, and Jonathan Petropolous have already argued, many Nazi party members (including Hitler) had a strong and cultivated aesthetic sensibility. More importantly, they believed that art and aesthetics should serve their politics. Art, Goebbels believed, could be used to manipulate the masses. If you're familiar with this blog, you might have read my post on the aesthetics of hatred already. If so, perhaps some of the same themes from that post echo here: art can be employed for terrible purposes, and effectively so because it is beautiful.

Which is why it's, um, uncomfortable that Nicki Minaj uses Nazi aesthetics in her latest video. Let's check out a couple of stills so you can see how this works:

The above image is from the opening scene of the video. Yes, the video's in black, white, and red (which doesn't help) but I think it's the party banners on the side that sealed the deal for me. Banners were ubiquitous throughout the Third Reich and appeared at all kinds of functions and events. Here's a performance by the Berlin Philharmonic that features a swastika in the background, for example:

Second, the design of the main building where Nicki sits on her throne looks awfully similar to Nazi architecture:
And here's an example of Nazi architecture (minus the flags):

Lastly, of course, are the rows of soldiers wearing red arm bands.
Granted, plenty of paramilitary troops and 20th century dictatorships slapped arm bands on men. But since the postwar era, we have come to associate this particular sartorial choice with the Nazi party.
There might be two defenses a reader could use to "rescue" Nicki Minaj from this mess, one not at all believable, the other more believable but still not satisfactory:
1. Pitchfork argues that her music video is employing classic military iconography. She's building her army, metaphorically speaking, and preparing to launch her pop-musical attack on us all.
2. She wanted to portray evil, so who better to turn to for creating feelings of fear and terror than the Nazis?

At least the second way of interpreting the video would mean that the creators of the video acknowledge its reliance in part on Nazi aesthetics. It *has* to be. No offense, but the average American listener isn't going to be familiar enough with Soviet-era dictatorships to immediately recognize those kinds of militaristic references that some viewers think this video is making. I'm still left thinking, to which other dictatorships could this video possibly be alluding?

Yeesh, this video makes me uncomfortable. And it makes me uncomfortable that people still take art and aesthetics for granted. That we assume they don't have power. That's certainly not what the Nazis thought. They used these images and icons for terrible purposes, and as a result, these aesthetic remnants have left lasting psychological scars on millions of people.

Nicki Minaj has always been interested in displaying a masculine power (she's written songs declaring herself the "King," she calls her girlfriends in this song her "sons," etc.). Perhaps that's what this video speaks to with its militaristic setting. But there are better ways to portray power and might than by using these visual cues. It's a shame (if unsurprising) that Nicki couldn't do that here.