Nicki Minaj's Awkward Turn as a Role Model for 8-Year-Olds

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The chart-topping recording artist and the little British girls who idolize her made for one of the most fascinating pop-culture moments of last year.

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Born in Trinidad and Tobago, an immigrant to Queens at age five, Nicki Minaj's rapid ascent to stardom on the strength of her infectious debut album, Pink Friday, is in most ways a feel good story. A few years back she was making mix-tapes. Now she's certified platinum, and her album's earworm bonus track, "Super Bass," would be claiming song-of-the-summer status if only it had peaked in the right season. Its popularity is thanks in no small part to the striking video that Young Money Entertainment, her label, produced when they realized the track was under-appreciated.

See if you can manage this trifecta as you watch: 1) indulge guilty pleasure mode, mindlessly enjoying the poppy hook, the pleasing cadence of the rap, and the everything-is-pink-except-the-ice-motorcycle aesthetic; 2) try to gauge to what extent you're able to understand the lyrics; 3) keeping images and lyrics in mind, decide how you'd feel watching it with an eight year old.

Here's the video:


Boom-BA-doom-doom, boom-BA-doom-doom bass, he got that - oh, sorry, got distracted. Catchy, isn't it? But where were we. Ah yes, watching with an eight-year-old. If you caught as few lyrics as the average person on the first go-round, it might not bother you, but the heavy sexual overtones in the imagery - the hip thrusts while she's riding the motorcycle, straddling the shirtless male models, etc. - would be enough for many a parent to click over to Nickelodeon. That's what I'd do if suddenly charged with raising an eight-year-old child.

Other parents, not so much, presumably on this theory: What do hip thrusts and dancing over the laps of shirtless men mean to a kid anyway? Weren't warnings against this kind of thing proven overwrought back when the pelvic thrusts of Elvis did no lasting damage to America? If today's kids enjoy innocently watching such choreography, what harm is there in it? In England, for example, a precocious little talent, 8-year-old Sophia Grace, watched the "Super Bass" video with her 5-year-old cousin. Neither really understand what the song was about. But they loved that everything was pink! They are little girls who love pink! And the ice motorbike! They loved that! In the high-pitched, screaming way that little girls love pop musical things!

So they spent two days watching over and over, dancing around the TV room and singing along. Sophia Grace got so good at the rapping that her mom decided to pull out the camcorder.

To date there have been almost 28 million viewings of the results:


So there's the adorable factor. And the novelty of a little white British girl rapping rather capably. Plus the evident cuteness of the friendship between the two young performers. How could Ellen resist? The producers of that daytime television show, where one imagines that Oprah fans have turned en masse, invited Sophia Grace and her sidekick on to perform "Super Bass." This must have been an interesting moment behind the scenes, because while a random parent is always capable of being overwhelmed by the cuteness and innocence of their kid, and not really thinking all that much about the meaning of the rap lyrics their kid is repeating, this isn't at all how things operate on major daytime television shows watched by middle American moms.

Safe to assume that someone at the Ellen show Googled the lyrics of "Super Bass," and made a series of judgment calls about what, if anything, Sophia Grace wouldn't be allowed to say on air.   

Here are the uncensored, original song lyrics that the producer came across:

VERSE ONE

This one is for the boys with the booming system
Top down, AC with the cooling system
When he come up in the club, he be blazin' up
Got stacks on deck like he savin' up

And he ill, he real, he might got a deal
He pop bottles and he got the right kind of bill
He cold, he dope, he might sell coke
He always in the air, but he never fly coach
He a motherfucking trip, trip, sailor of the ship, ship
When he make it drip, drip kiss him on the lip, lip
That's the kind of dude I was lookin' for
And yes you'll get slapped if you're lookin' ho

I said, excuse me, you're a hell of a guy
I mean my, my, my, my you're like pelican fly
I mean, you're so shy and I'm loving your tie
You're like slicker than the guy with the thing on his eye, oh
Yes I did, yes I did, somebody please tell him who the eff I is
I am Nicki Minaj, I mack them dudes up, back coupes up, and chuck the deuce up

VERSE TWO

This one is for the boys in the polos
Entrepreneur niggas & the moguls
He could ball with the crew, he could solo
But I think I like him better when he dolo
And I think I like him better with the fitted cap on
He ain't even gotta try to put the mac on
He just gotta give me that look, when he give me that look
Then the panties comin' off, off, uh
Excuse me, you're a hell of a guy, you know I really got a thing for American guys
I mean, sigh, sickenin' eyes I can tell that you're in touch with your feminine side
Yes I did, yes I did, somebody please tell him who the eff I is
I am Nicki Minaj, I mack them dudes up, back coupes up, and chuck the deuce up

As you read through the lyrics, you might've noticed that in Sophia Grace's original YouTube performance, she skips over "motherfuckin'" on her own. Nor does she say the line about how "when he give me that look then the panties comin' off." But it's hard to tell if it's deliberate and conscious, or if those just happened to be parts of the song where she ran the words together. She does say the lines about how "he might sell coke," and how "yes you'll get slapped if you're looking ho" -- she pronounces the former line in a way that suggests she doesn't understand what it means, and pantomimes ho-slapping such that she does seem to get it.

What demands did network television make on her performance? Here are the girls performing on Ellen. The song starts about 3:25, but if you watch from the beginning you'll fully understand why so many people can't help but be delighted by the spectacle. They're that precocious and cute:


 


You'll perhaps recall that,during a bygone Super Bowl, there was an incident wherein Janet Jackson's nipple was briefly exposed to the viewing public after Justin Timberlake tore off part of her costume. A "wardrobe malfunction," they called it. What I found grimly amusing about that whole episode was the focus on the nipple. Here were two people performing choreography and lyrics that were deeply sexualized, and no one would've cared save for the split second of fleeting nipple (see the end of this clip - that's the part folks thought would corrupt the kids?)

Ellen reminded me of that, because when Sophia Grace performs "Super Bass" on her show, the lines about blazing and selling coke and slapping any ho that looks at your man are in fact performed; the line about panties dropping is sung too.

What a clearly more practiced Sophia Grace leaves out, along with "muthafucking," is the word "eff," from the line "Somebody please tell him who the eff I is." And that is effing ridiculous. The absurdity isn't that they instructed her to leave that line out. It's a judgment call. But that it was deemed a more important moment to censor relative to all the other lyrics? A derivation of "fucking" used as an emphatic adjective -- not a synonym for intercourse -- isn't ideal for an 8-year-old, but its meaning is totally unobjectionable, whereas getting violent with people who look admiringly at your crush, or crushing because someone is a coke dealer...

And perhaps Nicki Minaj was thinking something like that herself as she stood backstage watching Sophia Grace perform. Afterward she came onstage to meet them, as if to fulfill an Archie Bunker nightmare: little white girls in frilly pink and tiaras hanging out with a profane, black immigrant rapper and a lesbian talk show host! The fact that we nowadays look at Ellen and the seemingly wonderful Nicki Minaj as individuals is a heartening counterpoint worth remembering as we wonder at the spectacle of little girls singing about panties dropping on national television. Our culture doesn't move lockstep in one direction. Some things get better. Others get worse.

I say Minaj is seemingly wonderful on the evidence of her meeting with the girls:



It's hard to see how she could've handled herself better. She even steers them to the uncontroversial bridge of the song and has the self-awareness to note that she'll send them the clean version of her album. It's also worth noting that graded on the significant curve one might use for "hip hop artist role models" Minaj has a case to make for pushing hip hop culture in the right direction. While many male hip hop artists portray women as contemptible objects of lust with little value or personality, Minaj conveys a confident woman who knows what she wants: a quiet guy in a suit and tie who is in touch with his feminine side. Could be the same dude from "What a Man," and it isn't difficult to imagine her telling him, "If you like it then you better put a ring on it." Is feminine empowerment the main message Sophia Grace will take from her encounter?

It's possible. Or maybe she'll just have had fun. Or perhaps being exposed to such sexually explicit images and mature lyrics at an early age will indeed manifest itself negatively in the future. We all have our instincts. There isn't any way to know for sure.Will she remember her turn on American television as one of the best experiences of her youth? The moment that launched an otherwise impossible career that fulfilled her in every way? The beginning of what crushed her in the way that child celebrities are sometimes crushed? We know nothing about her parents. How they mediate her interactions with the larger world are as important a factor as anything.

How do the little ones themselves think they're faring, the shopping sprees aside? For now, they say that fame is awesome:



Fifteen years from now, I hope Ellen has them back on the show so we can see how it all turns out. Until then, I submit that the most sensible way to feel about the whole thing is conflicted. Celebrating young talent and warm personalities -- being entertained by fulfilling the fantasies of little kids -- is a kind of entertainment that taps into some of humanity's better impulses. But it's always uncomfortable to expose kids to material they're too young to healthily assimilate. Because when they begin to get an inkling of what that material is about, your ultimate explanation has to be that embedded in the nice lady's song is a way of thinking about love and sex and dating that is at best risky, materialistic, and almost inevitably unfulfilling. 

Image credit: Reuters
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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