Nicki Minaj's animated video for "Only" features rows of soldiers in YM armbands (for the label Young Money), giant red banners, and Nicki in skintight leather inspecting the troops. The Triumph of the Will references are obvious and have already been condemned by right, left, and everybody else with a keyboard. What's been less discussed, though, is that the video's Nazi imagery is not just Nazi imagery. It's also superhero imagery. The first shot you see after credits is a woman in a black body suit, stylized YM on her chest, hair streaming, hands on her hips in that classic super-heroic pose. Bombers fill the sky behind her—a forceful reminder that superheroes’ initial milieu was World War II.
Minaj’s video isn’t the first to note the link between superheroes and fascism. The name "Superman" was a variation on Nietzsche's "Ubermensch.” As Washington and Lee University comics scholar Chris Gavaler details, many critics have pointed out that a strong-man vigilante bashing bad guys while adorned with an iconic symbol has parallels with Nazi imagery and ideology. The most famous of these Superman opponents was Frederic Wertham, author of the 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent, who called Superman a "symbol of violent race superiority," and told a Senate investigating committee that "Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic-book industry."
But similar concerns were discussed going back to 1941, only a year or two after Superman debuted. A German S.S. newspaper even praised Superman as an American effort to copy "Germany's reawakening" and to "import the ideas of manly virtue and spread them among young Americans." Presumably, the S.S. didn't realize that Superman's creators were Jewish. If Superman was an avatar of manly virtue, it was an anti-anti-Semitic manly virtue—a patriotic and strong fascist dream from the U.S. designed to beat the tar out of that strong fascist dream across the Atlantic.
Minaj takes Nazi fascism and anti-Nazi superhero fascism and cheerfully conflates the two, throwing in Catholic imagery, gangsta boasting, and feminist declaration that she's responsible for her own success ("I never fucked Wayne/I never fucked Drake/On my life, man/for fuck's sake"). The result is an indiscriminate potpourri of power fantasies: Minaj as superhero being fanned like an Orientalist pasha while sitting in front of a Riefenstahl military review, or super-Minaj walking amidst the troops with her super-butt (making a cameo from "Anaconda") while spitting lines about "bitches" and how they can blow her.
Minaj, then, starts from the typical hip-hop gangsta assertion of toughness, power, and mastery—"These hoes couldn't test me/Even if their name was pop quiz." But that assertion spirals out into a hip-hop stream of consciousness: power=superheroes=fascism=Catholic Church=military hardware. Hip hop has often been criticized for its embracing of violence and force, and Minaj's video at once underlines that criticism by linking gangsta and Nazis and implicates American culture in general, by linking superheroes—an ongoing pop obsession—to fascism as well. And if that's not enough to make everyone uncomfortable, she also mixes in pop feminism. If you want female superheroes and women owning their own career success, here they are—with guns and pseudo-swastikas. Whether for men or women, worship of power is worship of power, down to the last heil.
That's not to say that Minaj was intentionally using Nazi imagery to critique hip hop violence, or superheroes, or pop empowerment feminism. It's more likely that she was just using a bunch of imagery that seemed like it fit together and would be entertaining/provocative. The fact that the instantly famous rear-view picture from the "Anaconda" single shows up for a split second in "Only," squatting on a quasi-Greek monumental building, is indicative. That image was ubiquitous; Minaj was photoshopped onto the Google symbol, into a scene from the Lion King, and (disturbingly) into Kermit the Frog. Minaj has been turned into a symbol, which symbolizes nothing but its own ubiquity. The only intentional ideological commitment here is to the pop pomo stew.
The privileging of meme over meaning, though, can itself be seen as part of a fascist tradition. Critical theorist Walter Benjamin defined fascism as the "aestheticization of political life." By that he meant that fascism deployed mass culture as a way to channel the energy of politics into symbols and spectacle. In fascist propaganda, politics was funneled into aesthetic display, which could be controlled by those in power.
"Only" turns fascism itself into an aesthetic. The fact that Minaj's video is also, obviously, and enthusiastically, about capitalism, advertising, and self-promotion isn't a contradiction; it’s the point. Superhero, ballbuster hip-hop radio superstar, fascist leader—they're all fantasies of dominance. “Only" isn't shocking just because it references Nazis; it’s shocking because it shows the unsettlingly deep connections between highly current pop-culture memes today and the Nazi themes of triumph, will, and superpower.