Reaction to Nicki Minaj's gripe proves point about racism in music business

The speed with which star of Anaconda video was attacked - among others by Taylor Swift, who later apologised - for saying she felt snubbed by award nominations was proof she had a point about black women rarely being rewarded for their contributions to pop culture

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 July, 2015, 7:00pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 July, 2015, 7:00pm

When MTV unveiled the nominations for this year's Video Music Awards there were few, if any, surprises.

Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran and Beyoncé, three of the most successful pop stars in the business, led all the nominations. Massive hits like Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars' Uptown Funk, Big Sean's IDFWU, Hozier's Take Me to Church, Fetty Wap's Trap Queen and Nicki Minaj's Anaconda were all recognised.

But Minaj, who scored three nods, has dominated the online conversation about the upcoming awards since she fired off a series of tweets airing her grievances about the nominations. Although the provocative pop-rap star stressed she was grateful to be nominated, Minaj was miffed that her smash Anaconda - which is up for best hip-hop video and best female video — was excluded from the big race, video of the year (Swift, Beyoncé, Sheeran, Ronson and Mars, and Lamar will compete there).

WATCH Minaj's Anaconda video

Minaj fired off a series of indictments via Twitter that set the social media site on fire. "If I was a different 'kind' of artist, Anaconda would be nominated for best choreo and vid of the year as well," she wrote in one tweet. "If your video celebrates women with very slim bodies, you will be nominated for vid of the year," Minaj wrote.

Swift, thinking the missive was about her Bad Blood video that stars a gang of her super-thin, famous girlfriends, fired back on Twitter: "I've done nothing but love & support you. It's unlike you to pit women against each other. Maybe one of the men took your slot."

The postmortem headlines have focused almost exclusively on Minaj's reaction to Swift's rather misguided assertion that the rapper's missives were directed squarely at her - probably because she's long been the perennial winner of fan-voted awards. She's since apologised to Minaj, writing: "I thought I was being called out. I missed the point, I misunderstood, then misspoke."

But that completely misses the point here, which is that Minaj was snubbed in a category that's intended to highlight the year's biggest videos. For the past three decades, the VMAs have feted the music video - a medium that regardless of the unpredictability of the music industry still matters to fans, even if the way they consume videos isn't by tuning into MTV. This makes the nominees for video of the year, out of any of the categories, easy to pinpoint - and definitely easier to ballpark than, say, a Grammy for album of the year.

WATCH Swift's Bad Blood video

Video of the year nominees have historically followed a trend. These are the videos that have made a profound impact on pop culture or defined a genre the year they were released. Last year's winner, Miley Cyrus' Wrecking Ball, is still having an impact. Drake channeled Cyrus in his recent Energy video, and actress Anne Hathaway swung from a wrecking ball and licked a sledgehammer when she tackled the song on Lip Sync Battle.

Cyrus' win - she will host this year - is especially fascinating considering the brouhaha over her controversial showing the previous year, and the endless discussions about the intentions of her obvious cultural appropriation. Minaj touched on that parallel without naming Cyrus or anyone specifically, because that wasn't the point she was trying to make.

Beyoncé's Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It), Lady Gaga's Bad Romance, OutKast's Hey Ya!, Madonna's Ray of Light, TLC's Waterfalls, Jamiroquai's Virtual Insanity - these are all remembered just as much for their accompanying visuals as they are for the song itself - and all were video of the year winners at MTV.

Minaj's tweets also scratched the surface of the larger, never-ending discussion of the representation of black artists at major awards shows. She asked why Feeling Myself, her Internet-breaking video with Beyoncé, failed to score any nods — though to answer her question, the clip being released exclusively to streaming service Tidal made it ineligible, as MTV and the recent BET Awards determine its nominees based off videos submitted to their platforms.

Another Tweet read, "When the 'other' girls drop a video that breaks records and impacts culture they get that nomination."

When looking at the reaction to Anaconda, Minaj's assertion that she deserved a slot in the big race isn't just the latest case of pop star petulance.

I thought I was being called out. I missed the point, I misunderstood, then misspoke
Taylor Swift

The song was a fire starter from the beginning. Built around a sample of Sir Mix-a-Lot's career-defining hit Baby Got Back, Minaj's ode to her famous bottom was both a throwback to the playful, dirty and brash gems being churned out by female emcees in the '90s - back when there were more than just two enjoying mainstream success - and a celebration of curvy black girls who have seen their bodies shut out of fashion spreads but their features appropriated through plastic surgery.

The cover art, featuring an image of Minaj in sneakers, itty-bitty pink bikini and a squatting pose that emphasised her backside, became a meme before the song was even released. Photoshopped versions of the image showed Minaj as a Google doodle, Minaj replacing the Statue of Liberty and even Minaj launching into space. Marge Simpson and Kermit the Frog were also pictured in the instantly recognisable pose, and images that placed Drake's head on Minaj's body were all over Coachella ahead of his performance.

And to promote a recent performance at a Finland music festival, thousands of life-size cutouts of her pink-thonged rear showed up on the steps of a cathedral in Helsinki.

Minaj's cheeky video was just as hot. Featuring lots of dancing, endless innuendo and her pushing away a touchy-feely Drake, the video sparked think pieces on feminism, body image and cultural appropriation in a year when even Swift wanted to get in on twerking action.

In 24 hours the clip logged 19.6 million views, breaking a record for Vevo.

Ellen DeGeneres even did a spoof of the video for her talk show — and more than 17.5 million people have since watched the clip on YouTube. "U couldn't go on social media w/o seeing ppl doing the cover art, choreo, outfits for Halloween," one of Minaj's tweets pointed out.

Strictly in terms of views, only Mars and Ronson's Uptown Funk and Sheeran's Thinking Out Loud eclipsed Anaconda - but neither visual sparked much of a conversation (although the weddings that re-created Sheeran's romantic video were cute).

Beyoncé's 7/11 played on our obsessions with selfies, but let's be honest, the pop diva is such a beloved phenomenon that she could probably put out a music video of herself eating cereal and it will score a VMA nod - even though her game changing surprise album lost out to Beck at the Grammys, sparking online fury and a brief stage crash from Kanye West (funnily enough, his infamous VMA interruption in 2009 was over Beyoncé losing female video to Swift before winning video of the year).

And while Lamar's clip for Alright is stunning and urgent, it just barely made the cut-off date (eligibility was July 2014 to July 2015), making a video of the year nomination feel a bit premature as we continue to unpack his work.

Although Minaj asserted her missives had zero to do with Swift, the blogosphere jumped at the opportunity to label the exchange between the two female pop stars as a "feud" and a "catfight", with Minaj the aggressor and Swift the victim - all seen by the deliberate photo selections of Entertainment Weekly, Glamour and other publications. Race, gender and genre were integral in the tone, as were perceived views of the two (Swift perpetually wronged and Minaj perpetually angry).

Headlines even sided with Swift, despite Minaj never mentioning her. "Don't play the race or skinny cards, Ms Minaj - you're just a stroppy little piece of work whose video wasn't as good as Taylor Swift's," Piers Morgan wrote in the Daily Mail. "Taylor Swift shuts down Nicki Minaj racism claims," Glamour magazine wrote before praising Swift for handling herself with grace and kindness - because a black woman voicing her opinion means she's angry, obviously.

Swift throwing herself in the mix was ironic, considering Bad Blood is a diss track aimed at fellow pop diva Katy Perry, and the video, as flashy and cool as it was, was a cinematic way of Swift telling Perry: "Watch your back or else my gang of famous girlfriends will kick your ass." Amid the controversy, Perry wrote: "Finding it ironic to parade the pit women against other women argument about as one unmeasurably capitalises on the take down of a woman…"

But this shouldn't be a conversation about Swift's ego or Minaj feeling snubbed. Frankly, the conversation is bigger than both of them. It's proof that Minaj had a point - just look at how quickly she was attacked for saying she felt snubbed and tweeting the reasons she believed it to be true.

Minaj's dialogue about black women's influence on pop culture and her views of how they are "rarely rewarded for it" was a valid one - look at how long it's been a topic of discussion when it comes to these types of awards.

What a shame Swift's ego and the blog reaction proved her right.

Los Angeles Times