Nicki Minaj’s “Only” and the Aesthetics of Fascism: A Clueless Appropriation of Potent Imagery

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Hey, there’s a new Nicki Minaj lyric video! And unlike most other lyric videos, it’s not just a bunch of words flashing up on your screen! There’s a whole animated storyline that goes with it, in which Nicki is presented as… um, the ruler of a fascist dictatorship that looks awfully like Nazi Germany! The lyric video for “Only,” a track that’s weird enough in and of itself, appeared over the weekend, and predictably enough given its subject matter, it’s gone down with the Internet like a granite dirigible. The clip was greeted with outrage from the likes of Gawker, BuzzFeed, and also, amusingly, outlets not a whole lot less right-wing than what they’re condemning. Minaj is hardly the first to use fascist imagery in the name of art, but she’s the first in a while to do so in such a terminally clueless manner.

The problem with this video is not so much that it uses Nazi-esque aesthetics — no imagery or symbolism should be entirely off limits for art, after all — but that it does so in such a tone-deaf manner. Totalitarianism has a strong, instantly recognizable aesthetic that’s been used to various horrifying ends throughout world history. This means it’s a potent device — one that you any artist needs to have a solid, well-thought-out reason for deploying.

It’s not difficult to imagine the thought process that went into making the “Only” lyric video: when you think of dictators, you think of totalitarianism, and when you think of totalitarianism, you think of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia and 1984. It’s worth noting that there are definitely elements of all of the latter here — the omnipresent surveillance cameras definitely call to mind Orwell, and the stylized graphic design is as redolent of Soviet-era propaganda posters as it is of Nazi Germany. But really, this only reinforces the idea that far left and far right wrap around to meet in the same place — and in any case, comparing yourself in a positive way to Stalin or Big Brother isn’t exactly a whole lot better than LARPing Adolf Hitler.

Compare and contrast “Only” the animated fascist imagery here with, say, Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Say what you like about the merits of the latter film as a whole, but the imagery of jackboots and marching hammers is a clear and dramatic evocation of the protagonist’s descent into paranoia and megalomania. In the case of The Wall, the symbolism isn’t subtle or especially inventive, but at least it works.

Similarly, punk’s affinity for swastikas — especially British punk — and other Third Reich ephemera is well documented. While the genre’s exponents weren’t exactly in the clear, morally, there’s an argument to be made that their appropriation of the signifier was at least based in an understanding of just how fucked up the signified was: if wearing a swastika was the worst thing you could do, then that’s what punk was going to do. Wearing Nazi symbols was a way to be as obnoxious as possible to the establishment. As Dick Hebdige writes in his book Subculture: The Meaning of Style:

In punk usage, the swastika lost its ‘natural’ meaning — fascism. The punks were not generally sympathetic to the parties of the extreme right. On the contrary… the conflict with the resurrected teddy boys and the widespread support for the anti-fascist movement … seem to indicate that the punk subculture grew up as an antithetical response to the the reemergence of racism in the mid-’70s. We must resort, then, to the most obvious of explanations — that the swastika was worn because it was guaranteed to shock.

Clearly, there are problems aplenty in recasting a symbol of genocide as a symbol guaranteed to piss off the old folks, but at least there’s some measure of nuance there, and an understanding of the significance of the imagery in question.

There’s none of that in the “Only” video. As Jezebel’s Isha Aran wrote on Saturday,

It’s one thing for Minaj and her crew to assert themselves as the most elite members of society: Nicki Minaj as a (presumably fascist) dictator, Chris Brown as a military leader, Drake as the pope, and Lil Wayne as some kind of CEO. But this is just lazy. I’m usually #TeamNicki, but this video is basically one giant tug of war between dumb and offensive.

This is precisely the problem with the video. There’s nothing smart or nuanced about “Only” — instead, there’s a whole lot of generic fascist imagery that draws heavily on Leni Riefenstahl and creates a striking visual aesthetic, with the implicit message being, “Hey, look at Nicki! She’s in charge!”

In semiotic terms, the signifier (fascist imagery) is detached from the signified (fascism) without being attached to anything else, which leaves it to mean nothing. This can in itself be an interesting idea: in the case of punk, as Hebdige argues, “the signifier (swastika) had been willfully detached from the concept (Nazism) and, although it had been re-positioned within an alternative subcultural concept, its primary value and appeal derived precisely from its lack of meaning…. it was exploited as an empty effect.”

Without such exploitation, though, the signifier reverts to its original signified — or, in plain English, if you take fascist imagery and deploy it in the service of creating an image of fascism wherein you are the person in charge, you end up looking suspiciously like, well, a fascist. I suspect the true intention of “Only” is to emphasize the fact that Minaj is a bad bitch who is in charge of pretty much everything, so someone said, “Hey, let’s make you a badass dictator being fanned by unfortunate minions and is supported by the church, army and the private sector! Just like, y’know, Hitler!” What could possibly go wrong?

The point here is not that Nicki Minaj is a fascist, obviously. It’s that she’s the star of a silly video about which no one involved thought hard enough. There’s nothing inherently bad about using fascist imagery in art, so long you are doing it because you have something thoughtful to say about that imagery and what it signifies. In the case of this video, deploying fascist imagery to apparently emphasize the point that you are a boss bitch does not make you look like a boss bitch. It makes you look like someone with a poor understanding of history.