We’ve all grumbled about the insincerity of celebrity apologies — the carefully noncommittal “sorry if I offended anyone,” the legally advised refusal to ever admit any guilt or wrongdoing, the buck-passing, the crocodile contrition. In this respect, I guess, artist Jeff Osborne’s response to the furor over his lyric video for Nicki Minaj’s “Only” is refreshingly unexpected. Sorry? Nope, Osborne isn’t sorry at all. “First, I’m not apologizing for my work,” he told MySpace. “The flags, armbands, and gas mask (and perhaps my use of symmetry?) are all representative of Nazism… As far as an explanation, I think it’s actually important to remind younger generations of atrocities that occurred in the past as a way to prevent them from happening in the future. And the most effective way of connecting with people today is through social media and pop culture. So if my work is misinterpreted because it’s not a sappy tearjerker, sorry I’m not sorry.” Well, then.
In one respect, good for Osborne for standing by his work. Only… unfortunately, his explanation is nonsense. Yes, indeed, it’s important to remember the Holocaust — and the ghastly mass killings in Rwanda, and the Killing Fields of Cambodia, and the Armenian genocide of 1915, and every other terrible thing that humans have done to other humans under the auspices of twisted ideology and dehumanization of an ethnic group or other unfortunate demographic. George Santayana’s famous observation, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” has become something of a cliché, but it’s a cliché for a reason: it’s 100 percent true. We study history to understand how we got here, but also so that we don’t repeat the mistakes of those who came before us. Or that’s the idea, anyway.
So, yes, the Holocaust and Nazism are most certainly valid topics for art. If, however, you think that the best way of “reminding generations of the atrocities that occurred in the past” is by glorifying them in a Nicki Minaj video, you have serious problems. The portrayal of Nazism (because, yes, apparently that’s exactly what it was) in the “Only” video wasn’t exactly negative — Minaj’s dictator figure was presented as, if not a sympathetic figure, then one who commands respect and admiration. Nazi Nicki is in charge, which is a version of the image that IRL Nicki has always done her best to project. The fact that in the video she’s in charge of a whole bunch of tanks, a neo-fascist party with the Young Money logo on its flags, and a shadowy cabal of society elites (in the form of Drake, Lil Wayne, and Chris Brown)… well, that only serves to make her all the more formidable.
If this is somehow meant to be condemning fascism or totalitarianism, in other words, it’s not exactly doing a great job of it. That’s not to say, of course, that every work on this topic has to be “a sappy tearjerker,” as Osborne says. But if if an artist is going to claim that he’s “remind[ing] younger generations of atrocities that occurred in the past as a way to prevent them from happening in the future,” you’d expect there to be some level of critique and/or perspective in the work in question, and there’s basically none to be found here. If Minaj and her junta are meant to be avatars of corruption or evil or whatever, why are they presented as badasses? The whole thing makes no sense at all.
The rest of Osborne’s statement is also worth looking at: “A majority of the recognizable models/symbols are American…[as] is the 1st Amendment, which I’ve unexpectedly succeeded in showing how we willfully squeeze ourselves out of that right every day. Despite the fact heavy religious and economic themes were glossed over, there’s also Russian T-90 tanks, Belgian FN FAL, German mp5 (not manufactured until 1966), an Italian Ferrari, and a Vatican Pope.”
What are we to make of this? That the “MQ9 Reaper Drone, F22 Raptor, Sidewinder missile, security cameras, M60, SWAT uniform, General’s uniform, the Supreme court, and the Lincoln Memorial” are all symbols of totalitarianism? That there’s a thread that joins Russian tanks, Belgian machine guns, Italian luxury cars and the Vatican? That the “heavy religious and economic themes [that] were glossed over” tell us that, hey, actually, beneath all the consumerism and religion and everything that makes our lives pleasant, we’re wriggling under the jackboot of neo-fascism?
Bullshit. The other thing with history is that if you’re going to evoke it, the least you can do is try to do so without resorting to hyperbole and obfuscation. I’m no defender of the US government, and there are clearly many, many things that are fucked up about the US in 2014, both domestically and in terms of foreign policy — but in suggesting it’s on a par with a fascist dictatorship wherein people were shipped en masse to gas chambers for summary execution, you’re not just wrong, you’re both undermining your own argument by making inaccurate comparisons and trivializing the experiences of people in the situation you’re evoking. The sort of claims Osborne’s making with this video are a sort of animated demonstration of Godwin’s law, with all the associated loss of credibility that involves.
If you’re going to stand by your work, good on you, but you also have to expect criticism when you make a mess of something. If you spend the opportunity to make a video for one of the world’s biggest artists on a sort of undergraduate expedition into politics, there’s going to be a whole lot of criticism heading your way — and rightly so.