How to Profile a Pop Star Without Asking About Her Music: The Theater of Nicki Minaj’s ‘Times’ Magazine Cover Story

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Yesterday, the New York Times posted the cover story of this weekend’s magazine, a profile of Nicki Minaj by celebrity profiler Vanessa Grigoriadis. So far, much of the response has focused on its last few paragraphs, in which the diminutive rapping pop star dresses down the reporter for an ill-advised use of the word “drama,” ends the interview, and sends her packing to he hotel lobby.

She called me ‘‘rude’’ and ‘‘a troublemaker,’’ said ‘‘Do not speak to me like I’m stupid or beneath you in any way’’ and, at last, declared, ‘‘I don’t care to speak to you anymore.’’

It was likely a humbling experience for Grigoriadis, one seemingly justified by the words that preceded it. Before we get to that scene in the story, the writer spends more than a thousand words recapping recent history for the Times audience, rehashing Minaj’s beef with MTV and Miley Cyrus, her affection for spandex, her self-objectification, her accent, Instagram editing, and the men who she dates. It only takes one hand to count the references to specific songs Minaj has released or appeared on.

And herein lies the problem. In a massive cover story about one of the country’s most popular and successful musicians, where are the questions about her music? The answer is depressingly simple. The Times wasn’t profiling a musician; it was profiling a celebrity. And celebrity profiles almost universally suck.

Tad Friend wrote the definitive treatise on the problem, “Notes on the Death of the Celebrity Profile,” for SPIN in 1998, detailing just how farcical this convention had become. (Discussing access to Arnold Schwarzenegger for a profile, the publicist says to him, “Oh, God, this wouldn’t be one of those profiles where you try to figure him out, would it?”) And while there have certainly been good profiles of famous people written since then (some by Friend, even), the main conceit of his argument still stands: the PR machines surrounding celebrities have leveraged enough power over editors and writers to control the narrative around their clients, only allowing access to the parts that they wish us to see. There are plenty of examples of how this can end with cringeworthy results, but the Fourth Estate seems to have adopted a position of acceptance. Seventeen years after Friend’s story was published, it’s possible for a pop singer to land the cover of the world’s most prestigious fashion magazine without even granting an interview.

For a hint at just how dark this trend can skew, look to South Korea. One of Grigoriadis’ sources, The New Yorker’s John Seabrook, reported on the pop fiefdoms that currently dominate Asia for his recent book The Song Machine: Inside The Hit Factory, finding a machine so well oiled that members of pop groups could be replaced with minimal friction. Korean record labels are vertically integrated to a chilling degree: They manage the singers’ careers, book tours, secure licensing deals, handle publicity, and decide which songs they’ll sing. At press briefings with the stars, questions are prepared by the company in advance, and any personal details are closely guarded. A secret boyfriend or sex tape can kill a career, rather than allow one to blossom. The machine retains control.

This story may be set in Manhattan and not Seoul, but that dynamic still informs the media climate in which the Times assigned their Nicki Minaj profile to Grigoriadis. Minaj is more than just a musician, she’s also a celebrity, and a celebrity with the privilege of only doing the press she wants to do, in the way she wants to do it. This is great for Minaj and other women artists of color — finally getting the agency their Caucasian counterparts already enjoyed — but less so for Times readers, or anyone interested in what Minaj is actually like. Grigoriadis is experienced at navigating the three-ring circus that encircles a celebrity of Minaj’s stature, so from her editor’s perspective, it makes sense to deploy her in an attempt to pierce that veil.

But that experience was likely what made for such an awkward exchange and Grigoriadis’ unceremonious ejection from the interview. It’s clear that the sum total of her access to Minaj herself was that short meeting in a Manhattan hotel, and her attempts to elicit spicy quotes resulted in predictably screencap-ready tweetbait. But in reading Minaj’s eloquent, poignant thoughts about the way white pop stars engage with black art and artists, or the agency of black women, it’s clear this musician has thought deeply about how she expresses her opinion. There’s not one word printed in that profile that Minaj wouldn’t want printed, and the amount of control she exerted over a cover story in one of the world’s largest and most prestigious magazines is a testament to her agency.

At the end of the day, who did we learn more about from this profile: Nicki Minaj, or Vanessa Grigoriadis? We certainly understand that Grigoriadis respects Minaj’s “Boss Bitch” status, enough to include her potentially embarrassing dismissal from the interview. But almost everything in the profile was a rehash of what is already known about the artist, and the saucy quotes she got on the record were just distilled versions of ideas Minaj has been tweeting about for the last couple years. Minaj the musician is exceptionally interesting; she’s the first black woman pop star to seamlessly integrate hip hop into pop music, and uses her platform to control her own objectification, destigmatizing the transaction of a woman exploiting her own sexuality in the process. The music and images she sells are worth the exploration. But we don’t get that here, just more hollow myth-building.

If the only one who benefits from this enterprise is Team Nicki Minaj, is this really journalism? As George Orwell famously said, “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed. Everything else is just public relations.”