Nicki Minaj is five-foot-four, most of it in the gun-barrel thighs. In her bouncy cameo at Madonna’s sleepy Super Bowl show, Minaj lit up, looking like the anime villain of Madonna’s musical generation and the outlandish hero of her own—a threat to grind her gonzo godmother between those thighs like eggbeaters.
Minaj is the first great rapper to have made her name as a kind of hip-hop pinup—just as much, and maybe more, with her strut, her swag, and her loudmouth-in-outer-space style as by what she sounds like or what she says. (Though she does say a lot of really fantastic things, like, famously, “First things first I’ll eat your brains,” and “I only stop for pedestrians / Or a real, real bad lesbian.”) And it’s no coincidence she’s also the first woman to make a legitimate case for herself as hip-hop’s top dog. Or that doing it, as a woman, has meant turning herself into a doll-eyed candy-colored chameleon, converting talk shows and red carpets into manga strips with impossibly dyed, sometimes dichromatic wigs and a mind-bending array of improbably flattering gear—asymmetric sculptural gowns, patchwork-quilt skirts, and patterned one-piece jumpsuits that hide absolutely nothing. Shape-shifting is a survival mechanism for a lady in rap: If you stay in one place, the latent male aggression will gut you like a fish. Just ask Nicki’s sex-queen soul sister Lil’ Kim—or don’t, since as far as Kim is concerned, Minaj is an ungrateful plagiarist.
Since Minaj first showed up on raucous mixtapes in 2007, she has been a flipbook look book of slipstream identity and schizoid style, besting her Young Money mentor Lil Wayne at his own out-of-the-box game by doing it always with flirtatious glee. One of the hottest things about Minaj is how she cuts so quickly, in her lyrics and her outfits, from hard-edged supra-masculine to soft-focus and girlie: Her single-factory studio debut, 2010’s Pink Friday, was assembled out of hooks and built to charm, and she promises her second album, due in April, will be a great, angry leap forward, packed to bursting with character wizardry and virtuoso content. In the meantime, she’s kept building her stable of alter-ego thoroughbreds—Nicki Mirage; Nicky Lewinsky; Rosa; Roman Zolanski and his weirdly British mother, Martha Zolanski—all of whom parade through the pastel schizopolis of her bizarro music-video universe. And all of whom are dressed to the nines, in an à la carte assemblage of Cyndi Lauper gone cyberpunk, sexed-up Missy Elliott, black-light anime, Japanese street fashion, and hip-hop booty mag. Among a laundry pile of other influences from the anything-goes fashion future.
The whole circus is dazzling and code-cracking genius, since pop markets run by the same laws as any other: grow or die. The problem of being sexy in rap has forced all of Minaj’s flummoxed emcee predecessors the other way, into little whirlpools of self-caricature. (See, along with Kim and Elliott, MC Lyte, Da Brat, and Foxy Brown.)
With Nicki, the slideshow sequence of caricatures is so blinding you lose sight of the person doing the puppet-mastering. And stop caring: In a music culture built by a decades-long authenticity arms race, she makes you forget, finally, the essentialist question. Who Nicki is is much less important than what she is, which is really famous.
The references to forebears are there, though, in the clothes and in the brag: Kim and Missy and Left-Eye, Madonna, Grace Jones, Gwen Stefani, Britney Spears, Janet Jackson. All those women were also, and maybe unavoidably, style icons as much as musicians—Madonna especially, her own shape-shifting a kind of street-fashion fable that echoed down the generations: Anyone could be a star if you wanted it bad enough.
But the incredible thing about Nicki’s fantastical crystal-ball fairy tale is how little street is in it—impossibly little. The luxe polish is especially remarkable because she did grow up relatively rough, in a broken home her father once tried to burn down in Jamaica, Queens, from where she commuted to high school at La Guardia not for music (she didn’t make the cut) but for theater.
Minaj didn’t make her name right away—she’s 29 now and spent the first years out of school waitressing at Red Lobster, working in customer service and trying to hustle up label interest with some bottom-feeder New York crews. But when she did, parlaying a MySpace following into a mentorship with Wayne, she did it as theater, looking like an imperious kid whose entire one-woman show was conceived in a hall-of-mirrors prop room and costume shop: A gangbanger becomes a sex goddess becomes a flirty girl in a princess dress, sometimes in the space of a single guest verse, sometimes within a single staccato bar.
She and her funhouse pal Kanye West have been called the pop wing of weird rap, but in their outlandish show-and-tell staginess they share a lot less with Odd Future than with Katy Perry and Lady Gaga, a set of new-model pop stars who seem to be gazing out through the other end of fame’s crazy kaleidoscope. All of whom, remember, grew up in the nineties, getting their first glimpse of stardom through Hype Williams’s bugeye on Total Request Live. And getting a first taste of it, in Nicki’s case anyway, through MySpace peep-show performance art.
Once upon a time, dance pop was about self-affirmation, and the thing being affirmed was usually some sort of identity—ethnicity, gender, sometimes class, and maybe even sexuality. The Nicki generation seizes a whole new subject for pop: not who you are and how you made it, but the meaning and experience of celebrity once you have it. In place of identity, these prima donnas are performing fame. And doing it with what you might even call “taste”: an idiosyncratic aesthetic vision for everyday life, one that has nothing to do with where they’ve been and everything to do with synthetic aspiration. Minaj isn’t being inauthentic about celebrity—celebrity is the most authentic thing about her. Making it now doesn’t require pantomiming the big dreams of a little Italian girl from Detroit or the troubled life of a Trinidadian-born drama tween from Queens. Stardom can actually porter whatever baggage you bring to it. All it asks is that you embrace its bonkers logic and then perform it back to us, dancing your ass off in that hypercolor dreamscape, all decked out for the fame-drag ball.
But “drag” is a touchy subject for Minaj, given career-long rumors that she’s “really” a lesbian whose upscale-femme get-out is all actually put-on. (“Nicki Minaj is butch!” go the conspiracy-theory comment threads.) But as neither-here-nor-there as the rumors are, they’re also a tribute to her perfect plastic versatility. Minaj herself has described the style with which she first made her mark as Harajuku Barbie, and, for all the otherweirdliness of her constant costuming, it might be the dress-her-up-yourself-doll part of that packaging that’s most important—and “butch” just another way of saying, “Bitch can get away with anything.” She can.
The first time I saw Minaj perform it was on YouTube, as it probably was for many of her super-devoted fans. (When I last checked, one video, for “Superbass,” had been viewed over 220 million times, and like most of her songs had spawned an entire ecosystem of tribute videos and impersonation clips.) The clip begins with Katy Perry on stage, at a December 2010 USO-style gig at the Miramar Marine Corps base. Perry was finishing up her set, wearing a latex-y dress somewhere between dominatrix and storm trooper and launching into a bouncy finale of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” At the chorus, thousands of troops bopping along with her, Perry turned stage right and shouted Minaj’s name, and an inscrutable pastiche apparition strutted onto the stage, in a slinky laser-show dress that looked like it might actually be electrified and underneath a two-foot-wide blonde pyramid wig that could have been a spotlight from an alien spaceship. In the front row, the girls in uniform were going nuts.
So is it safe to assume that you were always interested in fashion?
I’ve always been intrigued by color and by interesting hair. I was one of those weird little girls doing my own hair at the age of 9. I was, like, getting weird gels and new brushes and cornrow holders. I would tweak and perm at the age of 13. When I first went to get my hair colored, I was about 14 and I wanted blonde highlights. The beautician said, “No, you have to get your mother on the phone,” and I was just crying and begging. I’ve always been experimenting. Cyndi Lauper’s videos—that’s what intrigued me.
And you definitely use your looks to get noticed.
I like the idea of doing something that everyone else is not. I get high off that. Just the idea that other people don’t have the balls to do something—that’s my thing.
You were at a lot of fashion shows last season.
The biggest surprise to me was that after I went to some shows with Anna Wintour, I got an autographed photo from her the next day that said, “We match!” I had on these, like, weird balls and craziness, and she had on this really sophisticated dress, but they both were orange. I was like, “Oh my God, I’m getting this framed!” I’m going to get a bigger version and put it in my gym, because that’s some fly motivation.
What’s the story with your different alter egos?
I have different personalities, so I just started naming them. Like, there’s one that’s angry, a little more in-your-face. I named that person Roman. He guest stars on my new album. There’s also his mother, Martha. She guest-stars as well. She’s from London. I also have a Barbie character that comes out every now and then. She’s soft-spoken, really sweet, and polite. She’s got a kid’s voice.
Do you dress for your different personalities?
If I’m more dressed down in sweats and black hair, that’s the Nicki character. Roman is more outlandish with his dress code—he’ll wear speakers on his butt and stuff like that. Barbie wears little cute dresses that don’t show too much skin.
Are you coming back to Fashion Week this time?
I’m not impressed to be in that world. I’m in my own world. I think sometimes the fashion world isn’t even about clothes anymore; it’s about this “in” crowd, and I’m not into that. But I’m doing a Barbie fashion show. They did a Barbie for me, and that is super friggin’ amazing.
Culture Eats Strategy For Lunch
BY FC Expert Blogger Shawn Parr | 01-24-2012 | 6:30 AM This blog is written by a member of our expert blogging community and expresses that expert’s views alone.
Get on a Southwest flight to anywhere, buy shoes from Zappos.com, pants from Nordstrom, groceries from Whole Foods, anything from Costco, a Starbucks espresso, or a Double-Double from In N’ Out, and you’ll get a taste of these brands’ vibrant cultures.
Culture is a balanced blend of human psychology, attitudes, actions, and beliefs that combined create either pleasure or pain, serious momentum or miserable stagnation. A strong culture flourishes with a clear set of values and norms that actively guide the way a company operates. Employees are actively and passionately engaged in the business, operating from a sense of confidence and empowerment rather than navigating their days through miserably extensive procedures and mind-numbing bureaucracy. Performance-oriented cultures possess statistically better financial growth, with high employee involvement, strong internal communication, and an acceptance of a healthy level of risk-taking in order to achieve new levels of innovation.
Misunderstood and mismanaged
Culture, like brand, is misunderstood and often discounted as a touchy-feely component of business that belongs to HR. It’s not intangible or fluffy, it’s not a vibe or the office décor. It’s one of the most important drivers that has to be set or adjusted to push long-term, sustainable success. It’s not good enough just to have an amazing product and a healthy bank balance. Long-term success is dependent on a culture that is nurtured and alive. Culture is the environment in which your strategy and your brand thrives or dies a slow death.
Think about it like a nurturing habitat for success. Culture cannot be manufactured. It has to be genuinely nurtured by everyone from the CEO down. Ignoring the health of your culture is like letting aquarium water get dirty.
If there’s any doubt about the value of investing time in culture, there are significant benefits that come from a vibrant and alive culture:
Focus: Aligns the entire company towards achieving its vision, mission, and goals.
Motivation: Builds higher employee motivation and loyalty.
Connection: Builds team cohesiveness among the company’s various departments and divisions.
Cohesion: Builds consistency and encourages coordination and control within the company.
Spirit: Shapes employee behavior at work, enabling the organization to be more efficient and alive.
Corporate culture is a hot topic among businesses who want to attract the best talent, translate their values to their products and services, and show customers what they’re all about. And it doesn’t cost a thing:
Think about the Marines: the few, the proud. They have a connected community that is second to none, and it comes from the early indoctrination of every member of the Corps and the clear communication of their purpose and value system. It is completely clear that they are privileged to be joining an elite community that is committed to improvising, adapting, and overcoming in the face of any adversity. The culture is so strong that it glues the community together and engenders a sense of pride that makes them unparalleled. The culture is what each Marine relies on in battle and in preparation. It is an amazing example of a living culture that drives pride and performance. It is important to step back and ask whether the purpose of your organization is clear and whether you have a compelling value system that is easy to understand. Mobilizing and energizing a culture is predicated on the organization clearly understanding the vision, mission, values, and goals. It’s leadership’s responsibility to involve the entire organization, informing and inspiring them to live out the purpose the organization in the construct of the values.
Vibrant and healthy
Do you run into your culture every day? Does it inspire you, or smack you in the face and get in your way, slowing and wearing you down? Is it overpowering or does it inspire you to overcome challenges? It’s important to understand what is driving your culture. Is it power and ego that people react to, and try to gain power, or a culture of encouragement and empowerment? Is it driven from top-down directives, or cross-department collaboration? To get a taste of your culture, all you have to do is sit in an executive meeting, the cafe or the lunch room, listen to the conversations, look at the way decisions are made and the way departments cooperate. Take time out and get a good read on the health of your culture.
Culture fuels brand
A vibrant culture provides a cooperative and collaborative environment for a brand to thrive in. Your brand is the single most important asset to differentiate you consistently over time, and it needs to be nurtured, evolved, and invigorated by the people entrusted to keep it true and alive. Without a functional and relevant culture, the money invested in research and development, product differentiation, marketing, and human resources is never maximized and often wasted because it’s not fueled by a sustaining and functional culture.
Look at Zappos, one of the fastest companies to reach $1 billion in recent years, fueled by an electric and eclectic culture, one that’s inclusionary, encouraging, and empowering. It’s well-documented, celebrated, and shared willingly with anyone who wants to learn from it. Compare that to American Apparel, the controversial and prolific fashion retailer with a well-documented and highly dysfunctional culture. Zappos is thriving and on its way to $2 billion, while American Apparel is mired in bankruptcy and controversy. Both companies are living out their missions–one is to create happiness, and the other is based on self-centered perversity. Authenticity and values always win.
Uncommon sense for a courageous and vibrant culture
It’s easy to look at companies like Stonyfield Farms, Zappos, Google, Virgin, Whole Foods, or Southwest Airlines and admire them for their passionate, engaged, and active cultures that are on display for the world to see. Building a strong culture takes hard work and true commitment and, while not something you can tick off in boxes, here are some very basic building blocks to consider:
Dynamic and engaged leadership
A vibrant culture is organic and evolving. It is fueled and inspired by leadership that is actively involved and informed about the realities of the business. They genuinely care about the company’s role in the world and are passionately engaged. They are great communicators and motivators who set out a clearly communicated vision, mission, values, and goals and create an environment for them to come alive.
It’s one thing to have beliefs and values spelled out in a frame in the conference room. It’s another thing to have genuine and memorable beliefs that are directional, alive and modeled throughout the organization daily. It’s important that departments and individuals are motivated and measured against the way they model the values. And, if you want a values-driven culture, hire people using the values as a filter. If you want your company to embody the culture, empower people and ensure every department understands what’s expected. Don’t just list your company’s values in PowerPoints; bring them to life in people, products, spaces, at events, and in communication.
Responsibility and accountability
Strong cultures empower their people, they recognize their talents, and give them a very clear role with responsibilities they’re accountable for. It’s amazing how basic this is, but how absent the principle is in many businesses.
Celebrate success and failure
Most companies that run at speed often forget to celebrate their victories both big and small, and they rarely have time or the humility to acknowledge and learn from their failures. Celebrate both your victories and failures in your own unique way, but share them and share them often.
David LaChapelle: Earth Laughs in Flowers
Continuing his beef with our celebrity-obsessed society, the surrealist photographer exhibits work inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poetry
Text by Felicity Shaw
From Tuesday February 14, the Robilant & Voena gallery in London will play host to a new series of works by American fine-art photographer David LaChapelle. The ten large-scale images, titled ‘Earth Laughs in Flowers’, will additionally be on display in Milan and at the St. Moritz Art Masters festival this month.
LaChapelle returns to the Robilant & Voena this year after his successful 2010 expo, ‘The Rape of Africa’, with an exhibition that continues his furor into the world of fine-art photography and that cements his position as a critical commentator on modern day consumerist society. The show is inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem ‘Hamatreya’, in which the earth’s flowers ridicule man’s arrogant belief that he holds a permanent and indestructible dominion over the earth he walks on…
‘Where are these men? Asleep beneath their grounds: and strangers, fond as they, their furrows plough. Earth laughs in flowers, to see her boastful boys earth-proud, proud of the earth which is not theirs; who steer the plough, but cannot steer their feet, clear of the grave.’ – Ralph Waldo Emerson.
The photographs reveal a series of themes and images that further LaChapelle’s preoccupation with the degenerative effects of celebrity culture, over-consumption and unnecessary indulgence in today’s media-fattened society
On the first look, the painterly-like photographs appear as vibrant still life images of floral arrangements; colourful and somewhat gaudy, but otherwise beautiful prints. Upon closer inspection, the photographs reveal a series of themes and images that further LaChapelle’s preoccupation with the degenerative effects of celebrity culture, over-consumption and unnecessary indulgence in today’s media-fattened society.
His captivating visual style and use of skulls, flowers and fruit imagery takes influence from traditional Baroque ‘Vanitas’ aesthetics. Literally translating as ‘emptiness’, the reference proves to be a great analogy for the ‘empty’ nature of vanity and vice that the photographs project. LaChapelle brings the genre up to the 21st century by creating a polychromatic version and inserting modern-day objects and products alongside the more traditional motifs, resulting in a greedy clash of colour, style and representation.
Raw chicken feet, decaying flowers and a gloopy oozing mess of sickly pink slush drink results in glycerol chaos, a somewhat slightly repulsive expression of greed
Furthermore, the images, in their large-scale manifestations, in themselves become wholly consuming – the more you stand and gaze, the more they appear to throb with grotesque excess. The fruit, once readily plump and glossy in ‘America’ and ‘The Lovers’ becomes corpse-like, slowly decaying to withered and bruised waste later on in the series. Raw chicken feet, decaying flowers and a gloopy oozing mess of sickly pink slush drink results in glycerol chaos, a somewhat slightly repulsive expression of greed. Gluttony is not the only ‘deadly sin’ present throughout the series though. Vanity, lust, wrath and envy all rear their ugly heads in quick succession through the use of cosmetics, sexual machetes and weaponry. It is a highly effectual method of averting our attentions, as the viewer, to the frivolous nature of consumer activity, and the throw away fashion of today’s popular culture.
This sluggish destruction only reminds us of the fleeting nature of the life cycle, and the pathetic attempt to assert authority over nature, which can never be controlled by man. LaChapelle quite definitely reveals our gaping cracks: the inevitable decay of beauty and the fragility of those ‘boastful boys’ who claim control over the earth but who ‘cannot steer their feet, clear of the grave’. It leads us to question whether the photographs are simply a reflection on the material preoccupations of modern culture and the transient nature of life or if they act as a precautionary warning, to encourage us to open our eyes, to waste not, want not?
Earth Laughs in Flowers is exhibited at the Robilant & Voena, Dover St, London from February 14 – March 24, 2012
Why do we read magazines? What is behind the allure of buying, owning and reading magazines?
There are, of course, many answers to this question. But if we are truly honest with ourselves, we might be able to turn the tide of our businesses or, at the very least, start a process of self-analysis that leads eventually to psychological and financial recoveries.
Some college professors will tell you that it is the form of the product-—rather than its substance—that maintains its hold on the public. I suppose that might be true for some magazine readers. Printed products do have a historic experiential hold on some of the reading public. But is that really it? Is it really the paper substrate and physical form that is the key to our ongoing and future success?
And so I am back to the question I asked: Why do people actually read magazines? The answer: to learn and to enjoy. That is the motivation behind most, if not all, reading adventures. We read to further our knowledge and to enjoy the experience. Sometimes, the learning is forced upon us by a job or by a school, or sometimes it’s just the need for that innate pleasure of discovering something new. Other times, we read solely for pleasure—the pure joy of wandering through a good writer’s brain. The great syntax road of discovery, where page by page you can unearth damn near anything that humans have accomplished, deduced, uncovered or invented.
Reading is one of the best indicators of exactly who the human race is. We can’t help ourselves. As a race of beings, we have a fundamental need to know things. We are driven to explore and attempt to understand, whether it is the spiritual whys, or the scientific hows. It has always been that way. It will always be that way.
So, the reasons we read magazines are much the same as why we read anything. We read to learn and to enjoy.
Books teach and educate, and magazines can do the same. Magazines contain the same things as books—words and pictures. Some magazines have fewer pictures than some books, and some have more. Why do The Atlantic and The New Yorker sometimes have more words than a good book? The answer is embedded in the design and function of those magazines. However brilliant the writing and the research is, the actual product of a magazine is usually designed to be a temporary and inexpensive distribution vehicle. Books are usually meant to have some permanence, and magazines by and large are meant to be periodic and disposable.
By Daniel Smith
In a world of instant information it would seem that the sale of magazines would be obsolete. After all, why purchase a periodical when you can have information texted to you with lightening speed. Why take the time to leaf through the pages of a magazine when you can look up online, anything you could possibly ever want to know. While the spread of electronic knowledge and information is on the rise it doesnt seem to put a damper on the purchase of Magazine subscriptions. There is something about the feel of the pages between your finger tips that a computer screen just cant duplicate. There is an indescribable joy in the luxury of words that can be spent on the pages of a magazine but tend to be lost on a Blackberry. Women will always enjoy the pleasure of paging through their favorite celebrity gossip magazine while under the dryer at the beauty shop just as many men enjoy catching up on the sporting or financial news while commuting on public transportation. There is just something rich and real about reading a magazine that supersedes the ease of information from electronic sources. The history of the magazine dates all the way back to the 1700s when the aristocracy read periodicals that contained news of parliament, book lists and reviews, and social and political essays written by the foremost thinkers of the time. Only the rich could afford to purchase magazines and only the few educated people of the time had the skills to read them. By the 1830s magazines were much less expensive and therefore available to the masses. Because they had a different target as their audience, popular themes for magazines included self improvement and personal enlightenment. After a while publishers began to realize that many people would buy magazines for their entertainment value and started printing interesting news stories and serializing horror, romance and fiction novels. During the late 1800s improvements to magazines came about through the process of better printing techniques. In 1870, printers experimented with better uses of color and were soon able to print adequate reproductions of famous paintings, so that the masses could enjoy what had been restricted to the upper classes for so long. In 1880 tremendous advances in the art of photography were made and soon it was possible for magazines to contain photographs. This opened people up to the things of the world they had never seen before. When publishers combined printed text with photographs, merchants saw the possibilities and suddenly the advertisements sections in magazines grew. What better way to sell a product than to have a description and a true to life photograph in your ad? With the turn of the century came better education. As more and more people were able to receive at least some form of education, more people were able to read and the demand for magazines grew in leaps and bounds. By the thirties, advertising in magazines hit a high mark, showing that the popularity of the medium had grown extensively. Soon publishers began to find niche markets from which to create unique magazines. Out of this movement grew the vast variety of specialty magazines available on the market today. For any hobby you can think of, there is at least one magazine dedicated to the pursuit of that form of entertainment. There are trade magazines geared toward just about every industry in existence. There are magazines geared for the interest of every age group, special interest group, and even many clubs and organizations.
The popularity of magazines is sustained because you can pick up a magazine at anytime and browse through it. Then you can put it back and come right back to where you left off. They are entertaining and informative, and great for casual readers who are looking for a pleasant way to pass the time while being entertained and picking up a little useful information.