Critic's NotesWhen Divas Attack!Mariah Carey, Nicki Minaj and the Battle for the Soul of Pop
By Heather Havrilesky, The New York Times
' 'Riff' Column - May 5, 2013
America loves a cat fight — but characterizing the spectacular ongoing clash between the “American Idol” judges Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey as such is like calling Godzilla’s battle with Megalon a slap fight. Anyone who has watched “American Idol” for more than a few seconds this season knows that their feud is no ratings-boosting prank; contempt of this magnitude can’t be faked. When Minaj raves over a finalist, Carey winces; when Carey coos, Minaj rolls her eyes. The two divas dared to address each other directly a few weeks ago, but their talk quickly devolved into interruptions and condescension. Producers may have recruited these two in the hope that an occasional good-natured spat would reignite the spark that went out when Simon Cowell exited the show three years ago. As it turns out, Minaj and Carey trade harmless barbs about as well as North and South Korea.
That makes sense, though, because these two pop stars represent polar-opposite approaches to love, fame, femininity, self-expression, sexuality and everything in between.Carey is an old-school diva. She’s a technical perfectionist with incredible range; a master of melismatic singing. Artistically, though, her work is the equivalent of an airbrushed photograph seen through a Vaseline-smeared lens. There is no irony, no sense of humor, no sly wink to her presentation. Her overwhelming superficiality — plucked eyebrows, spilling cleavage, baby-smooth skin, Barbie-doll hair — has been completely internalized. She also uses the word “class” a lot without irony. By her meaning, “class” implies that you sit up straight and smile sweetly and bite your tongue.
Where Carey plays the perfect princess, Minaj prefers the role of evil queen. Minaj comes across like Eazy-E meets Lady Gaga; mob boss meets intergalactic gun moll. Her rapid-fire rapping is embellished with overproduced sugar-pop flourishes. And her overall fakeness — the constant rotation of purple, green and pink wigs; the visible yellow push-up bra; the seven-inch platform heels — is celebrated precisely because it’s fake. Minaj might view invocations of “class” as the Man trying to silence the street. Instead, she worships at the church of Keeping It Real: You say what you mean, swear openly, laugh wickedly and above all, never pretend to be anything different from who you really are — or at least be obvious in your pretending.
The Minaj-Carey ego collision presents an engrossing study in contrasts. Carey murmurs breathily and bats her eyes; Minaj condescends nasally. Carey dons a traditional bridal gown and veil with a 27-foot train in one of her videos; Minaj sports a green Medusa wig in a swimming pool of what looks like Pepto-Bismol, flanked by beefy men in boxer briefs, in one of hers. Carey’s album titles (“Butterfly,” “Rainbow,” “Daydream,” “Glitter,” “Charmbracelet,” “Music Box”) conjure a little girl’s vision of happiness; Minaj’s songs (“I Am Your Leader,” “I’m the Best”) conjure a bully’s delight at mercilessly dominating her foes.
The vast gulf between their perspectives comes through loud and clear in their comments as judges on “Idol”: while Carey often focuses on a performer’s talent, for Minaj, talent is malleable, and there’s always a workaround, an angle, a way to win over audiences. Where Carey gets teary-eyed over emotional songs, Minaj analyzes a performer’s lipstick shade, then openly asserts that these “fake” details matter just as much as what’s inside. (“If you wear pink lipstick, you’ll get more votes, I’m telling you.”) And while Carey prattles on about vague feelings for several minutes, then hints that producers have encouraged her to keep it brief, Minaj shows up late, leaves her sunglasses on, rolls her eyes and flirts openly with the contestants (“I am obsessed with you”; “You’re my wife”). She reduces her big thoughts to colorful sound bites. In short: Carey is a teenage girl’s rambling diary. Minaj is a Twitter feed.
The more I’ve marveled over the chasm between Minaj and Carey, the more I realize it mirrors the differences between the first season of “American Idol” and the version of the show that’s being broadcast today — and reflects just how much our notions about talent, authenticity and what makes a celebrity worthy of our attention have shifted over the past 11 years.
When “American Idol” first appeared in 2002, it was billed as a nationwide talent search. The opening credits depicted literally faceless pop stars holding microphones, and the “Your Face Here” implication was clear from the start: whoever you are, if you have enough talent, we can form you into a bright, shining star, Pygmalion-style. The hosts, Ryan Seacrest and Brian Dunkleman (remember him?), paced the stage like a duo of Max Headroom clones, speculating that America’s next superstar “could be parking cars or waiting tables” right now.
The promise was that the first winner of “American Idol” would be molded into a marketable recording artist. This was a familiar challenge for the producer Simon Fuller, who spent much of the ’90s managing that gaggle of Eliza Doolittles known as the Spice Girls. The harsh comments of Simon Cowell, the “Yo, Dog” pitch-sensitivity of Randy Jackson, the incoherent gushing of Paula Abdul: all were meant to “train” the most talented contestants on how to look, sound and act like a pop star. With a nod to the manipulation in play, judges often remarked on the “believability” of a given performer, saying things like “You are now the pop singer” or “I’m not buying it,” as if the challenge were to shove raw talent into various arbitrary styles and trick audiences into experiencing it as authentic. Watching often felt like being in on a grand experiment: Which of these adorable woodland creatures can be transformed, by industry supergeniuses, into a trained circus animal?
“American Idol” has evolved since then. After 12 seasons of “Idol,” plus the rise of copycat shows like “The X Factor” and “The Voice” (not to mention the herd of amateur singers performing on YouTube), the idea of a nationwide talent search no longer offers the same novelty. Now “American Idol” contestants arrive with their own songs and styles and notions about what they want from their careers. They’re beat-boxers, disco-dancing gospel crooners, country rockers and flamethrowing folk singers. The show’s playful, small-beans talent-show atmosphere is gone. Today’s weekly “Idol” performances often feature dizzying light and video effects, dry ice, wind instruments and full gospel choirs.
And rather than discussing how to package certain contestants, judges now simply tell their favorites, “You’re the whole package!” Talk of raw potential has been supplanted by statements about who is already a star and who will never be a star. “Your voice is amazing, as always,” a judge will begin, before getting to the real critique, which usually centers on originality, conviction or artistic choices. The judges aren’t looking for a vocalist who might churn out Christmas albums. They want a truly original performer with his or her own signature style.
Outspoken weirdos and self-proclaimed superfreaks like the wild-haired drummer Zoanette Johnson and the geeky rocker Charlie Askew — who might’ve been relegated to the “American Idol” laugh reel in the early years — were Top 20 finalists this season. Authenticity is repeatedly lauded; mimicking unfamiliar genres is discouraged. When one finalist, Angie Miller, sang a song she wrote herself, the judges raved. But when she tried to veer off the expected path and get funky with a cover of “Shop Around,” Minaj told her: “Don’t try to come out here and give us another side. We ain’t asked for another side yet!”
On the surface, the show’s evolution from pop-star factory to unique-snowflake day camp merely reflects a shift in tastes. After all, America has clearly fallen out of love with the ’90s-era beauty-pageant style of pop vocalist belting out megahits. The Mariah Carey model — a big talent who must have seemed like a blank slate when she presented her demo as an unknown 18-year-old to her eventual producer (and husband) Tommy Mottola — is no longer the preferred path to fame. Pop stars used to be Barbie dolls; now they’re Ugly Dolls. Even the bubble-gum stalwart Katy Perry is trussed up in alien garb, like the dictator of a lady planet on “Star Trek.” Think of young Britney Spears, the fresh-faced student singing about love in a high-school hallway. Now compare her to Lady Gaga, who rarely appears in public without pleather pants, elevator boots and the elaborate hairstyle of a Monster High doll. Freaky fakeness on the outside — bouffant hairdos, gigantic shoes, bizarre outfits — is now interpreted as a sign of strength and realness on the inside.
Why? It’s an ascendant belief in the power of identity. Playing up your oddest quirks and most bizarre tics has become a way of signaling to the world that you believe in yourself in the extreme and refuse to be molded into a generic, consumable (and disposable) product. It’s the embodiment of the credo that Minaj told to Jay Leno: “When a person knows who they are, it’s like they can do no wrong.” Maybe, thanks to the online democratization of culture, talent and good looks aren’t enough to impress us anymore. Only exotic weirdos like the Korean pop star Psy can grab our attention. Or as Kelly Clarkson herself — the original “American Idol” winner, now clad in a glow-in-the-dark “Jetsons” dress and lizardy eye makeup — sang during a guest appearance on the show a few weeks ago, “We are all misfits living in a world on fire.”
It’s easy to cheer for the evolution of “American Idol” from Carey to Minaj; from manufacturer of pop widgets to the world’s most expensive group-therapy session. The show is certainly more entertaining. But there’s also a strange feeling of determinism in play, a sense that a performer can’t change his or her destiny. You’re either already a star or you need to get the hell off the stage immediately (as Minaj ordered three male contestants to do halfway through the season). Give us your real — no matter how weird — or take a hike.
And “American Idol” voters have embraced this idea: Lazaro Arbos, a Ricky Ricardo look-alike with a stutter who was at once the worst singer and the oddest, most unfamiliar human onstage, somehow made it all the way to the Top 6, despite open dismay from the judges.
This is still American pop music, of course, and we will still emerge with an attractive, talented pop star at the end of this season. But a deeper part of this cultural shift feels irreversible: we’ve glimpsed the man behind the curtain so many times that we aren’t intrigued by the booming voice and the flames shooting into the air anymore. We don’t want fake that’s not acknowledged as such. Fake that calls attention itself, that celebrates a person’s outsider status, feels easier to get behind. And maybe — just maybe! — that means we’ll learn to see the world as a vast patchwork of misfits, a place where knowing who you are is more important than becoming what someone else wants you to be.http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/05/magazine/mariah-carey-nicki-minaj-and-the-battle-for-the-soul-of-pop.html?ref=television&_r=0