Last week, Nicki Minaj released the highly-anticipated music video for “High School” from her album Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded–The Re-Up . The video is completely over-the-top. It’s also factually inaccurate, since Nicki Minaj went to LaGuardia High School and LaGuardia High School is not the sprawling mansion of a drug kingpin complete with formal garden, hot tub, pool, and water-proof blond weaves.
If closely analyzed, Minaj’s “High School” music video is both three minutes of sexually exploitative visual torture and brilliant visual literature. There’s a lot going on below the surface. Let’s drill down.
Action: Nicki Minaj first appears clad in a tight pink swimsuit. She poses in the sunshine by an elegant pool. Light reflects from every angle as she moves her body in a sexually suggestive manner.
Subtext: This scene is a momentous one for the feminist movement. Minaj is criticizing the ways in which women perform for ourselves, for each other, and for men. The fact this scene was included in “High School” is a plea to young women to start loving themselves for themselves–not their bodies. It is also a self-criticism of poor fashion choices made by Minaj herself.
Action: After the music video introduces us to our femme fatale, it reveals beautiful cars and a sprawling mansion–as well as El Jefe, the man who dominates video-Nicki’s life.
Subtext: After representing the futile desire of women to achieve physical perfection and the destructive elements involved in that process, Minaj wants you to know that this is all unfolding in the domestic realm–but one that is dominated by a very rich and a very bad man. It was not necessary to show the different angles and elements of El Jefe’s mansion so early on in the music video, but Minaj wants to make it clear that Nicki is just a prop in El Jefe’s world. The conflict arises with the realization that she wants more from life. She wants women everywhere to understand the dangers of entrapment in the domestic sphere and the importance of pursuing their dreams.
Action: The music video goes on to rinse the eyes of viewers with several angles of Minaj’s ass in a bikini.
Subtext: Minaj’s ass is symbolic of the national debt. It is so big, so surprising, and seen from so many angles, but rarely understood. This scene is a brief interlude from the more feminist-based issues Minaj tackles throughout the video, but it is important nonetheless. She wants people in high school to pay attention in math class and one day study economics so that they won’t wake up to a giant ass (debt) in their face every day. Or so that they do.
Action: When Minaj begins to rap in the music video, her wardrobe changes drastically. Now Nicki is wandering around an immaculately sculpted garden wearing a yellow fitted dress and a long platinum wig with bangs! Now she’s wearing a yellow bikini in a hot tub!
Subtext: Nicki’s endless wardrobe and unlimited performance space is a critique of capitalist values. None of this extravagance is required to live or to communicate a message. In fact, this display of unrealistic extravagance poses a risk of damaging the values of her impressionable young audience. But that’s OK: Her brown and belted BDSM bikini is the clearest, most concise communication of the insufferable bind that the capitalist state subjects all of us to. This is symbolism at it’s finest.
Action: When Nicki meets Lil Wayne, she is completely entranced. They meet at the bottom of the staircase. They catch each other’s eye in the living room. They have slow-motion jump- cut sex that switches angles before actual kisses take place.
Subtext: This sequence is also drenched in symbolism, from the moment Nicki takes her first awkward wobble-step down the winding staircase, to when Nicki and Lil Wayne roll around in a bed together The Notebook-style without ever actually touching fun body parts. The entire process of their meeting is symbolic of how, once upon a time, Lil Wayne saved Minaj by discovering her and signing her to Young Money Entertainment. Without his intervention, she might still be a struggling artist. But she wants you to know that they never had sex. Their relationship is one of pure intellectualism and a passion for the arts. Lil Wayne saved her soul, not her body.
Action: Suddenly, two beautiful women in bikinis appear poolside. They float in the water with their large breasts. They dance with their large breasts. Their identities or reason for being there are never given.
Subtext: With the appearance of two beautiful women in Nicki’s pool, many important things are revealed. Nicki does not feel secure as the main woman in El Jefe’s home. Nicki dislikes this feeling and disassociates herself from it by not sitting poolside when the other women in El Jefe’s life are there. More generally, Nicki’s absence embodies the discomfort women feel when being compared to others. She wants the world to know that everyone is susceptible to self-consciousness and, most importantly, that these feelings should be disregarded as completely and suddenly as the appearance and disappearance of the two unnamed women.
Action: The most visually striking moments in the music video are when Nicki lustfully sways in a bikini by El Jefe’s pool and hot tub while touching (read: getting tangled in) her damp blonde weave.
Subtext: By displaying such an obsession with her hair, Minaj is critiquing vanity. As she struggles to find the most viscerally sexual shot by awkwardly moving her body and hands and hair and face, she is challenging the viewer’s comfort. Vanity (and the accompanying impossible process of maintaining beauty) is a capitalistic system of self-defeat, especially for women, as they face the strictest standards of beauty. Minaj touches her hair, wobbles her waist, and extends her legs to mock the viewers who only see an object of sexual enjoyment, and not the Marxist-feminist protest that it truly is.
Action: At the conclusion of the music video, Nicki, now in pants and a glitter-covered mask, escapes El Jefe’s mansion at night with Lil Wayne in a black ops helicopter.
Subtext: As Nicki convinces herself to rob the man who formerly supported her (El Jefe), put on a pair of pants, and get in a helicopter with Lil Wayne, she is freeing herself from all forms of oppression. This is the life she alone has chosen, and this is the life in which her ascension to a higher intellectual field can begin. She must adopt the wearing of pants–at least temporarily–in order to thrive in a masculine world. She must leave behind her glittery mask as a gesture that she is done with cheap tricks and thrills. She must fly that black-ops helicopter day and night (or until the gas runs out), until her complete philosophical agenda has musically unfolded.
That, or Birdman cost less to hire than they expected and there was enough money in the budget for a bad-ass helicopter.