Monday, March 23, 2015

Nicki and Lily

There are no letters in the mailbox/And there are no grapes upon the vine/And there are no chocolates in the boxes anymore/And there are no diamonds in the mine.” These lyrics sound portentous and meaningful—loss, emptiness, and so forth—but they also sound completely banal—get another box of chocolate! This is the problem with popular music. It’s sometimes difficult to know how seriously to take it. Entertainment, art, garbage, fantasy, and the ordering of reality, popular music can be all these things at once.

Rae Sremmurd’s “Throw Sum Mo” is difficult for these reasons. On one level, it is a fantasy about money and power given a sexual language. Buying women, emasculating men through money, and the complete indifference to prodigal spending, these things may have some level of reality in the lives of entertainers, but they don’t reflect the realities with which most of us are familiar. So the song serves as wish fulfillment for its audience, pure fancy. But on another level, the fantasy is premised on a misogynistic desire: to control the world through money means also being able to control women, who must dance to the tune of your wealth: “Rainin’ on your body/Won’t you do what I say/Start rubbin’ on your body.” Money is the way to get women to do what you want them to do. The wealth may be a fantasy but the sentiment to want women compliant to men’s wishes is very real.

Nicki Minaj’s chorus complicates that vision. In her voice, the money is not what purchases the women. Instead, it is the fulfillment of their imperative. In other words, women don’t dance because men throw money. Men throw money because women dance.  The petulance in her voice, the way it demands with indifference, captures the agency that she places in the dancing woman. Sure, the situation develops from a misogynistic desire, but women use that desire to empower themselves. That men objectify women is not news to Minaj: “Ass fat, yeah I know.” But she turns this reality into something that women can use for their benefit. Her chorus repeats over and over her command, “throw some mo’.”

The competing understandings of what’s happening in “Throw Sum Mo” bring to mind the tableaux vivants scene in Wharton’s The House of Mirth. About halfway through the novel, Lily Bart, the protagonist, arranges herself to be shown as a painting that reveals her in what she imagines to be her best light. She is the last of tableaux vivants (a form of entertainment in which people dressed up as famous paintings), and the effect of her image on the audience is startling. The audience sees Lily just as she wants them to: all their eyes are focused on her beauty and her body. They are mesmerized by her form. Afterwards, she considers this moment her greatest triumph. And indeed that is the moment when everyone in her society has to admit what an extraordinary beauty she actually is. Yet her triumph is in exactly the terms her society has determined for her. Lily Bart is always thought about in terms of her beauty. She is the object of many men’s desires because she is beautiful and for no other reason, really. Thus she succeeds by objectifying herself but that objectification was all that was ever allowed her. The moment is her greatest triumph and it marks her absolute submission to limits placed on women by her society. Lily has made the men “through some mo’” but only by becoming the dancer.