Back in September, I had a sudden craving for Dolly Parton’s “Islands in the Stream.” The song was perfect for the moment: I was finishing up work and getting ready for a very rare date night, and the calmness of the ritual made me feel like I was moving down a stream at my own pace. I found a live performance of the song on YouTube, and three things stuck out: the hair, the cleavage, and the slit of Parton’s dress snaking up to her hip, drawing attention to her teeny waist. She’s singing about “making love” with “nothing in between” that leads to “sailing away.”
The song I’d listened to regularly as a child suddenly became erotic, and reminded me of another curvy, hypersexual musician’s song: Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda,” the first single off her new album, The Pinkprint. The song had been on my mind since the month before when everyone was talking about that video. It starts with a group of black women in a tropical setting, legs spread at every angle possible, clad in black bras and boy-short underwear. There’s seminal cream pouring out of a coconut. After flashes of various phallic fruits, a vaginal papaya, and an explosive can of whipped cream, we arrive at Minaj’s private dancer moment. As the song goes on about how much we “love that fat ass,” she gives Drake a half-hearted lap dance.
“Islands in the Stream” is not nearly as sexual as “Anaconda.” Still, I couldn’t help but notice how much the two singers uncannily resembled each other.
VH1 made the connection back in April, asking, “Could Nicki Minaj Be Hip Hop’s Dolly Parton?” The post cited the two artists’ big hair, generous physical assets, curve-enhancing sartorial habits and keen business sense. They’re also both musicians in lowbrow, male-dominated genres. They both embrace being objects in the spaces where they’re allowed to exist. Both serve the gendered fantasies of their respective social milieus. Parton lovingly refers to herself as the “backwoods Barbie.” Similarly, Minaj’s longest-running and most famous stage person is the Harajuku Barbie. In many ways, the two inhabit a Barbie-like existence. They are pop stars, businesswomen, sex symbols of ridiculous proportions.
But even though they draw inspiration from the fakest woman on the planet, they keep it realer than anyone. They don’t need to stand in front of glowing “FEMINIST” signs or writhe around with lubricant on their bodies. They live, breath and perform what everyone else tries so hard to convey: I own myself.
Even though they’re pop stars, Parton and Minaj exist far outside the non-threatening spaces of acceptability. It’s okay to admire them, but you cannot emulate them in your everyday life. Parton’s “dirt poor” roots and Minaj’s Trinidadian heritage means they’ll never be “mainstream” or aspirational. They will never be a Hillary or an Oprah, the number one and number two most admired women in the country respectively, famous for their careers, philanthropy, and unflappable public images. (Oprah is black, of course, but she’s the desexualized mammy of the middle class.) Parton and Minaj can revel in the lower common denominator of sexuality and use it to navigate a world that’s dead-set on not seeing them as equal. Rather than breaking the glass ceiling, they learned to dance upside down and invited everyone else to their party.
And they don’t use their sexuality to be desired or gain power in the clichéd method of “sleeping their way to the top.” Their sexual performance is about telling the world, you can want me, you can think I want you, but I don’t have to want you…and chances are I don’t.
Yo, I never fucked Wayne, I never fucked Drake
On my life, man, fuck’s sake
—Nick Minaj, “Only”
What are you looking at, lover boy?
It won’t do you any good
I’m not gonna be your, be your lover du jour
The flavor of the day, no way, I’ll do farewell, bonjour
—Dolly Parton, “Lover du Jour”
Back to that “Islands in the Stream” video: Kenny Rogers was on stage too, but as soon as Parton showed up, he faded to the background. Parton flips the script by reducing men to objects, and so does Minaj. Parton’s album from last year, “Blue Smoke,” features many forlorn love songs, but then there is “Lover Du Jour.”
As she caresses his chest and squeezes his biceps, one of her guitarists stops being a backup musician and becomes a plaything. Likewise, Drake is the only male presence—other than the sample from Sir Mix-a-Lot—in the “Anaconda” video. Drake sits in a chair and looks but cannot touch as Minaj’s body gyrates around him. He is nothing but a prop, a role he’s played before during her live performances.
The end of both songs feature the women laughing. I can’t help but think they’re laughing at society’s limited gaze that won’t see past their sex appeal. Minaj and Parton might not have bootstraps to pull themselves up by, but they do have bra straps and g-strings, and they know how to use them.
Now I’ll go ahead and answer VH1’s question from earlier: Nicki Minaj could never be a hip hop Dolly Parton. Why? Simple: She’s black.
In popular culture, black women are stuck. They have three options: They can be a jezebel or a mammy, or they can fade into the background. In hip hop the black woman is a video girl, a tomboyish MC, or a hypersexualized star. The thing that makes Minaj unique is that she can exist in all these spaces at once. And because she juggles these positions, she shows that a man isn’t necessary for her to express her sexuality, like in the not-so-subtle track “Feeling Myself”, unless they’re servicing her, like in the subversively-titled “Get On Your Knees.”
Yet even though Minaj received world-class training at LaGuardia High School, an elite performing arts school in New York, she is still not allowed to exist beyond her caricature. We accept that Parton’s persona is for the stage, and when she steps off she goes home to her invisible husband (so invisible, in fact, that Parton is often rumored to be gay). Minaj, on the other hand, has a 11-year, not-quite-invisible relationship but is accused of sleeping with Drake, Lil’ Wayne, and pretty much anyone she’s ever performed with.
Parton likes to say she “made a fortune looking cheap.” Dolly’s big hair and bigger boobs might seem provocative, but during the excess of the eighties, she fit right into every family home. She provided a counternarrative to the power-suit liberated women of the eighties, the decade of her pop crossover. Minaj looks “cheap,” but in a different way. The black female body’s “slutty” is distinct. The glaring difference between the strikingly similar album covers of “Pink Friday” and “Backwoods Barbie”? Parton’s legs are crossed. Minaj’s are not. She is the one with the superb ass who sang “Super Bass.” She is always assumed to be community property. A white female body, even a body like Parton’s, has the potential to be family-friendly—especially if they’re singing about the right things.
When we think of the hottest female country artists of the past few decades, their songs tend to be, much like songs on “Blue Smoke,” about love and heartache. Their videos don’t feature groups of women celebrating their sexuality together. Instead, the woman exists in solitude still waiting for her country prince (or being jilted by him). Let’s not forget that one of Parton’s famous songs, “Jolene,” is about a woman helplessly begging another woman not to take her man.
I couldn’t imagine Minaj performing a “Jolene.” The type of empowered she has to be to make it in the pop industry as a black woman doesn’t allow space for performances of that type of weakness. That doesn’t mean she can’t be hurt. Her latest album reveals a woman with life experience:
Am I just a fool?
Blind and stupid for loving you
Am I just a silly girl?
So young and naive to think you were
the one who came to take claim of this heart
Cold-hearted, shame you’ll remain just afraid in the dark
—Nicki Minaj, “Grand Piano”
The end of a longterm relationship, new dreams, family members killed, friends lost, the pressure of the fame machine—it’s all inescapable on this album. And yet so far, “Pinkprint” is known for “Anaconda,” because that is how black women sell things. That’s how they sell themselves.
I left home, I was 17
I had a lot of ambitious dreams
Seen a lot of those dreams come true
I’ve had good luck
—Dolly Parton, “Home”
Parton’s career has brought her from a teenage country singer, to popstar, to queen of the genre of her roots. Now, at nearly 69, she is still sexy as ever, but she is also a downhome girl, everyone’s Appalachian grandma. We know where she ended up.
We don’t know where Minaj will be in 2050, when she’s Parton’s age; she’s early in her career and still maturing as an artist. Given her success and growth, her empire might be bigger than the one Parton created. Maybe by that time, we’ll have room for women like her, who don’t fit perfectly into narrow, racialized categories. We’ll let Minaj make the natural progression from Harajuku Barbie to Harajuku grandma. Or we won’t, and she’ll keep laughing at us because she’ll still be a boss ass bitch.
Jade E. Davis is a Doctoral Student and Teaching Fellow in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where she has been an instructor for three years. She can be found online at http://jadedid.com or on twitter @jadedid.