Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Coiling Up That Hill: Nicki Minaj, Kate Bush and Traditions of Performance

Two of the highest-profile pop performances of the summer could not seem more different: Kate Bush's first live concerts in 35 years, which have been live-blogged, live-tweeted and dissected and Nicki Minaj's video for her song "Anaconda," which has broken the Vevo single-day record and similarly live-blogged, live-tweeted and dissected.

Others have done the job for me in terms of reviewing the various responses to "Anaconda," which range from what-about-our-children-ing to no-one-is-a-better-feminist-ing. Bush's performances, like I noted above, have been more than hotly anticipated since they were announced and may well be the gig of the century for music bloggers and reporters worldwide. They were also likely the impetus for the recent release of Running Up That Hill, a fascinating, if not simplistic, overview of her career. It's high time to examine each artist's current achievements in context of their individual performance practices--centering on "Anaconda" for Minaj and some of Bush's earliest, most successful videos--and check out where, if ever, they intersect.

The Gaze

Minaj and Bush both creatively draw upon their distinctive eyeballs to engage viewers. In "Anaconda," Minaj alternates between "come-hither" glances, maniacal stares and near-winks. Each eye movement serves the narrative: the "come-hither" glance starts to look ridiculous when she uses it while mouthing the chipmunk-style "Oh my God, look-at-her-BUTT." When Minaj violently slices a banana just after bedroom-eyedly covering herself in whipped cream, the effect is both jarring and humorous.

Bush's gaze can be similarly maniacal, but usually signifies a shift in the character she's portraying rather than Minaj's change in tone. The best example here is the famous "Babooshka" video:

Bush, well known for her preference to tell someone else's story rather than her own, particularly in her early work, has charmingly explained this tendency by saying that those other characters are simply more interesting than she is. In "Babooshka," her performance meanders between playing the role of "storyteller" and referencing the disguises the song's subject takes to test her husband. In the first minute or so, each meticulously planned sway is accompanied by either a squint or a deer-in-the-headlights stare, prefacing the shifts that are about to take place and the importance of her eyes in the role-shifting process. Around 2:47 of the video, Bush, still frozen in a stare, looks behind her for a moment and, when her gaze returns to ours, squints once more. If she blinks throughout the entire video, I missed it.

Both women subvert the male gaze, yes, by exercising agency over both their videos and actually making eye contact with whoever might be watching - acknowledging that while they're being watched, they can at least play at looking right back at those who are supposed to have control over their image - but in this subversion they develop their own traditions of performance that go beyond referencing the male gaze and toward creating a new form of vision entirely.

The Choreography

Minaj performs a choreography of repetition, even tedium, in "Anaconda." In the work-out scene specifically, she holds absurdly small pink weights while shifting her weight from leg to leg, occasionally taking a break to play puppeteer/yoga instructor on her backup dancers. The music under her sing-song rhymes, at this point in the tune, feels like a ticking time bomb due to the chorus's surprising explosiveness. While Minaj's raps have been frantically fast in the past, here her slowness accompanies the dance's redundant taunt, testing the patience of viewers awaiting the DRAKE LAP DANCE at the video's climax.

The video's climax, of course, is not really one at all-- Minaj denies Drake's touch and flounces offscreen, and his response is to place his heavy head in hand. Minaj's denial here, after making viewers wait for the celebrity cameo to rule them all, is deliciously dismissive and reminicent of the earlier point in the video where she slices and dices the phallus--I mean banana--after decorating herself in pseudo-ejaculatory substances.

Bush's choreography, much derived from her training with mime Lindsay Kemp, also employs repetition. For Bush, however, the repetition feels less like a taunt and more like a hex. This is particularly evident in "Wuthering Heights":

It's worth noting that Bush uses her gaze strategically once more, this time fluttering her lashes and actually blinking, referencing the romance of Wuthering Heights itself and the sleepiness of singing from the perspective of a ghost. Combined with the sleepwalking motion she enters on "Bad dreams in the night" around: 33, Bush retains the same gesture for a good three seconds longer than we expect her to, finally ensnaring viewers with a swirl leading to the iconic dance phrase of the chorus. The following phrase features her hands, grasping and pulling at the air in towards her core in exaggerations of the "come here finger" to again aid with the enchantment.

If Minaj's aim in "Anaconda" is to use movement to entrap only to deny, Bush's seems to be to enchant, entrap and then refuse to release her victim from her clutches.


Finally, these performances rely on embodiment rather than explication. This embodiment occurs both through Minaj and Bush's aforementioned dances and their use of voice as a physical tool as well as a narrative device. Minaj's characteristic for switching accents, illustrated in "Anaconda" as she drawls out the word "cocaine" and in other hits such as "Superbass" where she whips out a London accent to proclaim having "always [having] a thing for American boys," intensifies the dexterity of her raps. This penchant also contributes to the listener's desire to imitate Minaj's rhymes, but there's a catch: that dexterity and her talent for dialects make her tunes very hard to imitate indeed. Her "dun-dun-dun-dundundundunduns" in "Anaconda," simple enough to intone aloud over the song but difficult to fully mimic, solidifies Minaj's unique use of her voice as another limb to dance with.

Where Minaj's code-switching skills and speed make her vocals a distinctive part of her performance practice, Bush's range spanning several octaves and acrobatic flutters are the hallmarks of her own vocals. Her mouth itself is often a focus in her choreography:

"WOW," which escapes Bush's mouth as a syllable, an exclamation and an animalistic yelp all at once, is framed by her arm movements, which conveniently make a "W" shape centering her mouth. The movement reminds us that Bush's "Wow" is a physical creation beginning with her vocal chords, traveling across her palate and ending outside her well-painted lips--it goes well beyond simply being a narrative device connoting amazement.

This is not to say that narrative isn't important: Bush is an admitted devotee of narrative, having written "Wuthering Heights" after reading the book in its entirety so she could get the "feel" right. Minaj fills the "Anaconda" verses with colorful anecdotes about her male conquests. But each artist complements narrative with a highly physicalized voice, unmistakable in the sea of pop performance available to listeners today.

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