RetroPop: Why Edna St. Vincent Millay Would Love “Starships” by Nicki Minaj
Welcome again to RetroPop, the Top 40-centric series where I invite you to help me compare the messages of lady-performed Billboard hits with themes from the work of great female artists of the past.
Oh, Nicki, Nicki, Nick-meister Minaj. You’ve given us so much fodder for gender-focused conversations about pop music: when you jammed with the little girls in tutus singing the sexually and violently explicit lyrics of your single, “Superbass”; when everyone was calling you out for being alternately a "bitch" and a "pussy" and a "feminist disappointment" for pulling out of the Hot 97 Summer Jam after that DJ insulted your song; when you gave that amazing rant about being a woman in hip hop while putting on your mascara.
But Nicki, today we’re going straight to the lyrics of your latest hit single, “Starships” to find out what it has in common with a (relatively) well-known and respected poem by all-around funky lady Edna St. Vincent Millay. Holla!
I’m especially jazzed to compare thoughtful feminist poetry with this Minaj single because on its surface, the tune could easily be mistaken for a totally insignificant and shallow let’s-down-another-Red-Bull club anthem crafted solely for sorority girls to blast during their beach parties. And for that purpose, and/or for encouraging me to bounce in my office chair with my headphones on, it certainly does the job. For those wanting to do their own close reading of the text, check out the “Starships” lyrics here. For those in a hurry, here’s the short version: Tequila! Let’s get it on! Last chance to dance! Random reference to STARSHIPS!
And for our respected artistic comparison from a great female artist of the past, here’s my favorite little ditty by the American poet and feminist and winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1923, Edna St. Vincent Millay:
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!
So, fair enough, Edna isn’t quite as good at busting out catchy pre-chorus hooks. But when you examine the pieces side by side, Nicki and Edna's works aren't so different.
Celebrated poet and thinker St. Vincent Millay’s piece ruminates on the brevity of life, and the beauty resulting from that brevity. Celebrated pop artist and thinker Minaj's song similarly presents a female character saying, “Let’s really live it up, space people in this tequila-filled dance club starship, because life is short and we won’t be hurtling through space to a funky beat forever.”
Sure, there’s that part where Minaj's lyrics say “That’s our life, there’s no end in sight.” But this is irony, people. See, the character also references dancing like “it’s your last chance.” She knows. She knows about our unavoidable demise. She owns that starships are meant to fly, even if they eventually, inevitably, run out of starship gas. But in the meantime, their futuristic disco-ball navigation systems sure emit a lovely light, just like Edna’s little candle did, once upon a time.
Suddenly, Nicki’s little club jam got a lot more existential, didn’t it?
I don't know about you, but the next time I’m at an awkward small-talk-filled party and somebody asks me who I’d like to have dinner with, living or dead, I’ll be able to say with confidence: "Forget dinner, somebody get me Edna St. V-M, Nicki Minaj, and some bottle service at a space club and we’ll just see where the evening goes. I bet they'd have a few philosophies in common."
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