Nicki Minaj on ‘American Idol,’ Week Two: Generational Divide

Nicki Minaj

This week, Nicki Minaj was bored and annoyed. On Wednesday, it manifested itself as grand gestures of frustration, and on Thursday, by a dead-eyed episode that ran only one merciful hour, instead of two. See, Nicki is slowly realizing that she’s with a crew of fundamentally uncool and clueless oldheads (it pains me to type this about Mariah, but it is true) who remain baffled by the idea that someone could enjoy both country music or rap, and as was the case on Wednesday night, that a young black woman could be into rock’n’roll, or that a young white woman could move from singing country music to soul. Let’s start with Taisha Bethea, the black rocker. She sang Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” and Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know,” only to be hesitantly embraced by Mariah Carey and Randy Jackson. Nicki praised her for “not doing typical R&B kind of runs.” Keith Urban also liked her, and even though he is Australian, somehow North Carolina, where Wednesday’s show was held, was considered his home turf and he decided to send her through. She probably wouldn’t have made it otherwise.

Then, there was Summer Cunningham, a white, blonde Georgian who did “Lean On Me,” and dared to admit to being at a musical crossroads having done “the country thing.” Keith Urban bristled because he’s supposed to, I guess, and compared what Cunningham said to someone saying, “I did the brain-surgery thing,” which no one on the planet has ever said, and also implies that singing country music and performing brain surgery are the same thing. Infinite Nicki side-eyes. The judges continued grilling Ms. Cunningham, asking if she grew up on country, leading to what Nicki called a “country-music debate,” in which this singer who is clearly a country-music fan, had her authenticity challenged for no good reason.

This, coupled with a bunch of similar disagreements all in a row (or edited to look like they were all in a row), led Nicki to walk for the day. Not the most sympathetic choice for her to make, but watching the show, it is easy to see why she’s about go nuts: Mariah Carey is in Messiah Carey mode, Keith Urban is just kind of a tool (and we are all very tired of him showing off his chest tattoo), and Randy Jackson has taken his last-man-standing shtick to a whole other level, telling singers that they stink like he’s speaking truth to power, and not, you know, just reminding some goof who lies on the floor for his audition that he won’t make it through to the next round, dawg.

And though this “drama” is contrived, reality-show nonsense that Fox has been teasing for months, stuffed inside of it is a pretty fascinating and  important playing-out of a generational divide. Here’s Nicki Minaj, an undeniably great rapper and boundary-pushing pop star, growing acutely aware of her elders’ aversion to genre-hopping. Not to mention, a tedious label head-like misunderstanding of black music and hesitance to accept African-American artists doing music that is not considered “black.” So far this season, American Idol drama isn’t about clashing ego and wounded pride, it’s actually about nerdy concerns of genre and authenticity, and that’s pretty cool.


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