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What Nicki Minaj Learned From Marilyn Monroe

Nicki Minaj wants to be the Marilyn Monroe of hip-hop. So let’s just say she is. After all, being a member of Minaj’s audience is all about submitting to her will, just as inducing submission was one of the main objectives of Marilyn’s art. This Sunday was the fiftieth anniversary of Monroe’s death, and the occasion brings to mind how much Monroe and Minaj have in common as musical performers, and how different they are in important ways.

Like Marilyn Monroe, Nicki Minaj is a sex symbol for her time and a magnificently theatrical self-construction, and she has no singing voice to speak of. We will probably never know exactly how bad Minaj’s singing really is, because Autotune and other studio effects do so much of the work on her recordings. No matter: Her music is ludicrous fun, and much of its appeal lies in the coy way Minaj plays off her own amateurism as a singer. In that, she’s not far from Marilyn Monroe, either. A rare moment of unironic self-seriousness in Minaj’s music to date happens to be the song she recorded in tribute to her idol, “Marilyn Monroe.”

I’m not going to get all Mailerish here and spew quasi-intellectualisms about Marilyn’s genius. That she was a titanic presence in mid-twentieth-century pop culture is well established and well worth honoring this week. To me, Monroe is particularly fascinating as a singer, because she brought a high level of craft to her music—not the kind of craft that we associate with musical technique, but the stagecraft necessary to provide musical performances with personality and emotional force. She was not blessed with much physical endowment as a singer. Her voice was small and thin; her intonation was shaky, at its best; and she could barely control her vibrato. Yet she brought the full potency of her persona to her music, putting across a song with the same smart, delicately balanced, cheeky mix of open carnality and winking humor that distinguished her acting. Indeed, she wasn’t singing, exactly, but acting when she sang, and acting is what makes great vocal performances great.

The best evidence is certainly her eminently likable, hot rendition of Helen Kane 1920s hit, “I Wanna Be Loved By You,” in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot: