They were indeed a queer-looking party that assembled on the bank—the birds with draggled feathers, the animals with their fur clinging close to them, all dripping wet, cross, and uncomfortable.
The first question of course was, how to get dry again… – Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
It's been a little over a month since Hurricane Isaac blew through town, just as Southern Decadence was kicking off another year. Laurence Ross reflects on the blustery week in New Orleans, Nicki Minaj, and the aesthetics of Camp.
Admittedly, New Orleans is reputed to look for solace no further than the drink in one’s own hand. It incarnates a victory of “style,” to borrow Sontag’s words from “Notes on ‘Camp’.” This city is a stylized one: Style is everything. When Isaac finally dragged his sopping hemline away from the city, the first place many sojourned was the bar. There was no power, and would not be for days. The cigarette machines ran on generators. The neighborhood lights diminished to candle flickers and flashlights. Once again, a hurricane struck on the weekend of Southern Decadence, one of New Orleans’ largest tourist draws, known to many simply as “Gay Mardi Gras.” People had flocked to New Orleans, to set up camp, and local religious leaders did not waste the opportunity of such an easy open metaphor to suggest the hurricane was God-sent to purge the city of sin. Thus, the Camp sensibility is one that is alive to a double sense in which some things can be taken. So here is an alternative lens: at night in the Bywater, to look toward the East was to peer into a pitch-black void; on the other side, to the West, one could spy a verifiable, enticing beacon of light. The French Quarter shone as salvation, for Camp is a solvent of morality. It neutralizes moral indignation, sponsors playfulness. Camp is a haven.
For the past 13 years, the Grand Marshal of Southern Decadence has named an official theme song for the event. This year’s song: Nicki Minaj’s “Starships.” And it was while sitting in a bar in the Quarter, with Nicki playing at the water’s edge on the televisions and the song playing over the loudspeakers, that my friend M asked me, “What is this even about?” The question is a good one, and one I had not asked myself before.
The “Starships” video opens with four barrel-chested men clad in red loincloths and bowler hats performing a ritual-esque dance to summon Nicki from on high. She complies, carried in a spacecraft mirror-plated as a disco ball, and transmitted to earth in a beam of light. This ritual is a rain dance designed to deliver techno beats rather than water. (Of course, the last thing New Orleans needed was more rain.) The barely-clad inhabitants of the island look exhausted, despondent until Nicki emerges from the sea foam like Venus. She practically commands the spectators to have a Bud Light, Patron, to imbibe, consume as she assumes her place upon the litter that awaits her before being carried away into the depths of the crowd. She claps her hands, as if in prayer. She wears a pink headpiece, a cross between a nun’s habit and Red Riding Hood’s cape, a conflation of the worlds of religion and fairy tale. The aesthetic here is one of character creation/amalgamation. Camp is the glorification of “character.” And true to hers, she is indeed glorified, borne away on the shoulders of the very ones who summoned her, as she constructs and reconstructs identities: “My name is Onika, you can call me Nicki."
And it is here where one could begin theorizing why Nicki has been so embraced by queer culture. Queer culture, and the Camp aesthetic in particular, maintains identity as one of its primary concerns—both its construction and deconstruction. The mission of emphasizing the world’s inherent artifice, and therefore the constructed nature of identity itself, results in the consciousness and the freedom to make one’s self and to name that self however one pleases. Nicki Minaj, and her numerous neon wig changes, suggests that any hairstyle is exactly that—a style, an aesthetic choice. I’m not sure I have ever seen a photograph of Nicki’s “real” hair, which, from the spectator’s perspective, implies that there is no “real” hair. That her hair is a signifier, that her hair is “hair,” just as much of an accessory as the pink harness she adorns halfway through “Starships.” And yes, the video does (as Southern Decadence did) evolve/devolve into a kaleidoscopic, epileptic, black light montage. Keith Marszalek of nola.com has described Southern Decadence as “a happening of haberdashery fit for an LSD Alice in Wonderland,” but Nicki Minaj is not echoing Lewis Carroll so much as Oscar Wilde. As Lord Henry, Wilde’s maxim-ushering promoter of unbridled hedonism, notes, “Being natural is simply a pose, and the most irritating pose I know."
In many ways, Minaj’s song, “Beautiful Sinner,” would have seemed a better choice for the weekend. An embrace of the hedonistic, of love in spite of social/moral connotation, of the “wicked” heart as work of art, “I didn’t know that bad could look so good.” “Beautiful Sinner” is more clearly a statement of identity. The notion of a beautiful sinner is, itself, if not a paradox, at the very least a challenge to the meaning of the word “sinner”—and Camp taste turns its back on the good-bad axis of ordinary aesthetic judgment. The lyrics of “Beautiful Sinner” end with “Maybe you’re the master of disguise … and you’re really the saint”—a blatant deconstruction/subversion of the other’s apparent/original identity.
The lyrics of “Starships” are, in part, so confounding because the identity of who or what is a starship is relatively obscured. The song seems entirely shallow, entirely surface and gloss. The words, however, function like Nicki’s own false eyelashes—attention-worthy and distracting in their own (superficial) right, but also a device to frame the (ever-blinking/winking) eyes. Eyes that are a site of simultaneous entry and reflection, a gateway for light (illumination) with the image of the spectator reflected on the surface. It is the difference, rather, between the thing as meaning something, anything, and the thing as pure artifice.
Do we all become a “starship,” as Nicki’s use of the first-person plural (“Let’s do this one more time”) suggests? That would be a pleasant enough notion, an expression of simultaneous unity and self-affirmation that events such as Southern Decadence would want to at least keep afloat in the background. Southern Decadence, however, is quite distinct from Pride. The event is not foregrounded in striving for visibility (though there is certainly a lot of seeing and showing), but rather in having a gigantic, unbridled five-day party. (“But fuck who you want, and fuck who you like / Dance all ya life, there’s no end in sight.”)
Though despite the song’s lyrics, “Starships” is a remarkably sexless video (in stark contrast to Southern Decadence itself). The most intense expressions of joy come when an individual is just that—individual. For example, the series of shirtless men who gleefully leap through sprays of colored “paint.” The only thing erupting is the volcano. At the end of the day, Nicki is left (or perhaps has chosen) to fuck no one, to roll around with herself in the glitter and sand. The act reveals self-parody, reeks of self-love. A lone star in the sky. And perhaps this (dance) step of individual expression is the most important, the first one to make before finding your (dance) partner. As Nicki tells us, “Twinkle, twinkle.” An implied “how we wonder what we are.”
As Nicki says, “Let’s do this one last time,” and return to the question(ing) of identity. The song, the video, and Southern Decadence are all celebratory in tone. Those attending Southern Decadence were ready to party. My friend P—who drove four hours to stay in my powerless, dark, sweaty, foodless house—said with optimistic cheerfulness, “It will be just like camping!” And yes, there were certainly elements of Camp at play, but not the sort of camp that involves tents or suspending coolers from tree limbs. The weekend contained a palpable individuality (“If you want more, more / Then here I am”) combined with an acknowledged unity (“Can’t stop cause we’re so high”). A collective “we,” twinkling in the sky, a drink in every hand. (Gin and tonics, by the way, will glow beneath a black light—each plastic cup its own little celestial presence.) The dance floors of Southern Decadence were markedly more crowded than the dance floor of “Starships” and everyone seemed poised to leap on stage. While many people, like Nicki, were performing, these performed identities are not inherently false. In all likelihood, the contrary is the truth—that through performance and an embrace of artifice (an embrace for which the queer community is often harshly judged/misunderstood), we collectively exert our agency as individuals. It is through performance and artifice that the accepted notions of “normal” or “straight” can be questioned, debased.
If this reading of the weekend/song/video seems a bit overdone, overwrought, then it is merely in keeping with the aesthetic. Southern Decadence is rooted in costumed play and “decadence” carries connotations of the indulgent, the stylized (appearance of) excess. Camp is art that proposes itself seriously, but cannot be taken altogether seriously because it is "too much." That artifice Nicki Minaj so adores can be used as a vehicle to unveil a spectrum of dualities. The individual/whole, the love/parody, the wet/dry, the compromised liver and the critical lens. That queer theory and the dance floor can exist in the same space. That One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious. And if Nicki indulges in a few plumes of purple gas seeping from her island, I will allow a few lines of purple prose to seep from this essay.
I wore a white shirt the last night of Decadence, a shirt that most certainly did not remain white. There were sprays of pink hurricane and glitter, remnants of rub-on tattoos and eyeliner. There is no shelter on Nicki’s island. You are forced to make Camp on the dance floor. The canvas of the self is mixed in with the whole. And if you happen to lose yourself or your way in the process, thankfully, after Southern Decadence/Labor Day weekend, one has the option of purchasing new whites at a significant discount.
Lines in italics are taken from Susan Sontag’s “Notes On ‘Camp’.”