RetroPop: Why Edna St. Vincent Millay Would Love

Nicki Minaj with orange hair and a small black and white of Edna St. Vincent Millay

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:

Candle burning at both ends

First Fig

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.

Space Girl and RobotCelebrated 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.”

Previously: Introducing RetroPop, Pride & Prejudice & Carly Rae Jepsen

by Brianna Goldberg
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5 Comments Have Been Posted


The thing is, when there's more than one diva at once at the table or even in the room, things often go, well, ill. ESTVM was notorious for making things go ill for long phrases of her life. Not all the time, and not with everyone, but could she ever be mean and cutting -- as well, as for a period of her time, falling down incoherent from d&a.

And this is one who adores Millay's work, and always has.

I still think Nicki would be

I still think Nicki would be able to hold her own. But imagine if those two had a one-upping kinda freestyle rap battle. I'd like to see that! Thanks for your thoughts on this, Foxessa.

I appreciate your effort to

I appreciate your effort to highlight female musicians. However, it is not helpful to highlight one of the worst musicians making music today regardless of their gender.

Nicki Minaj's music is sugary, vapid nonsense just like every other song getting played on top 40 radio. Every other song is about having nothing to do but dance. Nicki Minaj and every other singer are poorly ripping off Lady Gaga.

Also, the exact same message was in Girls Just Want to have Fun. Do you know how long ago that song was released? Why aren't you talking about somebody who can actually make music like Adele.

Thanks for your comments,

Thanks for your comments, Green. I'm always happy to start and take part in discussion about this stuff, that's why I wanted to do this blog in the first place.

I'm not sure if you saw the first post in this blog series but it establishes that I'm going to talk mainly about female performers in the Top 40 and thereabouts, and sadly (though I loooove her) Adele isn't there right now. I do have a bit of wiggle room in the content scope so, sure, let's go for it, I'll do one on Adele for you somewhere down the line.

I'm sorry you aren't a fan of Nicki, but as with every item of music, some people like it, and some people don't. I'm not saying she's the best lady performer out there, I just meant to start a conversation about what she's saying with her extremely popular music.

But, not for nothing, you might want to check out some of Nicki's work on YouTube that isn't the stuff on her album. She is an amazing rapper when she's in a less confining genre than pop and she can do a whole lot more than just spit out dance hits. Her verse on Kanye West's "Monster" is one of my favorites, from any rapper, ever.

And yes I do know how long ago Girls Just Want to Have Fun was released-- it's still great, and there's still more great songs with messages like Lauper's being pumped on the radio, like this Nicki tune. Maybe years from now we'll be asking why the dreck on the radio isn't more like Minaj. Maybe!

Thanks again for your comments.

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