The Grammys were Sunday. Lots happened. But just as producers promised throughout the show, Nicki Minaj’s performance is the one we’re talking about on Monday.
The last time an awards show performance bombed this badly was when Britney Spears took the stage at the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards. But at least Britney could blame the fact that she looked like she’d been lobotomized just seconds before hitting the stage; Nicki Minaj looked cognizant of what was happening, and was seemingly following her vision. So arguably it was worse than the Britney disaster.
Backing up a bit. Nicki Minaj is probably the most thrilling female MC hip-hop has ever seen. She crams more style and personality into any one of her lines than some artists do on entire albums. She’s a bug-eyed maniac and a fashion visionary. But that doesn’t mean she should be given carte blanche to do whatever she wants at the Grammys (the Grammys!).
The performance opened with “Roman’s Revenge,” with Nicki in the guise of her British alter ego, Roman, confessing to a priest in a makeshift confessional booth. Here’s the first problem: Nicki’s a theater kid, and probably thinks her Roman character is fascinating. But she doesn’t seem to understand that to everyone else in the universe, “Roman” is just Nicki Minaj rapping in a British accent. Asking fans to understand and moreover care about her “character” is a huge leap.
No matter. The performance cut to a short film — when’s the last time that happened on the Grammys? — titled “The Exorcism of Roman,” which found Nicki as Roman acting “crazy” and, with the assistance of some really bad straight-to-DVD-style special effects, climbing the walls of her bedroom. We then cut back Nicki, strapped to a gurney atop a set of stairs, debuting her new song “Roman’s Holiday,” while dancers in robes and various other religious costumes danced below her. She eventually came down the stairs and was “exorcised,” I guess. She was strapped to a table which was raised high in the air, as if she was being levitated. The performance ended with her 15 feet above the stage, as steam shot high into the air, and viewers were forced to make sense of what just happened.
Some points: “Roman’s Holiday” is obnoxious and grating, and finds Nicki rapping and singing in a variety of voices over a stuttering beat. It’s a lot to take in, especially on a first listen, and digesting it along with the performance was extremely difficult. Second, Minaj is not an effective live performer. I’ve seen her in concert several times, and she has difficulty translating her manic energy in a live setting. It’s like she doesn’t know how to move around the stage while performing; Sunday’s performance compensated for that by placing her in a series of static positions. Third, by invoking gobs of religious imagery, the Grammy performance seemed desperate to be “controversial,” but was instead simply dull. Its high concept and huge set was wholly of the post-Gaga era, but Gaga knows how to tie all those various elements — song, set, performance — together into a cohesive whole. Minaj has nowhere near that control or ability, and as a result the performance was a floundering mess.
Worst of all, it happened on the Grammys — supposedly music’s biggest night — and it had almost nothing to do with music. Nicki seemed to be lip-syncing most of her lyrics, and of all the elements at play — over-the-top set design, controversy-baiting, the celebrity-personality matrix — music was the least of them. Gaudy, ridiculous, envelope-pushing performances have become an awards show norm, from the wild set-pieces at MTV’s Video Music Awars to the big would-be watercooler moments on the American Music Awards. But the Grammys are supposed to represent a higher standard, and this shouldn’t have been allowed to happen on their watch. It was an embarrassment all around.
Grammy folks have been taking down YouTubes of the performance, either out of copyright violation or shame. Watch it below while you still can. Or don’t.