Nicki Minaj and the Problem of Toxic Fandom
Nicki Minaj has had an odd couple of weeks. She released her latest album, Queen, but it failed to debut in the number one spot of the Billboard Top 200. This led to a frankly bizarre series of tweets wherein she accused Travis Scott, whose album kept hers off the top of the list, of all manner of dodgy dealings in an attempt to crush her deserved victory. Minaj also accused Spotify of working against her and seemed to claim that Kylie Jenner, Scott’s partner, was using their baby daughter as a bribe for fans. Things got even more curious when Minaj, while hosting Queen radio on Apple Music, doubled down on her Scott offensive then defended working with rapper 6ix9ine, who recently pled guilty to ‘using a 13 year old girl in a sexual performance.’ Her radio hosting also offered further opportunity to attack her critics, including labelling Scott’s manager ‘Cocksucker of the Week’, a label she also bestowed upon the Huffington Post, reading out tweets from music journalists and telling them not to write about her, and calling Pitchfork ‘Dick Rider of the Year’ for calling out her normalization of a predator in working with 6ix9ine. All that and she gave a shout out to Margaret Thatcher.
Typically, this would simply be another case of celebrity ego run rampant, and stuff like this isn’t necessarily new for Minaj. What makes it more troublesome is the way she has consistently wielded her fanbase to act as her soldiers in this imaginary war. In a pop culture climate of endlessly toxic fandom, there’s something especially strange about the Barbz. The Barbz are Minaj’s infamously defensive fan base, described by Rolling Stone as ‘a force of nature’. Their aggressive willingness to jump on any Twitter user with the mildest of criticisms against Minaj makes the Beyhive seem sedate by comparison. In a short period of time. That’s partly because Minaj herself has made it that way.
Toxic fandom typically happens without the subject of said adoration knowing it’s even happening. They may be aware that they have zealous fans but have no understanding of how dark things have gotten. When they do become aware of it, it’s seldom a good thing for them. Think of Sherlock and how its two stars seem increasingly bitter about the fanbase that has imposed an unwanted narrative onto their lives, and think of how the media exacerbated that by doing things like making them live-read slash fiction written about them. It’s become dishearteningly common for actors, directors, showrunners and the like to step in on social media and call out toxic fandom behaviour, a more recent example being the fallout from Star Wars: The Last Jedi actress Kelly Marie Tran being harassed off Instagram. Instances like this call into question the relationship between fan and subject, as well as whose job it is to define the boundaries.
The parasocial relationship at the centre of fan interactions does not have to be an intrinsically negative one. Plenty of people find solace and joy in their fandom experiences and are able to extract the positives from it without crossing the line into confrontation. However, this is often easier said than done and remains extremely difficult to control when you’re just some guy who made a film or an author whose books inspire fervent obsession. Entitlement rears its ugly head and many fans begin to feel as though they are owed something from the people who produce their pop culture fixations. They claim ownership over people themselves, projecting emotional attachments that do not exist. When a singer says they love their fans, each and every one of them, that takes on a meaning far stronger than the mere platitude of a celebrity.
This attachment is often encouraged by managers, studios, publicists and the like. Subtle encouragements become booming proclamations. It’s not enough to be a fan: You have to buy every single and then the album but only the one that comes with the exclusive first week pre-order goodies bundle and then you have to tweet obsessively about the singer so they trend worldwide and if that slides into casual bullying of people who don’t share your exact level of enthusiasm or even just those who are mildly critical of that new album then you’re just a good fan doing their job properly. Your favourite singer wants to see how much you love them, and they need you to prove that they’re better than anyone else so make sure you’ve got that receipt for the pre-order goodies bundle so you can tweet it at them and let them know you’re a true fan.
Nicki Minaj does not simply encourage parasocial relationships with her fans: She practically screams for it. Minaj frequently retweets fans and has been known to make large cash donations to ones in need. She fosters a strong relationship with her fans and they appreciate it. In that aspect, she’s not doing anything different from, say, Taylor Swift. However, Minaj is also happy to stoke the fires of the worst aspects of her own fandom.
Take an incident early last month, where freelance writer Wanna Thompson sent a tweet about Minaj and the direction she would like to see her music go in. The tweet itself is super mild and nowhere near the worst piece of criticism Minaj has ever received. She also wasn’t tagged into the tweet, meaning she either searched for it herself or, more likely, the Barbz found it and tagged her in. Minaj then DM-d Thompson with some nasty words, which Thompson shared with the world, which Minaj had to expect. Of course, the Barbz pounced. Thompson told the New York Times that she’d received thousands of hateful messages across social media as well as her personal phone number. She lost an internship with a blog she had been writing for and her 4 year old daughter also became a target for abuse. Thompson described the experience as leaving her ‘physically drained’ and admitted she was considering seeking professional mental help following the abuse.
Minaj is the reason that happened, make no mistake about it.
Minaj has cultivated an extremely loyal fan-base, tying their actions to her own success as well as their personal happiness, and she has been almost giddy to use that power for unsavoury actions. Attacking journalists is never a good thing, but to go after a 20-something intern for something as mild as what Thompson tweeted is straight-up ridiculous. Those DMs were a target on Thompson’s back because she’s certainly not naïve enough to presume someone would keep direct messages from Nicki Minaj secret. Your fandom is what you make it, and frequently they will mimic the behaviour you display to the world.
It’s not hard to see why Minaj would want this kind of fanbase to her name. She’s a highly successful black woman in an industry short on female presence, and she’s faced many years of racist and sexist behaviour from the industry and press alike. When you’re in that kind of bubble, it’s understandable why you’d want a few fawning voices in your ear. That’s something you can easily get very used to. Yet at some point, if you are working hard to strengthen that relationship, you have to know when to stop. You have to keep the lines distinct and you can’t ignore your own role in the toxicity. It’s no wonder Beyoncé has simply decided to exclude herself from such issues. They Beyhive may be Too Much but at least Beyoncé herself hasn’t actively encouraged that.
I want to stress that this is not unique to Minaj or her Barbz. I could be here all day listing my encounters with toxic fandom as well as the issue surrounding how toxic attitudes are cultivated as typical fan behaviour. However, I believe the Minaj example is one of the most potent ones available today of how this strain of co-dependence can lead to the worst of both worlds. It also ignores the elephant in the room: Eventually, this will all go away and people will stop loving you, or at least stop obsessing over you in the way you’ve become accustomed to. There will always be another fandom.
Header Image Source: Getty Images.
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