A lot has been going on with Nicki Minaj, vaccines, swollen testicles, the White House, Tucker Carlson, Twitter, sexual assault, etc., this week. Below, four Slate staff writers attempt to make sense of the situation.
Rebecca Onion: OK. So here’s my understanding of things as they are: Nicki, who uses (used?!) Twitter quite a bit, had been replying to fans who were upset about not seeing her out and about, explaining that she has a little baby and no child care because of the virus, and that she got COVID at one point and it was stressful because she couldn’t be around him. Then in a separate tweet, she said that she wasn’t going to the Met ball because they required a vaccination and she wasn’t going to get vaccinated for that, but advised everyone to wear a good mask. THEN in ANOTHER tweet, honestly an all-timer, she said her cousin’s friend in Trinidad got the vaccine and his testicles swelled up and his fiancée called off their wedding. At some point, she said she would get vaccinated to go on tour. Then she asked her fans (???) which of the vaccines she should get (???). Then she got mad at Joy Reid and Meghan McCain for scolding her publicly for not getting vaccinated; then she retweeted Tucker Carlson approving of her recent tweets with the bull’s-eye emoji; then she said the White House had asked her to come talk to them about the vaccine; then it turned out that no, she was just getting to talk to a doctor about it or possibly have some kind of White House phone call; then, she said she was suspended from Twitter for spreading misinformation (even though she wasn’t).
DID. I. Miss. Anything?????
Julia Craven: Somehow, despite how comprehensive this is, you did miss that the White House offered to connect her with a doctor to talk about her tweets.
Heather Schwedel: There were a few smaller things. … The health minister in Trinidad said that they checked, and there is no person that happened to in the entire country. Nicki also mentioned that Drake told her he got COVID despite being vaccinated.
Onion: Ah yes, Drake. So, to turn to deciphering this, do you guys think she is trolling? Or is she really up in the air about the vaccine and trying to figure out how to handle it?
Nitish Pahwa: I think it’s two things: that she legitimately is skeptical about the vaccine, but could also be actively playing this up so as to distract from certain … developments in her life and career, like her manager switch and troubles with her husband. She’s always been very good at directing the narrative, especially for her stans.
Craven: I won’t say she’s trolling or up in the air—like Nitish said, she could genuinely be skeptical—but I will say the timing is convenient. Her husband, Kenneth Petty, pleaded guilty to failing to register as a sex offender in California last week. And now he’s potentially facing up to 10 years in jail.
Onion: This has worked with her in the past, right—are there other examples we can think of, of times when she has gotten particularly … uh … viral on social media while things are going poorly in other areas?
Craven: Yes! In March, the Daily Beast published an article about how she’s essentially bankrolling the harassment of her husband’s accuser. That story, if I remember correctly, continued getting a lot of traction throughout the spring. And, in May, Nicki rereleased Beam Me Up Scotty, the mixtape that put her on the map as an insanely talented rapper, on streaming. Again, no direct connections or gotchas on the timing of this, but it’s all very convenient.
Schwedel: In 2018, there was the time a fan criticized her and she lashed back by posting her DMs with the fan and effectively siccing her followers on her, as the New York Times reported at the time.
Pahwa: Yeah I feel like this part was especially important from that Times story: “Ms. Minaj has been particularly present online lately, rallying her troops in the run-up to her new album, as early songs from the project have failed to stick commercially.”
Schwedel: The Barbz are a particularly fearsome fan army.
Onion: With her career currently, there’s not just the husband’s legal troubles, but also the general fallow-ness of the pandemic, combined with her recently having a baby, right? Like, she hasn’t been around really, musically or otherwise.
Pahwa: Yeah, besides rereleasing Beam Me Up Scotty with a few new songs, and appearing as a feature on some other remixes and albums, she hasn’t done too much new stuff since 2018’s Queen, which was nowhere near as well-received as some of her previous projects. Although last year, she had a chart-topping single with Tekashi69, who had pleaded guilty to child sexual abuse in 2015.
Schwedel: There’s definitely a narrative out there that she has been usurped by Cardi B, right?
Onion: Heather, be careful, the Barbz are real!
Craven: I think the Cardi-Nicki beef is pretty much done between the artists, even though online I see the hives clash at times.
Onion: Let’s talk about the Barbz. Who are they, what are their characteristics as a fan base, and why are they called that? We should also say that some Nicki fans went to protest at the CDC in Atlanta during all of this, if that shows you how active they are.
Pahwa: I think we should be very careful about how we go about describing the Barbz, but: They are indeed named after one of Nicki’s alter egos (the Harajuku Barbie), and they are extremely devoted and powerful. A lot of them are LGBTQ fans. As Brian Feldman reported a couple years back, Lil Nas X comes from the Barb world, and he was able to leverage that fan base to reach his current level of success. Plus, there’s another key quote from that NYT piece about the music journalist Nicki fought with: “Her fans mimic her behavior.”
Schwedel: I just wanted to add that her gay male fans are called Ken Barbz.
Onion: So this brings me to the question. How does Nicki fit in with the other celebs who have been publicly anti–COVID vax? Like, is she the most famous of them? Have they expressed similar reasons why they don’t want to get it? And does she have more sway over her fans than they do? This feels like a breakout celebrity vax hesitancy moment. Is that because of the nature of her tweets? Her strong fan base? Or just … her balls?
Craven: This is gonna be nitpicky, but I also think it speaks to the way she operates online. She technically never said she was anti-vax. She said she wasn’t getting vaccinated for the Met Gala and then she spread misinformation about vaccine side effects to 22 million people. But because news outlets picked up on it and covered it as being anti-vax, she was able to turn the narrative on its nose a bit. She’s very savvy in that way. Everything is just inflammatory and just vague enough to where, if you aren’t actually paying attention, you’ll miss what’s happening. This also gives her a lot of leverage when, and if, she decides to pivot into saying she’s being unfairly attacked.
Onion: But in a way, Julia, I think the way this has gone has been very telling about vaccine hesitancy in general in this pandemic. Like the one anti-COVID-vaxxer I know in my life is just like this: not “anti-vax,” but suspicious, and continually suspicious for months and months.
It’s hard because you end up trying to persuade somebody, but you’re not sure if they’re persuadable.
Craven: Oh, yeah, I agree. And I’m not convinced there’s any research left to be done, or if anyone saying they’re doing research can be persuaded either. It feels like … code for evading the anti-vaxxer label at times. I’m nervous laughing.
Onion: There’s a lot of nervous laughter involved in this situation for everyone, because it feels like her influence is so strong and people who want to poke holes in the vaccine are very happy to have her.
Craven: Like, what are you going to find that scientists haven’t found? I still am sympathetic to people who are hesitant for whatever reason, but this feels different than, say, someone with myocarditis who is afraid of getting vaccinated. Or people who don’t have large platforms and access to phone calls from White House doctors.
Schwedel: She did say at one point she’d probably get it.
Onion: Honestly it was somewhat heartening. And it was funny to see people recommending vaccines like they were telling you what kinds of jeans to get when she asked that question.
It strikes me that during this pandemic, it really doesn’t seem like any pro-vax celebrities have made a dent. Like, does anyone get the COVID vaccine because Jennifer Aniston told them to? The reaction to this episode made me think “oh crap. The influence of celebrities is much stronger on the anti-vax side … ” But on the other hand, if she does get the vaccine, this little narrative will be more powerful than when Oprah came out back in the spring to say “Get vaxxed.” Right??
Craven: I definitely think Nicki Minaj has more power, at least on social media, than Oprah (lol), which is why it was frustrating to see her tweet about her cousin’s friend’s allegedly swollen balls! While she didn’t say she was anti-vax and she did say she’d probably get it to go on tour, sharing that kind of misinformation is bad.
But I also agree that if she shares a pic of her getting the vaccine, a lot of people who haven’t will go do it. And I did also enjoy the people in her comments saying, “Omg, queen get Moderna!”
Pahwa: Plus, if she gets the vaccine, I’m sure she’d be very likely to engage with fans and randos and other celebrities about it.
Onion: That’s my last question actually. Do you guys think she will get it? Let’s place bets. I bet … yes.
Craven: Yeah, I think she will. I genuinely think this dust-up was, like I said earlier, convenient. It’s kinda stupid that it escalated to the point that the White House weighed in. But it’s also started a decent convo about power, celebrity, and vaccines. And a lot of her fans seem to be pro-vaccine, but they will also go to war for her over any perceived slight.
Pahwa: I agree. When things calm down, there will be a news cycle in a few weeks or so about how Nicki got the vaccine and is encouraging her fans to do so.
Schwedel: I think she’s a bit of a wild card … the way she’s claiming the White House invited her and the White House is claiming no it didn’t makes me think she is not going to work with the White House or any official government entity. Maybe she was just annoyed that she was planning on dressing up à la Legally Blonde and it’s a lot less fun to dress up for a call than a visit. But as a celebrity, she might see some advantage to leaving things ambiguous and decide the smartest move is to just never address this again.