On the menu today: More than I ever thought I would write about Nicki Minaj! The hip-hop star offered a spectacularly implausible claim about her cousin’s friend’s reaction to a COVID-19 vaccine, and this drove the public-health, media, and political authorities to DEFCON-One-level denunciations — vividly illustrating the establishment/anti-establishment dynamic in our culture, and illuminating how establishment health experts are putting enormous effort into an attempt to persuade the kinds of people who instinctively reject the recommendations of establishment health experts.
Nicki Minaj, the Unexpected Scourge of the American Public-Health and Political Establishment
Do I believe that hip-hop star Nicki Minaj’s cousin’s friend in Trinidad received a COVID-19 vaccine and then developed swollen testicles and became impotent? Let’s just say I am going to wait for the full review in The Lancet medical journal before drawing any firm conclusions. I also might want a second opinions from the New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA, Nature, Harvard Medical School, the Mayo Clinic, Sloan-Kettering, and Dr. Ruth Westheimer.
But there is something spectacularly hilarious about this absurd turn in the national debate about COVID-19 vaccinations, where no less a figure than Dr. Anthony Fauci felt the need to go on national television and say, no, there is no evidence that the vaccine will make your testes blow up like a pair of balloons in some sort of twisted Ralph Bakshi-animated nightmare.
There is also something hysterical and ludicrous about the fact that media fact-checkers at places such as USA Today and PolitiFact felt the need to “fact check” a tweet from a hip-hop star that sounded one step removed from the urban legend that Little Mikey from the Life-cereal commercial died from the explosive effects of mixing Pop Rocks candy with Coke.
The White House apparently felt the need to reach out to Minaj and offered to connect her with a doctor with expertise. MSNBC’s Joy Reid did a whole segment denouncing Minaj, and there have been critical pieces about Minaj at CNN, Vox, CNBC, the BBC, and elsewhere. Minaj claims she is in “Twitter jail,” while Twitter insists it has not shut down her account. The late-night comics made her the butt of their jokes. Overnight, she’s become something akin to Public Enemy Number One.
Her claim of a COVID-19 vaccine inflating testicles is nonsense, of course, but there was a time when medical, political, and cultural experts didn’t go to DEFCON One if a celebrity had nutty beliefs about medicine or anything else. Lord knows we’ve joked about Gwyneth Paltrow’s nonsensical health recommendations for years. The current COVID-vaccine opposition was built upon preexisting anti-vaccine beliefs, which were heavily fueled by Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carrey, and other anti-vaccine activists who were given a welcome platform by Oprah Winfrey, among others. (And this isn’t even getting into Robert Kennedy Jr.) You probably don’t want to know about Sandra Bullock’s facials, where Josh Brolin got sunburned, or what’s in the Kardashians’ smoothies. But rest assured that Demi Moore only uses “highly trained medical leeches.”
Celebrities are weird. They don’t really live in what you and I would consider the real world. Their fabulous fortunes and fame are often directly tied into their appearance and the perception of youth, which drives them to go to ever more extreme lengths to ensure that they keep looking young and in their physical prime.
But now, in the 20th month of a global pandemic that the current president pledged to “shut down,” a ludicrous tall tale from a hip-hop star must be treated as if it’s a Russian intelligence disinformation campaign. The reaction of public-health experts suggests that they genuinely believe Minaj’s tweet about her cousin’s friend’s testicles will convince some portion of the public to not get vaccinated.
If you are the kind of person who would choose to not get a vaccine to protect against a virus that has killed more than 4.6 million people around the world, because you heard that Nicki Minaj’s cousin’s friend in Trinidad had his testicles swell up, there’s really not much that can be done to save you. Your ability to discern a trustworthy source of information is fatally flawed. You should not get your health advice from hip-hop stars who have no idea who you are, just as you should not take your personal-hygiene tips from Steve Jobs, you should not get your tax advice from Wesley Snipes, you should not take marital advice from O. J. Simpson, and you should not ask Armie Hammer to cater your next party. Nicki Minaj may have the best of intentions, but she is not a doctor and no, wearing a nurse’s outfit in a music video does not count.
The thing is, if you don’t want to get vaccinated because of a second-hand tale of a hip-hop star, you’re probably not going to be persuaded by a counterargument from Dr. Anthony Fauci or CNN’s Sanjay Gupta or PolitiFact. All of these establishment health experts are putting enormous effort into an attempt to persuade the kinds of people who instinctively reject the recommendations of establishment health experts.
Readers of this newsletter may or may not be familiar with Nicki Minaj. She may very well be insane, but if she is, she has managed to channel that insanity into a phenomenally successful music career. She churns out hit after hit, makes Madonna look modest or even prudish, and eats controversy for breakfast. Even with my limited familiarity with the hip-hop world — blame one of my podcast co-hosts — I cannot emphasize this enough; Nicki Minaj’s career runs on controversy the way most life forms run on oxygen. Her fans adore her, in part because they see her as uncompromising and authentic, an indefatigable fighter who never backs down from any critic or challenge.
(Say, does that description remind you of anyone else who has been on the political scene lately?)
But Minaj’s career has thus far thrived on the kinds of controversies that were almost standard-issue for hip-hop or top-tier celebrities — fights and beefs and rivalries with other rappers, wildly explicit depictions of sexuality, irking members of the LGBTQ community by declaring that she “used to be bi, now I’m just hetero.” Deviating from the dominant American cultural orthodoxy since the millennium means inevitably you will run afoul of at least one of the tenets of progressivism. Minaj described having an abortion as a teenager and recounted her intense internal conflict about her choice, saying it has “haunted me all my life.” While she describes herself as pro-choice, she seems resistant to the emerging sentiment from abortion proponents that terminating the pregnancy does not involve an emotional cost to the mother-to-be. Some Christian readers may also raise eyebrows at Minaj’s advice regarding whether to get vaccinated: “Just pray on it and make sure you’re comfortable with your decision, not bullied.” You don’t have to like all of Minaj’s music to look at her and wonder if there’s a more complicated and nuanced soul inside than the flashy image would suggest.
Hip-hop stars get a lot of leeway, even in our increasingly censorious culture. Provoking outrage is the coin of the realm, and combative controversy-courting is almost a requirement for stardom. But by expressing a certain degree of vaccine skepticism or wariness, Minaj has crossed a line that public-health experts, media voices, and certain politicians enforce, and committed a sin they cannot ignore or forgive. Watching the entire medical, media, and political establishments bring all of their weight to bear upon Minaj, you would think she was Alex Jones or Joe Rogan. Every claim, no matter how spectacularly outlandish and no matter the source, must be policed by our public-health-disinformation watchers, because those gullible masses could be swayed by any blasphemy. But people will believe what they want to believe, and you can’t reason someone out of a position that he didn’t reason himself into.
I doubt the furious and widespread denunciation and mockery of Minaj will have the effect the medical, media, and political establishments intend. Late Wednesday, Minaj demonstrated her contrition by approvingly retweeting a Tucker Carlson segment.
In this, the entire establishment/anti-establishment dynamic in our culture is vividly illustrated. Nicki Minaj is going to be just about impossible to “cancel.” She’s already fabulously wealthy — her estimated net worth is $80 million to $100 million — and doesn’t need money. Her fan base isn’t going to abandon her if she maintains a vaccine-skeptical position. Defiance of what other people think is her brand. You might see a similar sensibility in Donald Trump, Joe Rogan, Elon Musk, Kanye West, and other famous figures who are seen as politically incorrect or more controversial than others in their field. They do what they want to do and speak their minds, confident that no one can fire them and no one can fully de-platform them. It’s easy to see why some people would look up to those larger-than-life figures; many undoubtedly envy the full-spectrum freedom they seem to enjoy.
And in an American culture that feels particularly censorious, intolerant, and eager to suppress those who dissent from the orthodoxy of elites, a lot of people who might never think much about Nicki Minaj one way or another might admire her furious and fierce rejection of those insisting she must not say the things she’s said. When Reid denounced Minaj, Minaj reminded her followers of Reid’s old homophobic blog posts. When someone objected to her retweeting Tucker Carlson, she offered a particularly off-color description of what Democratic Party loyalty demanded of African Americans. She utterly rejects the moral authority of her critics — and a lot of Americans will probably relate to that sentiment . . . even if they don’t care for her music, or believe what she said about her cousin’s friend.
ADDENDUM: In case you missed it, the U.S. State Department’s advice for those who want to get the proper papers to leave Afghanistan is to get them in person from U.S. embassies in neighboring countries. In other words, in order to get permission to leave Afghanistan, you must leave Afghanistan. Even Franz Kafka would say, “That’s a little over the top.”