September 27, 2010


Like Whose Body?

Nicki Minaj shows up two minutes and forty-five seconds into the video for Trey Songz' "Bottoms Up," effortlessly steals the song, and then decides that simply walking off with it is too easy. By the end of her crazed, hyper-speed, personality-flipping, minute-long verse, she's pretty much demonstrated that she, rather than Trey, is the one who invented sex. It culminates with a wicked parody of Songz' chorus, in which she quotes Anna Nicole Smith's legendary plastered appearance ("Like my body?") at the 2004 American Music Awards, then conflates herself with the late bombshell—"Anna Nicki"—and tells her to "say hi to Mary, Mary and Joseph." That extra "Mary" is probably an intentional stutter; there are plenty of those in the song. But it's fun to imagine how it might be one or another of the other performers she's invoking by proxy.

"Bottoms Up" leaked to radio in mid-July; by the end of the month, former "American Idol" contestant Danny Noriega had posted a cat-augmented YouTube video of his own performance of "Bottoms Up." It wasn't the whole thing, just that cartwheeling, hilarious verse. Since then, something like 200 other YouTube users have posted videos of themselves rapping or lip-synching or stumbling over Nicki's "Bottoms Up" verse—see, for instance, the hilarious take by MessyMyles, which gets almost all the way through before collapsing. They mostly take their cues from Noriega's version (check out the way he leans forward and growls Minaj's threat); they're inhabiting him inhabiting Nicki. And Nicki—or rather her alter ego Roman Zolanski—is inhabiting the intoxicated self-adoration of Anna Nicole.

Smith's famous ramble was actually a hip-hop moment: she was introducing Kanye West, and declared "if I ever record an album, I want this guy to produce—make me beautiful duets!" She never did record that album, but she did make a 1997 single: a clubbed-up cover of the 1938 Cole Porter standard "My Heart Belongs to Daddy." Except she wasn't actually treating it as a standard.

Her version of "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" is explicitly a tribute to Marilyn Monroe's rendition, whose campy, curvy, self-conscious self-celebration is the blueprint for Smith's entire public persona. Smith's recording begins with her murmuring "My name is Lolita"—the same way Monroe introduces her version in the 1960 movie Let's Make Love. That's a joke that wouldn't have made sense before 1955, when Vladimir Nabokov's novel Lolita was published and subsequently scandalized America. And it echoes forward: the crime of Nabokov's child-molesting aesthete Humbert Humbert was reprised by child-molesting aesthete Roman Polanski, decades before Nicki Minaj reclaimed his name. It's also worth mentioning that the plot of Let's Make Love involves a billionaire falling head-over-heels for a bombshell stage performer: the Anna Nicole Smith story, in other words.

But there's also a smutty joke that neither Marilyn nor Anna Nicole quite got across, surprisingly. One verse of "My Heart Belongs to Daddy," as written, begins "If I invite/ A boy some night/ To dine on my fine Finnan haddie..." "Finnan haddie" is a kind of fish dish, once popular in New England. Monroe, who might have learned the song from an earlier hit recording, neutralizes the double-entendre by phrasing it as "fine fin and had 'e," and Smith bobbles it altogether: it comes out as "my fun fit and heady," or something along those lines.

There's no mistaking the joke when Mary Martin sings it: with a look of mischievous mock-innocence, she enunciates the cunning line perfectly. Martin was the first person to sing "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" in public, in the 1938 musical Leave It to Me, and it stole the show as surely as Minaj's verse steals "Bottoms Up." (It became her signature piece; her autobiography was entitled My Heart Belongs.) She reprised it in the movies a few times, most notably 1946's Night and Day—a musical biopic of Cole Porter in which the songwriter played himself (like the billionaire-turned-actor in Let's Make Love) and Martin played her 1938 self, auditioning for Porter and learning the song.

In other words, what we're seeing now is fans like MessyMyles playing Danny Noriega playing Nicki Minaj playing Roman Zolanski playing Anna Nicole Smith playing Marilyn Monroe playing Mary Martin playing herself 72 years ago. Might Mary Martin be the "Mary" that Nicki's shouting out, the ultimate body at the bottom of the chain? Probably not—but it's hard to rule anything out in "Bottoms Up"'s immense, tipsy hall of mirrors.