The internet belongs to the Barbz

In an ever-changing world plagued by uncertainty, Nicki Minaj stans are our only constant.

by Douglas Greenwood
27 April 2020, 4:48pm

On the cover of her 2007 debut mixtape, Playtime Is Over, rapper Nicki Minaj posed inside a Mattel box as a Barbie doll. In the years that have followed the release of that incendiary debut, Nicki’s most devout fans, of which there are many, became known as the ‘Barbz’.

A lot has changed since that first mixtape: Nicki’s domination of the charts the past decade has enshrined her in music history, regardless of where her career goes next. But in 2020, Nicki’s fame is less about her once revolutionary rapping, and more about her persona, and what that means to her Barbz.

The two, at first, were inseparable. In her early verses, Nicki furiously flitted between alter egos and accents. From the fiery rage of Martha Zolanski, the spiritual embodiment of an English mother scolding her bratty gay son Roman, to the cutting and cutesy Harajuku Barbie, she had long been an advocate for changing her personality at knee-jerk speed while delivering unparalleled verses. It all peaked on 2012’s Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, arguably the most fertile breeding ground for her wild characters, but she continues her reign of unpredictability to this day. Her concerts, several hours long, shift through her catalogue so swiftly that it’s impossible to keep track of what you’re hearing.

While her die hard Barbz love reinvention, the public prefer consistency: Nicki’s desire to experiment has shot her in the foot when it comes to sales. Her fourth album Queen, released in 2018, peaked at number two in the US Billboard chart but shifted a quarter of the number of copies that its predecessor, The Pinkprint, did. Her last solo top five single was Anaconda in 2014. But if her music means less to the general public than it once did, there’s a whole generation of stans who have retroactively supported those tracks by creating endless content out of them. Basically, on TikTok and Twitter, Nicki is everywhere.

It’s hard to trace this back to its origins, but 2017 is a good place to start. For those who can’t recall, a clip of Nicki enthusiastically boarding a private jet from London to Prague became meme fodder for millions of viewers that summer. “You bitches can’t even spell Prague,” Nicki proclaimed; perhaps the most iconic line uttered on an airport concourse. Last year, “Roman Holiday”, an eight-year-old cut from Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, in which Nicki channels alter ego Roman Zolanski, became the score for sped-up videos of everything from Catholic parades to 3D renditions of Marge and Homer Simpson dancing.

Fast-forward to January of 2020 and a new Nicki meme had spawned, the catalogue growing ever greater. A clip of her standing up to collect a VMA for her “Chun Li” video has been used as the basis for a bunch of tweets, some riffing off of crude Starbucks behaviour; others on getting called out of class when you were in middle school.

We’re living through an era of pop music that sees stars chase clout by forced internet success. Be it popstars making songs that feel tailor-made for the TikTok masses to make videos to, or thinking of a viral dance trend and producing a track to fit that mould, virality is the key to cracking the charts. Nicki, however, has received that kind of internet success without pandering to this audience. In summer 2019, “Roman Holiday” re-entered the iTunes Top 100 after its meme success. No number of major label board meetings or strategy plans could muster up such insanity from scratch. It’s for this reason that her fanbase, perhaps, feel so close to her.

We always gravitate towards the weird and left of centre online. The most memorable Vines were the ones you struggled to describe in person; the “Hurricane Tortillas” and the “Fre Sha VaCa Dos” that make no sense out of context. This aligns closely with many of the memes that have been made from Nicki’s work: explaining the hilarity of “Roman Holiday” being layered over a clip from Camp Rock is a near impossible task, but that doesn’t mean it’s not funny. Much like these clips of Zha Chanel, a New York fan who bursts into Starbucks and fast food restaurants to stage impromptu Nicki karaoke, expletives, chaotic dance moves and all. Without witnessing it with your own two eyes, none of its humour stands up.

Gio, known as @lasagnabby on TikTok and Twitter, has been a Barb for years, and is constantly posting new Nicki videos. “She’s one of the funniest celebrities of our time,” Gio says of the reason behind Nicki’s digital success. “Everything she does is so meme-able, whether it’s her lyrics, or something like that whole Harriet Tubman thing.” They’re referring to a clip from her Beats One radio show, in which she defines a ‘queen’. Her cry of “TO FREEDOM” has become a career highlight in itself for Nicki. “I can’t imagine any other celebrity saying that except her.”

Then there’s Thomas, his sister Julia, mum Pauline and dad Chris, who have combined their powers to become TikTok’s most powerful collective Barb entity. It all kicked off barely a month ago, when Thomas asked his whole family to get involved in a lipsync cover of Nicki Minaj’s verse on Trey Songz’ “Bottoms Up”. (For further entertainment, see their renditions of Nicki’s verse on Katy Perry’s “Swish Swish”, “Where Them Girls At”, and her best work “Monster”.)

When we reached out to Thomas to ask what they planned to cover next, he said he was leaning towards Nicki’s verse in “Bedrock”. He has a sweet spot for it, as it was the first Nicki song he heard. “I was 7 when it dropped, I think.” The schoolchildren who once heard Nicki suggest that “it's time to put this pussy on ya sideburns” have grown up with her hookish words built into their psyches like nursery rhymes. Now, that salacious playfulness, once forbidden, is an explicit free-for-all they can explore on their online platforms, providing entertainment for (and traction from) the masses.

The majority of her most vocal, frenzied fans tend to be cis gay men. This is the case with many of music’s most controversial or misunderstood figures: that demographic gravitates towards idols that feel similar to them in spirit. They chase the outsider and like to galvanise their success, as if to say “I told you so” to anyone who chose to doubt them. For many who feel isolated or live in small towns, channelling a star as fiercely present as Nicki acts as a positive, fantasy reinvention of their own circumstances, living vicariously through stars who may never know they even exist.

But that fanbase is loyal because, as much as they love the underdog, they often feel entitled to a part of their person. Hence why some of the biggest stans are comfortable ridiculing their favourite artists -- and their art -- solely in the name of fun.

In a time that sees internet hilarity and trolling coalescing, understanding whether a joke is at the expense of its subject, a thinly veiled dig at their work, or made with warm intentions, can be a tricky tightrope to walk. At what point does the meme-maker become a bully? Are fanbases so rabid that they forget that their hysterical words might hurt the person they claim to admire? At this point, the Barb community has elevated Nicki to the top tier of internet stardom using her work and actions as fuel. She’s a star at the top of her game again, though not the one she might have wanted to be.

In some ways though, this is a positive development in the complex career of Nicki Minaj. Whether or not you’re a fan of her music, Nicki’s presence can be felt everywhere online. She is chaotic, camp and irrepressible, just like her biggest and most endearing followers. “She flips a switch in her fan’s brains,” Gio says, sincerely. “They say we only use 10% of our brains, but Barbz use 90%.”

Nicki Minaj