It’s easy to laugh at the rapper’s strange outbursts, but precedents set by Elvis Presley and Donald Trump suggest that swollen testicles are a problem for all of us
Nicki Minaj didn’t just crossover with British politics this week, she infiltrated it at practically every level. It began, you’ll remember, with a tweet about her cousin’s friend in Trinidad and his, er… swollen testes. This unfortunate distension had occurred, the rapper suggested, as a result of a Covid jab. She claimed other side-effects, too: impotence, a cancelled wedding…
Then came the carnival. At a press conference in Downing Street, Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, was asked about Minaj’s firings-off and responded unequivocally, accusing her of “peddling untruths,” and adding that she should be “ashamed”. Boris Johnson, stood alongside Whitty, chipped in as well: “…vaccines are wonderful and everybody should get them.”
In return, Minaj took to Twitter again, first to coo at the British accents on display in that press conference, then to send a voice message to Johnson in which she adopted a British accent of her own, pretended to have gone to Oxford Uni and to have been friends with Margaret Thatcher. By the end of the day, she’d even fired a few barbs at the BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg.
Crazy, right? Like, ha-ha, whatever-next, off-the-chain, 2021 crazy.
Except, at the risk of sounding like a bore at the party, this situation is actually deadly serious. And I mean deadly. People like Chris Whitty are currently leading vaccination campaigns for which take-up is crucial – to prevent people from catching a life-threatening illness, but also to avoid the sorts of mixed-vaccinated-and-unvaccinated populations where Covid can percolate and create new, more transmissible variants of itself.
And it’s not just Britain. In Trinidad and Tobago, where Minaj’s cousin’s friend’s balls reside, around 450,000 people have received two vaccine doses – which is only a third of the population. There’s a long way for that particular Caribbean nation to go, but guess what its health minister had to do this week: yes, spend time investigating Minaj’s claims and then debunking them. “There is absolutely no reported side effect or adverse event of testicular swelling,” confirmed Terrence Deyalsingh on Wednesday, “and none that we know of anywhere in the world.”
He added that Trinidadian officials had “wasted so much time” to bring us this information.
The tragic irony is that while it is a waste of time for health officials to be running around after a rapper’s tweets when they could be administering vaccines instead, it’s also not. After all, people are influenced by celebrities – and have been for decades. Following the Minaj farrago this week, the website Open Culture posted a video that demonstrates how this influence can be used for good. It features Elvis Presley being jabbed for polio in 1956, backstage on The Ed Sullivan Show, as part of a plan to increase vaccination rates among impressionable teens. Pre-Elvis: the rate was just 0.6 per cent. Six months after his hip-swinging intervention: 80 per cent.
Things have changed since the King’s day, of course. The mechanics of celebrity are different now. Thanks to social media, big stars like Minaj can spray out their worst thoughts as soon as they have them – and millions will lap it up. But also thanks to social media, there is now a new type of star – and lots of them. Don’t forget, influencers are called that for a reason. They influence. An entire online economy has been created in which ideas, both good and bad, are fed into people’s heads for clicks, for attention, for money, for every second of the day.
That makes it harder for misinformation to be controlled. And, besides, the people who might want to do the controlling are now far less trusted. There were popular voices who spoke out against the polio jab in the 1950s, but the government also provided a bulwark against those views spreading too far. Politicians and civil servants would be listened to. Their recommendations followed. And if things were ever going off course, they could always draft in Elvis.
Now? Not so much. As any number of opinion polls will reveal, trust for authority figures is heading for the gutters – so the public is reaching for the stars. In recent years, this has meant the rise of celebrity-politicians such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson who have taken lessons from the entertainment industry and converted them into electoral success. In 2021, it can just as much mean that Nicki Minaj is leading the political bulletins.
The borders between culture and politics, which were always quite porous, are now practically non-existent. A rapper’s delight is now our own, and so too are her crazy outbursts. Balls.
Here are this week’s recommendations:
Sex Education (Netflix)
The UK is back to school in earnest with the return of Sex Education and more dysfunctional exploits at Moordale Secondary. After the hair-tearing final scene that ended season two, season three sees Otis continuing to pine over Maeve as the will-they-won’t-they continues where it left off. But theirs is just one storyline of many, which is the continuing allure of the hilarious and heartfelt show. It began as a story about a small handful of protagonists, but now it’s a real ensemble work. No character is left to be a sideshow. It’s an amazing feat to get the audience to care about so many people. Xavier Greenwood
The D’Amelio Show (Disney Plus)
At what price, fame? That’s the main question thrown up by The D’Amelio Show, where we get an odd and haunting insight into the lives of Charli D’Amelio and her sister Dixie. 17-year-old Charli D’Amelio is the most popular user on TikTok with 124.5 million followers, while 19-year-old Dixie has 55 million followers in her own right. Let’s get a couple of things straight: their family has a beautiful house in Los Angeles, and the sisters get amazing opportunities. But they are also balls of anxiety. It’s hard not to pity them. “I feel like I’ve had a constant panic attack for the past four years,” says Charli halfway through the show, a few episodes after Dixie has a distressing meltdown about the abuse she receives (“I’m trying to do everything I can to better myself and it just gets worse”). In one scene, the president of D’Amelio Family Enterprises sets out Charli’s obligations for 2021. The life of a 17-year-old girl reduced to a series of binders. Miserable. XG
Cinema can deliver moments that stimulate, shatter and stun. It can also deliver a big, rubbery vulture-monster attacking a plane in mid-air before gulping down anyone trying to escape by parachute. That’s what happens in Sam Katzman’s The Giant Claw (1957), and it’s a scene that rather sums up the filmmaker’s output in the 1950s – cheap, schlocky features that are plenty of fun and full of endearing flaws. One of the best home video labels in the business, Arrow, has just put out a box set that includes The Giant Claw, along with three other Katzman joints from that period: Creature with the Atom Brain (1955), The Werewolf (1956), and Zombies of Mora Tau (1957). But it’s the special features that really make the set: turns out, there’s more to these movies than first meets the eye. PH
Palmares – Gayl Jones (Virago)
22 years. It’s been 22 years since Gayl Jones last published a novel, 1999’s Mosquito, but her name was really made two decades before then, with Corregidora and Eva’s Man in the 1970s – books that, as an Atlantic profile highlighted last year, were celebrated by the likes of James Baldwin and John Updike. But now Jones is back with Palmares, and none of the talent that revealed itself in those earlier books has dimmed. There are other similarities with the earlier books, too: in telling the story of an enslaved girl in Brazil in the 1600s, Palmares also uses brutally lucid prose to expose the psychological whip-marks left by centuries of oppression. For all her time away, Jones is no less crucial now. PH
On the Cusp: Days of ‘62 – David Kynaston (Bloomsbury Publishing)
The Beatles released ‘Love Me Do’, their debut single. Sean Connery gained a licence to kill in Dr. No, the first Bond movie. The prime minister, Harold Macmillan, instigated the Night of the Long Knives and offed a third of his cabinet in one go. A lot happened in 1962 – and no one’s done a better job of enumerating it than David Kynaston in his new book, On the Cusp. This is the latest volume in Kynaston’s tremendous Tales of a New Jerusalem series, a history of Britain from the end of the war through to, eventually, the rise of Margaret Thatcher. But where other volumes have dealt with several years at a time, On the Cusp deals with just one, and with good reason: 1962, Kynaston persuasively contends, is the year when the 1960s really began. PH
Off the back of Lorde’s blissful Solar Power, it seems like the paragons of sad girl music are now moving through sunnier climes. ‘Silk Chiffon’ has been released on Phoebe Bridgers’ Saddest Factory record label, and it contains a line which could have been written by a Bridgers bot: “I’m high and I’m feeling anxious inside of the CVS.” But don’t be deceived. The song is bubblegum bright, its sunkissed music video a homage to the 1999 cult film But I’m A Cheerleader, which satirised conversion therapy. A joyous gay anthem. XG
From Snoh Aalegra to Mabel, Sweden has a vibrant – if understated – R&B scene. Hannes is an important part of it. His new EP When the City Sleeps is just 16 minutes long, but that doesn’t come at the expense of musical ambition. ‘Sugar’ is the highlight, a tender and playfully electronic song about those early days of a relationship, at home and enveloped in each other. It’s a beautiful foil to Hannes’s 2018 single ‘My Shine Is A Fade’, which should be the second stop for anyone only just discovering the Swedish artist. A beautiful voice put to great effect. XG
…also, thank you to our head of programming, Mark St Andrew (@MarkandDrama), for this recommendation:
For their tenth album, Saint Etienne have returned to the sample-driven sound of their early days. After a few years making shiny pop albums for grown-ups (Words and Music should be in everyone’s record collection), Bob, Pete and Sarah have returned with a sonic collage of memories and hazy autumn sunshine. Packed with samples of everything from birdsong to Natalie Imbruglia, the Lighthouse Family and Samantha Mumba, this is an album light on verse-chorus song structures – and heavy on beats and atmospherics. If the brief was to create the soundtrack to that blissful liminal state between daydream and consciousness, Saint Etienne has more than delivered. If you get a chance, try to catch Alasdair McLellan’s film (also called I’ve Been Trying To Tell You) for a full immersive experience.
Tortoise member Paul Atherton, whom many of you will have seen at ThinkIns, is taking part in the Museum of the Home’s first ever Festival of Home this weekend. A Q&A with Paul starts at 1pm on the Saturday, 18 September, and will dwell on the subject of homelessness. You can see the full schedule and book tickets here.
Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations to firstname.lastname@example.org.
That’s all for now. Have a good weekend.
Photographs Edward James/WireImage, Andrea De Silva/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock, Seymour Wally/NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images, Sam Taylor/Netflix, Disney+/Hulu, Columbia Pictures, Getty Images