In Defense of Nicki Minaj's 'Starships'

In Defense of Nicki Minaj's 'Starships'

By Ivan GuzmanJan 03, 2024

When “Starships” ruled the radio, I was driving around the Texas suburbs helping my mom sell chicken salad sandwiches. As a freshman in high school, I would assist my mom on the weekends with her catering delivery startup, and in between locations I’d blast pop radio.

“Starships” would play maybe twice every hour. It was a glimmering pop anthem, one of many juggernaut earworms that was so reflective of the maximalist, neon-infused, post-recession EDM imperialism period we were all living in. I had just started drinking caffeine, in the form of venti green tea lemonades from Starbucks. Colorful, femme dance-pop was the norm. Things were simple and blissful.

Nicki Minaj's memories of that time don't seem to match mine. At a New Year's Eve performance in Miami, the rapper started performing the first few seconds of the song — “Let’s go to the beach-each” — before demanding the DJ cut it off. “Hold on! Sike, sike, sike, sike. I don’t perform that song no more, y'all.” The crowd booed, lovingly. “I don’t like it! What y’all want me to do? Stupid song!” She smiles.

It is a stupid song, but in a fun way. With the help of famed Lady Gaga producer RedOne, the Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded track takes an empty metaphor and fills it with kinetic energy. It set the stage for the Pop (that’s Pop with a capital, hot pink P) pantheons that Minaj would continue pumping out for radio stations to overplay all day, every day. One could argue that “Super Bass” was the first of this transition into mainstream dance-pop, but that song had way more rapping. “Starships” was full-on auditory gooning. It was senseless and silly, a perfect symbol of the early 2010s cultural zeitgeist. It proved that Minaj could do party pop, too, and could steal Billboard chart spots from Katy Perry and Kesha with ease.

This isn't the first time Minaj has expressed distaste for the song. During a 2020 Pollstar Live Q&A, she diminished the track along with other mega-hits “Anaconda” and “Your Love.” “I mean, ew, 'Starships'? I’m like, why did I do that? I really think that every time I hear it.” It makes sense that the song makes her cringe now. It probably made her cringe then. We all remember the iconic Today Showperformance where she goes full-on Tasmanian devil on the last drop. “Is this too much for early in the morning, you guys?” she asks.

Pink Friday 2's press run has shown us a Minaj who’s more mature and in control than ever, a mother who is way above all the cash grab shenanigans of that 2010s era. For pop girls, that time period was all about empowerment: in March 2012, Katy Perry’s military moment “Part of Me” snatched the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 from “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” by Kelly Clarkson. That’s where we were at, thematically, and “Starships” carried that message as well. “Fuck who you want, and fuck who you like,” she screams for the gays. Dance all night, there’s no end in sight. Like a firework, you were meant to fly.

But in reality, the girls were being overworked. Rihanna was releasing an album per year, eager to finish the six-album contract she had signed with Def Jam when she was a teenager. Lady Gaga was going so hard that she broke her hip. Kesha was quietly in the midst of a very bad situation with Dr. Luke. It makes sense that these women have bad associations with that time period. Still, they sang about intergalactic missions of self-love and shooting for the stars. Shining symbols of pop excellence for the masses.

Today’s pop girls aren’t really symbols of anything. There’s no sense of unity or power, just an endless search for relatability. The ones that are really good are sort of just byproducts of this early 2010’s pop imperialism era, and they for sure don’t get the widespread recognition they deserve. It’s not necessarily anyone’s fault, either. Probably just a result of the TikTok of it all. But I don’t want my pop girls to be relatable or “meta.” I want to see them touch the stars.

I’m not saying “Starships” is Nicki’s best song, or even that she should perform it at all. But the song represents a time when our pop girls were on top of the world. Now, Nicki may view it as a point of shame, but I think it was a moment of power. Full-blown, splatter-painted pop domination.

Photos via Getty