So long, dear Astro

Every now and then a trending topic catches my attention and this week it was Astro. The proto-professional rapper from Brooklyn is 15 years old and has gained a following from his TV exposure on Simon Cowell’s The X Factor. Cute doesn’t begin to do this kid justice. Astro is ca-yoot, especially when he wears his glasses and looks sadly off into the distance.

Astro writes all his lyrics and has himself a nice little rap flow. A week ago Astro captured viewers’ hearts when he threw an epic temper tantrum, à la Kanyeezy… well, at least up until about an hour ago when fans voted him off.

As his name implies, you can’t keep him down — not if his Astronauts have anything to do with it. Who knows? If given a chance (and the right publicists), Bradley might just give Biebernation a run for their money. We shall see.

What’s in a Name?

One of the main issues of cuteness has to do with a notion called infantile citizenship as theorized by Lauren Berlant. She has been chief among other very interesting interlocutors who have grappled with this issue. The idea is that the people we consider  “minorities” are really not that at all. And this is obvious, especially if you think about it in terms of global demographics. In fact, the people we refer to as minorities here in America actually make up the majority of the world’s people. We can start counting China and India and continue from there. This is to say nothing of the youth bulge all across the rest of Asia, Africa, Latin America and, of course, the Middle East. The anxieties surrounding the “browning” of Europe and America as evidenced by the recent proliferation of reactionary anti-immigration policies speak to this reality quite profoundly.

Kanye West is not a cute teddybear, but he sometimes plays one on television.

If thought about in these terms, we can clearly see that the term minority is really meant to imply something quite different and is really only a play on the notion of minors. You know, like little kids.

Basically, decades following the Civil Rights Movement (as evidenced by the Obama/Trump birth certificate fiasco)  there’s the idea that America’s non-white folk are never truly capable of realizing a fully responsible citizenship, which justifies the reason for having to limit (or at least heavily scrutinize) their rights.

This remains a sad but true fact of life, even today in the 21st century. There are a gazillion permutations of this problematic, all of which I will attempt to catalogue exhaustively in my dissertation. The most obvious example of this is the slew of such hip-hop aliases. Even many white artists appropriate this tactic as a sign of their street creds. Examples of this include some pretty cool customers in their 20s, 30s and 40s whose professional monikers are the following:

  • Lil’ Kim
  • Lil’ Wayne
  • Lil’ Jon
  • Lil’ Bow-Wow
  • Lil’ Romeo
  • Lil’ Skeet
  • Da Brat
  • Big Boi
  • Souljah Boy
  • Young Jeezy
  • The Beastie Boys
  • Kid Rock
  • That Subliminal Kid

Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but there’s got to be some deeper explanation as to why so many hip-hop figures feel so compelled to traffic in this rhetoric of cuteness. I think this list is strangely long — almost a little spooky. Can you think of some others?

February is Black History Sneakers Month!

Aside from the much publicized irony of Black History Month being celebrated in the shortest month of the year, I generally relate to certain other criticisms about these four weeks of commemorative celebration having become pretty much absurd at this point in contemporary popular culture.

But don’t tell that to Foot Locker. These sneakers are from the 2011 Collection of Black History Month Sneakers from Nike and Converse.  No seriously, this is an actual genre of athletic shoes.  There’s also the Negro League sneaker collection from Nike.

I have sometimes held the opinion that sneakers are a sort of cute rhetoric that signifies on certain essentialist claims made about African American men. Of course I’m talking about the troping on the “run, nigger, run”  metaphor from African American literature and folk-tales, which I suspect is informed — at least somewhat — by the 19th and 20th century historical references to youthful black male flight from Southern slavery and Jim Crow lynching.

Certainly, in the sports and entertainment media, young, athletic, African American male bodies are fetishized and made objects of white, middle class, heteronormative spectacle as in the case of baseball, football, and basketball. This emphasis on youthfully playing games  is a “cute” rhetoric. Arguably, sneakers are the cutest menswear shoe style available and, for good or bad, remain a staple of hip-hop style and urban fashion.

And sadly, even up until now many young black men still view professional sports as the only legitimate avenue to wealth and fame, as the frames of black athleticism are narrowly interpreted as the optimal performance of African American masculinity. The popular sports legacy of Michael Jordan’s endorsement of Nike Air Jordans and his influence on urban fashions associated with the late 90s style of dress when grown black men dressed in over-sized jersey tank tops, low-hanging, ankle-skimming shorts, and yes — sneakers. Grown black men wearing play clothes.  The issue of concern for me is that “black” must be modified by “grown” and I’m curious as to how this is related to the performance of gender.

Spike Lee as “Mars Blackmon” parodied this child-like mannishness in his first and highly acclaimed independent film, She’s Gotta Have It, and in his numerous Blackmon reprisals in several Nike ads back in the late 80s and early 90s. Today, there are blogs and chat-rooms populated by intelligent, educated, technologically savvy —  literally well-heeled — black men who spend hours comparing their sneaker collections and discussing the intricacies of limited editions, latest trends, and architectural designs. Within these digital communities, rarely is the issue of exploited overseas sweatshop child labor ever raised. Personally, I don’t claim to understand what motivates sneaker enthusiasts. I guess I’m not much of a sports fan either.  However, I do think the question is worth asking: is this a part of what Carter G. Woodson warned about in The Miseducation of the Negro?

Here Comes BarbieB!tch!

It’s really not a surprise that cuteness is the preferred design characteristic of super-commodity merchandise and is therefore the chief brand aesthetic of multinational mega-corporations like the Disney media empire and the Mattel toy company.  The predominance of soft rounded plastics makes it so.  Known for their pop culture icons, Mickey and Barbie, you’d be hard pressed to come up with examples of more successful and durable branding.

And along comes cute hip-hopper, Nicki Minaj fashioning herself as a Japanese street Barbie. Her name both rhymes and alliterates with Mickey’s. I think she’s brilliant.

Toys can have different characteristics and don’t always have to be cute, per se.  Toys can be quaint like wooden blocks or like cloth teddy bears or Raggedy Ann & Andie. Different kinds of toys definitely have different auras. What I’m talking about in terms of Minaj is a plastic aurality, bereft of all sentimental value, simultaneously stripped and sealed.  Not only does Minaj perform the strip/tease, but she does so through offering herself up as a sealed object — almost hermetically so.  And in true hip-hop tradition, she’s the first to brag about how airtight her entourage is.

Her über lavish lamé and latex costuming makes her seem impossible to undress. Just go ahead and try and get her out of her clothes. She’s tightly corseted, though nothing like a genteel Victorian.  She’s walking around literally sheathed in rubber, her gear is like… well, like a condom.  Her stylized plasticity seems to be almost hygienically engineered. The overly shellacked make-up and wigs seal the deal. (Get it? seal the deal? like sealed… oh never mind.)  It seems like whatever they try to hurl, spit, or squirt at her, it just instantly wipes off.  All antibacterial and whatnot.

Yep. Nicki Minaj is pretty much awesome.