5 key cultural references in Nicki Minaj’s looney ‘Roman Holiday’ Grammy show

What the hell was that?

Nicki MInaj’s Grammy Awards show performance of “Roman Holiday” was hell, in so many ways. Most notably, it was a theatrical interpretation of hell, though viewers were indiscriminately and unknowingly cast there within the first few notes.

The jumbled, faltering, brain-deleting insanity of the stage presentation wasn’t made any more tolerable by Nicki’s singing voice, bending around the tracked vocals in caterwauling notes and nonsense. Until there is a fully edited music video to accompany this song, it will be forever burned into memory as a vortex of blistering shame and confusion.

Nobody — especially Minaj — was ready for this. But there were some clues as to what she was going for, references to pop culture flotsam and bedlam that could one day parse into a central theme or idea.

Below, I outline five of many influencers on Minaj’s Roman trainwreck. If you relax your eyes long enough, you’ll see a dolphin or perhaps a man with a funny hat emerging from this image:

1) West Side Story’s “I Feel Pretty” — Maria is nearly hysterical about how damn pretty she is. She’s got a massive crush on a dude. Minaj — who is already exalted as a musical sexual icon — sings it out of demonic delirium. Good girl gone mad?

2) “The Exorcist” — Minaj didn’t go so far as vomiting (literal) bile or masturbating with a crucifix, but the video clip and the hyper-sexual performance’s arc all point to the film as the main influence and reference, along with a little dab of “The Craft.”

3) Roman Catholicism — Aside from the general insanity flopping all around the stage, what’s even more jarring after first-glance is a woman of color springboarding off of Catholicism (Roman Catholicism, get it?). While Madonna and Lady Gaga before her have made a pop spectacle of Catholic rituals and pock-marked history, Minaj put paired sacred and profane with an urban track. An “altar boy” is seen on his knees, his face in that space just above her knees. Her confession turns into an expulsion of violence. The stained glass windows of the “church” become the fire-and-blood-colored backdrop for levitation. The “pope” was her companion on the red carpet. At the end of her (literal) rope, she begs “Mother, forgive me” instead of the traditional gender-opposite “Father, forgive me.”

4) Minaj’s own self-reference — Minaj’s multiple personalities get further chopped and screwed here. She’s rapping as Roman, her tiffy gay male alter-ego, and singing as Roman’s mother Martha on the chorus. Meanwhile, she continues to play on her womanly wiles, trudging around in a dress and dealing with the occasional bondage fantasy. Is Roman persecuted by demons because he is gay, or because the Catholic Church doesn’t look too kindly on homosexuals? Or did the producers even get that far?

5) The Holidays — The Young Money rapper seems to be all about the holidays. She released her first album “Pink Friday” on Black Friday of the shopping year in 2010 and originally plotted to release “Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded” on Valentine’s Day. That drop date has since moved to April 3, which is mid-week of Holy Week for Catholics and other Christians. And, of course, there’s the title “Roman Holiday” — a day to enjoy and witness the suffering of others — and the musical allusion to classic Christmas carol “O Come All Ye Faithful,” altered for Minaj’s altar.

If I don’t die before I wake, then I’ll be able to witness “Starships,” Minaj’s next single from “Roman Reloaded,” debuting on Ryan Seacrest’s radio show today (Feb. 13). I pray for clarity.

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