On Imitation, Oral Tradition And Pleasure: Nicki Minaj’s Super Bass Travels

by Thomas Brett

That self-organizing living force is what we’re having to ride. What we’re doing with the web is making a very large-scale global organism that in a few decades or so we will be able to identify as an organism in every sense of the word.
– Kevin Kelly on the Technium

One of the most watched videos on YouTube right now is that of an eight-year old English girl named Sophia Grace Brownlee doing a musical impression of the song “Super Bass” by Trinidadian-American rapper and singer Nicki Minaj. Here is Minaj’s video for “Super Bass” (which has been viewed an astonishing 183 million times):

It’s understandable that Minaj’s video has been watched by so many people. The song hits all the right pop notes–musical and otherwise: infectious rapping alternating with sung melodic hook, an upbeat, 120-126 bpm tempo, a beat that switches from a half time feel on the verses to a full-steam ahead, four-on-the-floor feel on the choruses (making the song perfect for remixing), a simple four chord harmonic structure, and a video that telegraphs desire through its depiction of lots of pretty bodies.

Now here is Brownlee’s version (viewed an impressive 20 million times):

Brownlee’s clip has been watched so much because she’s such an exuberant and charismatic performer who uncannily gets the details of Minaj’s lyrics and phrasing just right.

But what I find fascinating about Brownlee’s take on “Super Bass”, though, is how well it demonstrates the ability of music to spread virus-like from one host to another, transcending differences of place, age and ethnicity to keep reproducing itself through oral tradition. Indeed, Brownlee performs Minaj’s song as if in an exuberant trance–like she can’t help the fact that she’s the new host for this musical virus.

And while music scholars today agree that music is neither a language nor a universal language that transcends boundaries of culture, the online ecosystem and global culture repository that is YouTube suggests that it is nevertheless still a powerful contagion of pleasure.