Rihanna released her new music video for "Man Down" yesterday, and not everybody likes the final product.
Watch it below.
Featured in the beginning is the singer taking aim in a crowded "central station," like in the song, and shooting a man down. Folks scatter, the guy lays dead with a pool of his own blood. Then it rewinds to the day before, in the same unnamed island town, and Rihanna struts and bounds around her city, happy, and ultimately ends up at a nightclub. A potential suitor sees her across the room, makes a few moves, they kiss and rub and then she pushes him away: game's over. She leaves, he follows her into an alley and he rapes her. The rape itself is obviously not shown in the video, but Rihanna's bright colors become muted and she crumples, ultimately going home, and finding her gun.
The Parents Television Council has already condemned what it views as a violent message.
[Lots more after the jump...]
"Rihanna’s personal story and status as a celebrity superstar provided a golden opportunity for the singer to send an important message to female victims of rape and domestic violence. Instead of telling victims they should seek help, Rihanna released a music video that gives retaliation in the form of premeditated murder the imprimatur of acceptability. The message of the disturbing video could not be more off base," said spokesperson Melissa Henson, articulating Rihanna's previous abuse case with ex-boyfriend Chris Brown. Calling it a clip of "shock-only," she said, "If Chris Brown shot a woman in his new video and BET premiered it, the world would stop."
Certainly if this were the Parents Music Council, they would've already had their say on the song's lyrical content when it first came out in 2010. However, the video certainly brings out a new element of the storytelling dynamic, as the murdered man from the song becomes a victim by the very woman he victimized.
Little can neutralize the utter bile and contempt I -- like most of society, naturally -- have toward rape and rapists. I feel like death whenever I hear stories of alleged victims killing themselves before they can seek help, or of those who are otherwise unable to get their day in court, let alone their abusers behind bars.
And, like many, I felt an unmatchable blood lust when I saw leaked photos of Rihanna's battered face after the night of Brown's attack, and an almost ballistic cynicism when I thought of the repercussions some felons get versus what I/we think they deserve.
These are powerful feelings -- rage, cynicism, blood-lust. It's like the feral euphoria that even some of my most pacifistic friends felt when they heard Osama Bin Laden had been killed. An itch was scratched.
I don't think the message in "Man Down," as the Council alleges, is one of shock-and-awe, or that revenge is the only or best option for victims. I think it's a portrayal and a passionate -- albeit short -- conversation on a story that so rarely gets told in pop culture. (Another example: if you've seen "For Colored Girls," you may also know what I'm talking about.)
And perhaps it takes a "celebrity superstar" to tell it.
Cold-blooded and premeditated murder has always made the rounds in popular music, particularly gun violence... I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die... Happiness is a warm gun... Put a gun against his head, pulled my trigger now he's dead... "Stagger Lee"... Gimme three steps... That's when I reach for my revolver.
It's particularly keen when a woman's carrying the refrain, like when Cher and Nancy Sinatra (bang bang) shot their respective babies down.
And that's not even touching on more examples of violence in contemporary hip-hop.
Take a look at one of Rihanna's biggest hits, on "Love the Way You Lie" by Eminem. There an expectation of explicit violence, particularly from Em, who's made a somewhat long career off of his brutal imaginings and language.
But what was interesting about the "Love the Way You Lie" video was the role Rihanna played in it: while many hailed it as her two-cents about Brown and the cyclical nature of abuse, she was interestingly a choral narrator in the clip, not its star. She remained arms distance from the conflict between Dominic Monaghan and Megan Fox's characters inside the burning house.
In "Man Down," she's very much inside the burning house. Metaphorically, she may very well be the burning house. Rihanna actively takes up the role of this fictional sexual assault victim, and it's curtains-down on her sunny day.
And to take the island imagery further: this too could be a manifestation and a retort to a long narrative of reggae songs that tout violence and murder as a tool between rival singers and MCs, their gangs or regional allegiances. I don't think it's a coincidence that Rihanna, who's from Barbados, utilized an island and reggae style in the track. And it was her songwriter's and filmmakers' approach, perhaps, to turn that history on its head, from a female's perspective, to perturb a brute machismo view.
Furthermore, it's coming from a singer whose career and appearance from day one has been overtly sexualized. There are instances like in "S&M" where her sexuality empowers her, and others like in militaristic "Hard," it's practically a parody. Here, it challenges the foul misconception that a sexy woman "deserves it."
I'm not naive to think that this is clip isn't a calculated part of the larger Rihanna brand. But I don't think that she or her handlers are glorifying murder as the proper retaliation for violent crime. I do agree with the Council in that I wish there was a message of healing and help for victims of abuse, and perhaps it will manifest in some goodwill from the singer's camp in retrospect. But in art -- even pop art -- there's not always a solution to everything but there's always a reaction. Like Toby Keith for "patriotism" or the Spice Girls for "girl power," it's striking a chord somehow, even as an imperfect prompt for the conversation.
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