The public obsession with mega-pop star Rihanna’s turbulent love life has meant that despite her success, critics have largely glossed over her considerable gifts as an artist. The facts of the Bajan singer’s rise to fame and her romantic ordeal are by now household topics, but for those out of the know, Rihanna has made a hit record each of the past four years and has sold more digital copies of her work than any other artist. Last year alone she reportedly grossed 53 million. She also has a thug boyfriend, the rapper Chris Brown, who brutally beat her in 2009 and was subsequently convicted of a felony for the crime. Alas, when the happy couple reconciled sometime last year, a tsunami of public horror and outrage followed their blissful détente.
But domestic violence is not a tsunami, or a meteor slamming into Siberia. Sad to say, it is a daily disaster, a fact of life that is also an extreme form of the misogyny that women around the world live with every single day. So on the one hand, yes, outrage is warranted, especially when too many men still think the right to hurt women is an entitlement as natural as the sun’s right to rise. The more outrage the better, I say.
Yet I often notice that what seem like outrage and concern are really a collective tsk tsk-ing that stands in for true consideration and empathy. Even worse, this sham outrage too often gets channeled toward the women themselves. How could any woman ever tolerate that? Sure, many women are forced by poverty to endure their abusers. But those who choose to stay? People assume they must be stupid, or ignorant, or both.
It is much easier to write off such women than to really face how widespread the violence is, and the ever-present but less blatant injustices like economic inequality, which virtually all women suffer and that actually underlies so much of the violence. But hey, if we can’t do anything about the endless bummer of the wage gap, at least we can take cheap comfort in condemning a no brainer like domestic abuse – along with any woman who would choose to put up with it. This is outrage as Muzak, fake and awful but supposed to make our days somehow more pleasant.
When news broke of Rihanna’s reconciliation with Brown, it didn’t take long for the indignation to curdle into disrespect. According to the February 14 issue of Rolling Stone, Joan Rivers tweeted “Idiot! Now it’s my turn to slap her!” And in his Oscar-night frat fest of misogyny, Seth MacFarlane’s mockery did not neglect Rihanna and, as New Yorker blogger Amy Davidson writes, effectively encourages more violence. Yes, it is true that Oprah and many others have shown real concern. But because outrage is now the defining ingredient of everyone’s judgment about Rihanna, the critics have pretty universally downgraded both her and her art.
In December, New Yorker critic Sasha Frere-Jones wrote off Rihanna as having little self-regard, as a half-assed person and singer whose stunning success owes to her good taste and the fact that her fans apparently love how she hypes her bad-girl persona. February’s Rolling Stone features a story equally patronizing but with a tad less contempt, as the interviewer gallantly schools the singer on the fact that she is not a prisoner of love, telling her “you don’t have to be the one” to offer Brown the support he needs. Happily, Rihanna offers a bit of her own schooling in return. But this is the high point of the story, which otherwise offers a bland report on how Rihanna has made her ordeal the subject of a few songs.
Along comes Camille Paglia’s kooky comparison of Rihanna to the late Princess Diana in a Sunday Times piece in February. This story finds common ground between the singer and the princess in their broken-home childhoods, their roles as spurned women in love triangles, and most important, in their brilliant but dangerous talent for manipulating their charismatic personas. As many have already pointed out, lots of female stars fit the first two criteria, so it is not clear why the third should render Rihanna the new Diana, especially since the women’s lives are in fact totally different.
Even if Paglia rightly notes Rihanna’s “magnetic intensity” and her status as a “rebel star,” she nonetheless concludes that the singer’s “brilliant eye is helpless against the tyranny of the heart.” This odd finale cancels out her claim that Rihanna is a “serious and gifted artist to reckon with,” which she only concedes because Rihanna’s latest album “also contains songs of searing suffering and passionate self-questioning.” So, when the lady suffers and questions herself, she’s a serious artist; but when she dares to exalt her flawed humanity in service of her public image, she’s out of control and headed to compare fashion notes with Lady Di in that vast double-X netherworld where all such ambitious souls presumably must end. Ultimately, Paglia only seems to oppose Frere-Jones because both cast Rihanna as essentially a manipulator; Frere-Jones is underwhelmed, while Paglia finds her brilliant but finally defeated.
There is no doubt that some of Rihanna’s behavior invites us to view her as a cipher or a deviant brand at best. Her tweets embracing submissiveness are obviously designed to shock and to sell. The ethics are questionable, to put it mildly, and we can and should question such choices. But talented male artists (like Eminem) who deliberately exploit their private struggles for showmanship – whether it’s addiction, violence – often against women, drug busts, or whatever – do not meet the same type of disrespect and dismissal that Rihanna has. Overall, critics judge men’s work on its own terms. For the truly gifted, they fawn over the tortured genius mastering his life into art.
The video for Rihanna’s recent hit “Diamonds” compellingly dramatizes the tension between love and danger, but Frere-Jones trashes it handily as “a collection of free-floating bummers” accompanied by a disengaged singer. Actually, it’s an intelligent contrast between lyrics celebrating shining lovers and images that convey not just danger but loneliness and more than a hint of self-awareness. Claiming devotion to a lover who is a “vision of ecstasy,” the singer repeats, “we’re beautiful like diamonds in the sky” and declares, “I choose to be happy.” But this triumph is belied by destructive scenes, a burning rose and what looks like a burning man amidst a riot. Rihanna appears mostly alone, running from a car at night, floating in the sea, or unmoored with wild horses in the desert dawn. In the context of these images, the song implies that the resplendent lovers are an unfulfilled fantasy, and the repeated line “shine bright like a diamond” becomes more of a self-conscious, desperate plea than a vaunt. The cinematography is moody and gorgeous, and clearly marks the influence of Rihanna’s mentor Jay-Z.
The video for the ballad “Stay,” a duet with Mikky Ekko about holding onto troubled love, is a stunning piece that evokes emotion through lack of motion. Here, the camera follows the command of the refrain “I want you to stay” by dwelling alternately on Rihanna’s face as she sits alone in a bath and on Ekko as he sits or stands alone in a similar darkened room. This technique reveals that Rihanna is indeed skilled at looking blank and disengaged but cannot sustain it; her restless energy and vulnerability escape through her very attempts to avoid the camera’s patient gaze.
There is no need to interpret these songs literally as running commentary on Rihanna’s relationship with Brown. It is enough to say that her art brilliantly negotiates whatever inner demons she harbors. But it is worth remembering that Rihanna’s history with Brown has been one of betrayal, which is also something of a larger cultural obsession these days. Perhaps this story resonates so powerfully not primarily for the details of her saga but its theme, as so many people now struggle following the stunning betrayals of the banking crisis and its aftermath. It just might be that this 25-year-old Bajan transplant resonates as an unexpected cultural symbol of betrayed dreams. But however we interpret her romantic life, one thing is clear about Rihanna’s art: the rare mix of her refreshingly unsweet voice, her strange volcanic magnetism, which simmers mostly from within, and her intense psychic struggles translate into a raw pop icon far more interesting than many of her more technically gifted rivals.
Let’s do more than just hope that Rihanna and her unusual talent flourish. Let’s condemn violence against women and offer the victims our genuine support and, yes, respectful disagreement when necessary. It is not easy to battle a problem this mundane and terrible, but we can start by getting serious about crushing the double standard that still lurks in both life and art, a standard that Rihanna’s art is already challenging.