thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

What it Takes to Come Alive OR What’s so Wrong About Rihanna?

In Uncategorized on December 28, 2011 at 12:45 pm

Melissa Sexton

Somehow, my year-end wrap-up list overlooked Rihanna’s “We Found Love.”  Maybe it was all the one-liners I saw on blogs and Facebook posts about raves, drugs, and typical Rihanna-video-scandal that scared me off; I hadn’t seen the video until a couple of days ago.  But, in my usual way, I wandered to YouTube a few nights ago after hearing “We Found Love” at least three times on the drive from the Seattle-Tacoma airport to my sister’s house. I couldn’t get the simple hook of the chorus out of my head; once I watched the video, I also couldn’t get it out of my mind.

Apparently, a variety of feminists and Christian pastors, as well as the French government, couldn’t get the video out of their heads either, though they weren’t celebrating, putting the video on constant repeat, and dancing around the living room.  France banned any playing of the video before 10 pm, claiming that it was too sexually provocative and promoted self-destructive behavior. Rape Crisis Center’s Eileen Kelly calls the video a “disgrace” since it shows Rihanna making herself a possession for men. Meanwhile, a number of pastors have claimed that the video promotes unhealthy attitudes about women and sexuality, teaching women that they should make themselves sexual objects to please men.

As I read through all the controversy about “We Found Love,” I was puzzled; I found myself having the same reaction I did to the controversy surrounding the “Man Down” video. While I can see, for instance, why people might have found Rihanna’s “S and M” video shocking, “We Found Love” seemed fairly…tame. I did not get the sense that “We Found Love” “glorified” self-destructive, objectifying behavior any more than I thought “Man Down” glorified murder and violence. Let me break it down a bit: I don’t think that “We Found Love” or “Man Down” presents more sex, violence, drugs, or objectification than many of the other music videos currently on rotation. How many songs right now are about popping some pills, taking a puff, and hitting the club to try and find a one night stand? Answer: lots. So what is it, I had to ask myself, that is so wrong about Rihanna? While many female pop singers who actively engage and play with sexuality come under fire, what is it about Rihanna’s videos – which, often, make me think by engaging with troubling topics like rape, drug abuse, and domestic violence – that gets them banned, that gets critics claiming they glorify the very issues Rihanna claims they are trying to critically engage?

I have to repeat the theory I began to formulate with “Man Down”: the videos that get Rihanna into trouble are not the incredibly sexually provocative ones that stay true to a sort of choreographed, sequined burlesque; they are videos that make sexuality, violence, and addiction uncomfortably real to us rather than distantly, impossibly glamorous.

Take the two romantic protagonists in this music video. Their romance begins idyllically enough, as they pedal bikes through wheat fields, drink beer in the light of fireworks, and dance wildly at outdoor raves. But as the organ-like back beats of the song escalate into electronic noise, the video begins to show us the hopeless world that inspires the song’s refrain: a world of poverty, drug use, and the constant desire for escape.

The world of the video is mostly composed of internal urban spaces: a laundromat; a tiny apartment with a tiny bathtub; a gas station market full of soda and junk food; arcades and skate parks. The romantic relationship that springs up between Rihanna’s character and Dudley O’Shaughnessy’s character provides the possibility of escape – moments of glee and exhilaration while doing the laundry or picking up groceries; moments freely running or dancing in an open field.

What the video captures so painfully and beautifully is the desperation that drives someone to stay in a toxic relationship. In a world that seems narrow and hopeless, romantic addiction – like drug addiction – can become a difficult and self-destructive habit because it provides a momentary enriching of life. It is, as the song’s opening verse claims, “what it takes to come alive.” Indeed, the video’s director Melina Matsoukas, claims that the point of the video was to compare drug addiction to destructive relationships and show the strength needed to overcome either. I’m more likely to buy that claim than the insistence that this video glorifies drugs and destructive sexual relationships. The world of this video looks more heartbreaking than glorious. Following a collage of images of pills, psychedelically flashing joints, and dilating pupils, the relationship between the two main characters begins to disintegrate. Instead of free-wheeling biking on country lanes there are fights in the car in dirty parking lots. Instead of laughing in the supermarket, there are collapses on streets and the flashing lights of cop cars. There are beer cans, bleary eyes, screaming faces.

This doesn’t look like glorification to me. What it looks like is a harsh diagnosis: the insistence that destructive relationships, with drugs and with other people, are symptomatic of a culture that wants to entertain itself away from its problems, that teaches us to seek satisfaction in romantic relationships and in moments when we “come alive.” In a culture that’s addicted to narratives of romance and addicted to entertainment escapism, destructive addiction is the conclusion of cultural logic taken to the extreme.

One thing that makes this video so terrifying, then, is not that it’s openly provocative but that it’s ambiguous. During the first verse, the mix of drugs and infatuation does look appealing. Throughout the video, there are hallucinatory collapses of reality and non-reality; during the first verse, these collapses suggest beauty and appeal, as fields of wheat and blossoming flowers surround Rihanna singing in a sparse apartment room:

Indoor fields of freedom.

It is addiction – to both love and drugs – that allows the “free” wild spaces to be translated into the narrow world of the apartment. But as the video progresses, the hallucinatory images become more terrifying: fire, flames, piles of pills, streamers of pastel vomit. What this transition implies is something more complicated than a morality tale. We see why Rihanna’s character gets involved with drugs, with her man: all the pleasure of escape. Once she leaves him, her apartment becomes a frightening and barren place rather than a place filled with color and light.

Alone with reality.

While “We Found Love” implies that there is a good reason to avoid drug and love addiction, it also explores the pleasure of escape and suggests that this momentary potential and its loss is the source of heartbreak. As the opening voiceover by Agyness Deyn states, “You almost wish you could have all that bad stuff back so you could have the good.” Love is a messy thing that can grow in the midst of destructive environments and that can become destructive itself.

I think that ambiguity is what makes Rihanna’s vision of love amidst hopelessness so terrifying. Love is not a force that will save you from destruction, that will transform a formerly pointless life into something meaningful. Love can itself become a destructive force. And that terrifying notion erodes American myths about romantic love and its saving power in young girls’ lives. The American love myth is so much more Taylor Swift’s “Love Story” – that love will overcome hopelessness, that love will ask for your hand in matrimony and make all your dreams come true right when you’re giving up hope. I think we want our young girls to identify with this vision of love – the girl who might sneak out to the fields to see her lover but still waits for this man to ask her father for her hand in marriage.

But the Rihanna of “We Found Love” is also someone that young girls could potentially identify with. Her world is real, because it is presented as a realistic narrative rather than a choreographed extravaganza or a stage show. In the video’s early scenes, Rihanna’s character is more like Taylor Swift in “Love Story” than, say, Lady Gaga in “Bad Romance”: she’s a young girl telling her love story, and the narrative never breaks; there are no moments when all the characters in the video break into a choreographed dance, reminding you “This is just a video! Nobody really has a life like this!”  By contrast, Lady Gaga might be in a destructive, bad romance in her “Bad Romance” video – but, hey, she’s bug-eyed monster from a space coffin doing some kind of claw dance and then wearing a jeweled fruit basket. That is so not going to be you. Beyonce, Ke$ha, Britney Spears, Rihanna in “S and M” – these girls may be sexually alluring and provocative; these women might be actively objectifying their bodies and functioning as sex objects; but the choreography and the costumes remind the reader that this is a music video, a dance, not a way of living a life. But Rihanna in “We Found Love” is close to us, is someone we might have been or could want to be – someone who feels alive during moments of addictive behavior, not someone who takes off the fake eyelashes and goes back to a different life.

Clear: Bad Romance. Aliens? Shotgun wedding to a man with a brass jaw? Fire bras? This is not what you should be going for. This story ends when the dancing does.


Clear: Good Romance. College education? Asking parental permission? Literary allusions to the greatest romance of all time? This should sooooo be you. This story ends with matrimony.

Unclear: Love makes you come alive. So, apparently, do drugs. Is this a good or bad romance? This story ends in heartbreak but this story promises life.

Rihanna’s world is terrifying because it points to the risks and dangers of romantic love. True, love might make us “come alive” but love can also leave us feeling hopeless all over again. What, Rihanna’s video asks, do we do when our love stories don’t end in neat marriage proposals? When, instead of your boy running across the wheat field to proclaim that your father has finally promised your hand in marriage, you end up alone in your apartment, sure that you made the right choice to leave but longing for those moments of vibrancy?  What do we do when we realize that romance can be a drug as destructive as pills, something we turn to for escape and a sense of meaning but which does not promise to save us? While critics claim that Rihanna’s video encourages girls to embrace destructive visions of sexuality, I think that, by pointing out the dangers of addictive love, “We Found Love” actually encourages girls to question the myths of romantic love. Sure, I agree that it is less than ideal that we live in a world where women are often judged as sexual objects, and learning to be aware of this ideology and combat it is important for young girls. But we also live in a world that continues to sell us the lie that we are incomplete, not fully alive, unless we are in romantic relationships. This as much as drugs and booze and partying contributes to girls’ willingness to stay in unhealthy, destructive relationships. If being in a relationship, even a destructive one, makes you “more alive” than otherwise, of course girls are going to be less likely to leave such relationships. Given the predominance of this myth, “We Found Love” is a doubly brave video for showing us two ways of coming alive: through sinking into addiction that obliterates the self; through walking out of destructive addictions and embracing the pain and grief that comes with it.

  1. Such a brilliant take, Melissa! I love your writing and your perspective both. I’m curious — how do you see the emotional honesty about destructive relationships in “We Found Love” (and/or the “Man Down” video) in conversation with Rihanna’s personal narrative as a survivor of domestic violence? Many of her songs and music videos invoke the public memory of her relationship with Chris Brown, and the abuse that ended that relationship, but in interviews she’s strongly indicated that she (understandably) doesn’t want to be defined by it. No specific question, I’m just interested to hear whether/how that influences your readings of what Rihanna is doing in these videos.

    Also, did you happen to see this post on Rihanna by Molly Lambert?

  2. Hear, hear! In response to Sarah’s question about the Chris Brown relationship, that whole saga seems another point where the pat narrative (abusive men are monsters who should be burned out of one’s life) does not fit this relationship. That’s one reason why I loved this video because it did show how attractive toxic relationships (which are not always founded on an abuser/abusee) are, particularly when both parties are so young. I can see why Rihanna would not want to be defined by that relationship; who would want to be defined by what happened with their late-teens boyfriend?

  3. Also, as fate would have it, I was going to email you this Slate story this morning, then I thought I would just make it a post, but then I realized that it goes so perfectly with your post that I’ll just paste it here:

    Anyway, it starts out complaining about how Bon Iver is a bad lyricist but then the convo moves to the greatness of this year’s female singers, including Rihanna, Adele, Flo, and Béyonce. Hope you enjoy!

  4. I just loved this part … “I think that ambiguity is what makes Rihanna’s vision of love amidst hopelessness so terrifying. Love is not a force that will save you from destruction, that will transform a formerly pointless life into something meaningful. Love can itself become a destructive force. And that terrifying notion erodes American myths about romantic love and its saving power in young girls’ lives.” Also, I too am curious about Sarah T’s question re Chris Brown. But I also really enjoyed your reading of this video …

  5. Wonderful article. I am becoming more and more disturbed by Rhianna, but at the same time I am loving her music more and more. I really need to understand Rhianna, her recent duet with Chris Brown, clothing choices, and other highly self-destructive behavior. This article helped me to see another perspective on Rihanna and this video. I simply want more for Rhianna and for the millions of young girls who want to be her.

  6. […] of romantic nostalgia and 3-D mania; Katniss slew our hearts with her hardcore, hard-up courage; Rihanna found love in a hopeless place; the whole internet world stopped to argue about Girls. And this […]

  7. […] about this problematic ideal of love before on this blog, particularly when I was talking about Rihanna and how she also diagnoses this romantic idolatry. But I’ve also realized that I am hungry for alternative visions of what love can be. I want to see […]

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