Tuesday, November 20, 2012

In Defense of Rihanna

Poor Rihanna. She'd be damned if she didn't, and she's damned because she does. If she had taken the Ke$ha musical route after being beaten by her now-ex Chris Brown in 2008, singing about getting wasted on whiskey and having casual sex, everyone would have dismissed her as being too shallow. (I once read a review of Kylie Minogue's 2007 X album, her first after being treated for breast cancer, that slammed it for not even broaching the subject of her battle with breast cancer, as if anyone wants to hear a frothy-pop queen like Minogue singing about that.)

By tackling the topic of her abuse head-on, referencing it repeatedly on the albums she's released since then and even occasionally inviting her abuser to sing along, Rihanna has set herself up for accusations of being something worse than shallow: irresponsible, a fool and a bad role model (more for forgiving Brown in real life than for anything in her songs), one of the those stupid girls that an artist like Pink chews up and spits out for breakfast.

For the rest of her career, Rihanna probably will have to live under a microscope with a far less forgiving lens than the ones used to magnify the actions of your average pop star. Every word she sings, every breath she takes, every move she makes, we'll be watching her, listening more closely than we'll ever listen to anything that comes out of the mouth of her BFF Katy Perry, viewing her through the prism of that one incident and its aftermath. The physical scars may have healed a long time ago, but she'll never be able to put it completely behind her -- so why not just put it all out there instead?

When she sang the hook of Eminem's Grammy-nominated 2010 smash "Love the Way You Lie," she fielded criticism for glorifying domestic violence, but many of her critics seemed to miss the point of the song. The same people who defended Eminem's apparent gay-bashing in some of his lyrics by rationalizing that he was merely ranting in character, perhaps failed to see that Rihanna was singing in character, too -- an abused woman who keeps going back for more. Whether Rihanna is one of those women should have been beside the point, if they were judging the song on its musical merit and not the person singing the hook. Repeat abuse victims exist; they're a sad fact of life and a far more interesting protagonist for a pop song than a girl who wants to party all the time.

If it had been Beyoncé, who's happily married to Jay-Z and presumably has never had to deal with domestic violence, people might have cheered on her creative genius, but Rihanna made the mistake of getting her ass kicked by Chris Brown. Yes, I said it. Some are treating her, the victim, like she's done something wrong, whether it's forgiving Brown, calling Brown the love of her life (as she recently told Oprah Winfrey), working with Brown, and/or still alluding to The Incident in song four albums later. (I wouldn't go so far as to call Rihanna and Brown a modern-day Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, but it's interesting that despite the violence in that relationship, it's largely considered to be one of Hollywood's greatest romances. Nobody ever criticizes Taylor for marrying Burton twice and remaining devoted to him to the end, possibly because we never got to see the physical evidence of their blowouts.)

Yes, there are allusions to The Incident all over Unapologetic (more than on any post-Browngate Rihanna album since 2008's Rated R), and one song, a duet with Brown called "Nobody's Business," that basically demands that the public minds its own. While I can't say that I've forgiven Brown for his transgressions, I also realize that it's not really my place to forgive him. I wasn't the one he brutalized in the car that morning. It's up to his victim, not us conscientious objectors, to decide if and when she will forgive Brown.

As for the criticism that it's disingenuous and contradictory to flaunt personal details and then demand privacy, let he or she who is not a walking contradiction cast the first stone. Life is messy, and so are emotions. There is no rule that says the latter have to be consistent, in life or in song. If a female singer wants to withhold sex on one track and give it up freely on the next, that's her prerogative. Just because Rihanna is open about her experience with Brown doesn't mean she has to welcome public judgement and condemnation for her ongoing professional and possibly personal relationship with him.

She certainly isn't the first woman to give her abuser a pass, or the first person to have a hard time getting over someone who isn't worth the effort. One review of Unapologetic had the audacity to compare Rihanna's relationship with Brown to Stockholm Syndrome. It's an interesting angle, but it's also indicative of the overarching criticism that's being leveled not so much at Rihanna the singer as Rihanna the person in the largely negative reviews of Unapologetic, most of which have still been in the three-stars range, as if the critics recognize the musical merit of the album but just can't bring themselves to like it because of its divisive -- or as they would say, "icky" -- lyrics.

You'd almost think she wrote all her own material. Never in the history of pop music has a singer been so vilified for the lyrical content of an album largely written by other people -- tellingly, mostly men. Few female songwriters might be willing to write lines as brutally frank as "Felt like love struck me in the night/I pray that love don't strike twice" -- which sung by Beyoncé or Pink or Kelly Clarkson, might be interpreted as referring to love's ability to wound -- and hand them over to a public victim of domestic violence.

It reminds me of "Miracle," the 1991 single that Babyface wrote for Whitney Houston, who, incidentally, had her own experience with domestic abuse. Babyface once told me that although Houston chose to think of it as a song about self-love, a sort of "The Greatest Love of All Part 2," he wrote it as an anti-abortion anthem, inspired by someone he knew who was considering terminating a pregnancy. Only a man would go home and write a pop song gently condemning her!

I wonder what Babyface would write for Rihanna. Most of the reviews I've read of Unapologetic linger on the lyrical content as if the reviewers were so busy reading the lyric sheet that they barely paid attention to the music, which is far more bold, inventive and interesting than anything being released by the other leading ladies of pop.

Maybe that's because Rihanna chose to seek producers outside of the tried-and-true few being passed around by most of her peers. Perhaps it's because seven albums into her career, Rihanna still feels like she has so much to prove. You don't call your album Unapologetic if you're completely comfortable in your skin or with your place in the pop firmament. Defiant or defensive? I'd say a lot of both. But Rihanna is only 24. Let's give her a little bit of time to figure it out. 
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