I had writer’s block and a case of no motivation last Friday when I was due to post, but over the past week I’ve noticed that Rihanna’s song “S&M” has permeated the airwaves and has had an interesting and perhaps concerning effect on listeners and her audience at large.
I can think of two episodes of TV shows I’ve seen fairly recently that deal with S&M in a somewhat comical manner, but neither directly condemned or condoned it. An episode of the cop drama/comedy “Castle” featured a victim researching S&M and an older episode of “Bones” featured a trip to an S&M retreat, almost. In both cases the women were dominant. In Rihanna’s song, the distinction is not necessarily as clear.
I have personal opinions and issues with her song, and none of them are actually with Rihanna. They lie more with the perception of the song by popular audiences. The music video for S&M actually depicts Rihanna bound in plastic wrap and punishing members of the media who have hurt her in the past– a meaning far different from ones that people I’ve encountered have taken away from it. In an attempt to take back control, Rihanna is perhaps performing to a crowd too conditioned by gender roles and issues to understand her.
When I was driving back to Minneapolis from Spring Break, S&M came on the radio more times than I could keep track of. I was riding with friends, and we ended up discussing what the song meant. One of my friends (a male) joked that she actually liked being hit by Chris Brown, after all, she likes S&M, right? It was all I could do to bite my tongue and try to preserve my relationship with him. Too often have I heard people mistaking Rihanna’s song to mean that she enjoys violence, which misses the mark completely.
The same friend also went on to say how he would not allow his kids to listen to this song at all because of its content and explicit nature. To a certain extent, I understand protecting your children from some things. On the other hand, I’ve never heard him say he wouldn’t allow his kids to listen to Kanye West, one of his favorite artists. His video for his song “Monster” features dead women. Since when are dead women sexy? Oh right, since death is the ultimate form of passivity. For all the male artists, across all music genres, who use violent language and derogatory terms like bitch, whore, or cunt in their lyrics, there is one Rihanna (who doesn’t not use derogatory terms). She produced a song that is truly about taking charge, with a message that yes, power can come through sexuality. Her song is NOT an indication or admission that she enjoyed being beaten by her boyfriend or that she has something inherently “wrong” with her.
Women in music have a highly critical audience, and most times the meaning of songs like S&M are not recognized publicly. I am immersed in work with the Aurora Center as an advocate, and the facts of domestic abuse and sexual violence against women are devastating– we all are aware of that. Rihanna deserves to be respected for her work and not criticized or blamed for being the victim of violence–those who think Chris Brown should not be punished anymore concern me. While I am hyper-sensitive to issues of domestic and sexual violence, I think that everyone can take something away from Rihanna’s S&M and hopefully the uninformed will learn something of value.