“I may be bad but I’m perfectly good at it.”
There we have it: the definitive statement of purpose by Rihanna for unrepentant bad girls everywhere. Or the final commercialization of a formerly underground subculture. Take your pick. It could even be both. You can be delighted by Rihanna’s gleeful embrace of sexual transgression and still wonder just how transgressive anything really is if four million people are buying it. Perhaps there’s not much taboo left to fetish culture when it’s constantly in your face and at your fingertips. On the other hand, though, good. Let people be sexually liberated, empty out those closets, sweep open the dungeons of shame, stop clutching your pearls at other people’s pleasures. Girls just wanna have fun! With ball gags and Japanese rope bondage and puppy play and femdom and slashfic and cam shows and dd/lg and latex and friendly fire and cryptozoophiliac Patreon subscriptions and whatever other filthy things you didn’t know you were into until the internet brought them to your attention. It’s a great time to be alive and sexually active.
Here is a love song for people who think that the possibility of shooting themselves in the head is somehow romantic. Yes of course it’s a metaphor, a loaded one, if you will. It’s for those moments when we need to take a deep breath and just plunge blindly into what’s probably something stupid and entirely preventable, aka an adventure. And also, of course, people who think that the stakes in their love lives should be equivalent to playing with guns aren’t healthy and should probably seek help. Your love life should not have stakes of life of death. Rihanna herself could tell you that. Rihanna would probably also tell you that if you can’t distinguish between symbolism and real life, you should seek help. You know what, just seek help already, you sick fucks.
This here’s my jam. In case you haven’t noticed, a lot of Rihanna’s songs are my jam. You gotta love her ballsy attitude and truth-telling. Rihanna gives us a lot to unpack with it. You can start by asking whether this kind of sexually explicit banger is trashy or empowering. I think the latter, personally; in a pop culture that oils its wheels ogling women’s bodies, somebody needs to step up and ask those boys how big they are. Flip that sexual entitlement right back around on them. Some of you might say that you can’t fight sexual entitlement with more sexual entitlement, but I think Rihanna would say that ladies are entitled to the good D, and if you can’t bring the good D, back in on outta here, boy. It’s always men with sad dicks who are suddenly all against sexual entitlement and body shaming when women start to talk about their dick preferences. Yeah, Rihanna just came out and said it: she wants the big dick and don’t you dare slut-shame her for it.
There’s a lot of debate among purist about what constitutes a real Rock Star™. Is it constituted by what kind of music they play, what they look like, how they live? By the narrowest measure, rock stars have traditionally been white men with electric guitars. By most measures, the rock stars are the ones who rock, on stage and in life. Famously, it helps to be tragic and dead, or so burned out as to be barely alive. You also have to be larger-than-life and worshiped as a God. Whether or not rock stardom requires playing rock music is the biggest question. What does it take to be included in the pantheon of rock stars? I motion to posthumously include people who lived before rock music was invented, such as Edith Piaf and Billie Holiday, just because their lives were hella hardcore. I would also dearly love to exclude Madonna, who’s managed to make a career on literally nothing except sexual charisma. (Which is its own bizarre talent, I suppose.) What about Billy Joel, who is as squishy-soft musically as he is around the middle? Not a rock star, in my book. What about Bad Religion’s Greg Graffin, who plays undeniably hard-rocking music and teaches paleontology when he’s not on tour? That’s either rock star as fuck or not rock star at all. Or what about the fact that some of the best music of the past two decades was made by guys who’ve never been seen without their robot masks? Are they rock stars? It’s a mixed-up, fucked-up world out there, and the old rules about who gets to be a rock god no longer apply. The old rock gods are ascending back to Mars and/or Valhalla even faster than the polar bears and black rhinos, and it looks like the stage belongs to rappers, pop divas and guys in robot masks. So, having taken all that into consideration…if Rihanna says she’s a rock star, damn straight, she’s a fucking rock star.
Rihanna, EDM queen. Frankly, it’s a pretty generic EDM song; with any other vocalist on duty, you couldn’t pick it out of a playlist. But it’s Rihanna, and when she says we’d better live up while we still have time, she sounds like she means it. That’s a generic-as-fuck platitude, designed to get you bellied-up to the bar for shots, all primed and ready to get out there and make some bad decisions. But, again, it’s Rihanna, and she makes bad-decision-making behavior look like good-decision-making. And face it, you’re never gonna be this young again, so get the fuck out there and do something stupid.
Well, this is about the polar opposite of my own life, but I’m glad that Rihanna and Nicki are both getting some. Obviously, the level of bad-bitch-ness that Rih and Nicki Minaj are at is an unattainable ideal, especially for those of us who spend most of our time indoors with our cats. But there’s a little bit of a bad bitch inside of all of us, and we need to remember that when we’re feeling like useless blobs of angst. The musical stylings of Rihanna don’t get a lot of credit for having deep cultural or spiritual impact, and hey, they’re not really there for that. But Bad Gal RiRi is there to remind us that we should be having fun and being fabulous and there’s billions of fish in the sea, just in case anyone cares about fish. Don’t ever misunderestimate how fucking empowering it feels to be fabulous and get in front of the lights and cut loose.
Are you ready for some very NSFW stripper exploits with your girl Rihanna? After you fap to the video, we can have a debate about the delicate intersection of sexual exploitation, body politics, and artistic liberty. In a word, Rihanna has produced a strip club anthem for the ages, and she doesn’t hold back on the imagery. People of delicate sensibilities may find this offensive. Some may want to slut-shame the singer for exposing herself in this way. Some may hold it up as a gross example of the overall pornificiation of popular culture and its seemingly unbreakable habit of dehumanizing women. Those are all valid arguments; we have indeed reached a saturation point where the aesthetics of pornography permeate the mainstream, and it’s mostly geared to the gratification of the male gaze, at the expense of female performers; and some of the worst examples of exploitation and objectification occur at the upper echelons of pop music. All of which, I’m sure Rihanna is well aware of. She’s a performer whose success allows her control over her image, and it’s unlikely that anyone tells her how to present herself. That she’s chosen to show herself as, in the words of pearl-clutchers, ‘little better than a common pole dancer’ is a self aware move, and a show of solidarity. Being a pop star isn’t all that different from being a stripper; it may be degrading or empowering, depending on what you make of it, but all it comes down to people throwing money at you in return for a fantasy. Another point, too often ignored in these debates, is that for women of color, there are not that many avenues towards the good life, and they often find themselves making choices that white women don’t have to. Strip club culture is in many ways black culture, just as criminal culture is intertwined with black culture, as a necessity and a result of outsider status. For many dancers, a few hours of getting naked is worth going home with a few thousand dollars cash, and separating yuppie douchebags from money earned sitting down is its own kind of empowerment. It’s merely turning to your advantage all of the forces that are supposed to be working against you, it’s rising up when you’re supposed to be kept down.
The lesson of Rihanna’s song may be that though critics have often dismissed her and shamed her for being provocative, she is not ashamed. No, when you compare her to a stripper, she is proud.