Popular culture is all about the shock factor, especially when it involves female popstars. The late Eighties set a precedent for women making statements in their music videos. In 1989 Madonna broke taboos with an interracial love story, complete with burning crosses and a crying saint. A year later Sinead O’Connor was the first woman to cry in a music video. Since then pop-feminism has produced a steady stream of provocation, from the Spice Girls kicking girl-power in our faces, angry man-hating from Alanis Morissette to the independent women of Destiny’s Child. The noughties were pretty much a romp through string bikinis in preparation for Lady Gaga borrowing an outfit from the butchers in 2010. Therefore it didn’t shock me at all to see Rihanna, in her new video for ‘Bitch Better Have My Money’, naked in a Louis Vuitton trunk full of cash, covered in blood and smoking a cigar. I grew up to Liberty X singing ‘you’re really hitting the spot’ in leather catsuits – nothing shocks me anymore.
What has changed, however, is our reaction to popular culture. Rihanna must be sitting pretty on her rapidly growing cushion of dollars considering the amount of hype generated from her over-the-top mini-film. The seven-minute music video follows Rihanna attempting to get her money back from a rich white guy. How? By taking his rich white girlfriend hostage with a lot of expensive underwear, a motley but ethnically diverse crew and a yacht. Hasn’t anyone seen Sin City, American Psycho or Pulp Fiction? Blood, guns and racy outfits are an old combo, even if Rihanna spices it up with a highly impractical fur-trimmed bikini. And yet the commentariat are going wild.
The weekend was awash with articles battling over whether the video was feminist, misogynistic, racist, empowering or all of the above. The Guardian didn’t know what side to take, with one article calling it ‘pure misogyny’ and another the next day heralding it as the black woman’s triumph over brutality – a women’s 12 Years A Slave if you will. Can we get a bit of perspective here?
Not that it’s a surprise feminists have taken a music video so seriously. Given the uproar earlier this year over the beach-body-ready advert for Protein World, a hissy fit over Rihanna’s Reservoir Dogs seems almost predictable.
Popular culture has become a litmus test for the politics of our time. It has ceased to be something consumable, enjoyable and fun. ‘Blurred Lines’ has the catchiest backing track pop has produced in years and yet playing it at a party would be considered by many to be a loaded political statement, if not social suicide. Along with a broader obsession with identity politics, contemporary feminism seeks to read a narrative of oppression into every part of popular culture. It is politics for the pedantic.
There is nothing wrong with Rihanna’s video, but nor is there anything great about it. The song itself is dire, revealing the singer’s waning talent and heavy reliance on her bad-girl lifestyle to pull sales. The video, which at one point shows the white female hostage hanging naked from a rope in a warehouse, fails to shock and ends up being just a little distasteful. One thing is for sure: the video is not political. It fails to engage in any real or recognisable political debate. In this sense, it is the perfect anthem for contemporary feminism, hell-bent on causing a scene but lacking in substance.