Saturday, March 17, 2012

Rihanna’s Media Roulette

By Nicholas Brady

“They can say whatever

Imma do whatever

No pain is forever… yep, you know this!”

The lines above were tweeted by Rihanna mere minutes after published an article aimed at her. The article was written in the form of a letter asking Rihanna to cease her growing rapport with Chris Brown. This article not only asked her to “do it for the kids,” but also for herself and her own health. Billboard felt the inevitable heartbreak to come would be too much for Rihanna to take. They were only writing the piece because they cared. Admirable, right? Rihanna’s response to billboard: “no pain is forever” so she is going to “do whatever.” Since then, the two of them have released two steamy remixes that caused the Internet to have a collective orgasm and fit of rage simultaneously. Was this a product of their collective scheming?

Yep, we know this.

The ability to subvert and manipulate media spectacles is what makes and breaks popstars. It is the difference between being a has-been and a hot commodity. Rihanna’s camp created this spectacle with some very interesting moves. They initially created hype by only releasing a shortened version of “Cake” on the album, then wet our appetite with thinly veiled tweets about or to Chris Brown. In fact, this spectacle is much less about the two remixes themselves (which are good pop songs), but what the act of releasing music together hints at (or proves): Brown and Rihanna reconciling in more ways than just music. Thus, it is good for business for two artists building their images on dangerousness and sexuality to construct this spectacle. Yet spectacles have a habit of taking on a life of their own, producing monstrosities in excess of their inventor’s wishes.

Taking this point a little further in reference to the OJ Simpson trial, Toni Morrison writes that the spectacle has one job, “the production [and consumption] of belief.” The spectacle is the definition of passive aggressivity, where the authors (the media itself) also double as background characters that have no “power” over the narrative. The media reports on “facts” and “rumors” in the same breath, gives opinions on events that are not confirmable, and, in moments of inexplicable double-ness, criticizes itself for reporting on such “non-stories.” The game is familiar, yet remains titillating nonetheless. The narrative continues to speed along, moving from “are they friends?” to “are they back together?” to “we KNOW they are back together, now how do we feel about it?” Our desire to know produces its own reality.

The spectacle of their simulated reconciliation is two levels of simulation: a simulation of a simulation, or what Jean Baudrillard calls a simulacrum. Yet there is nothing amazing about this perse. Is Brown/Rihanna’s simulated reunion any more fake/real then Kim Kardashian’s wedding? No would be the easy answer, and this may be true in theory, but the ruse of analogy fools us into comparing situations separated by the gulf of race and the history of violence we are still living through. All popstars maintain and cultivate an image, but the black popstar (and all black people for that matter) are subjected to bear the weight of what Frantz Fanon calls an imago. While the image is about our conscious perceptions (we watch television and see Kim Kardashian), the imago is the relation between what we consciously see and unconsciously feel. Fanon’s example is the myth of black sexual prowess. The facts are that black men’s penises are the same size, on average, as anybody else, but race affects us unconsciously so that black men are perceived as sexually powerful beings. The unconscious imago is tied directly into how we receive and consume images, thus effecting the direction media spectacles move to. Rihanna’s media spectacle is no different and her black femininity supercharges its force. Like a bubble waiting to burst, the spectacle is filled with the hot air of our collective desires.

The collective desire of this media spectacle has been, interestingly enough, to help Rihanna. Each major media source, from billboard to entertainment weekly, and even “stars” like Reese Witherspoon and some wife from those “real housewives” shows, wrote how much they loved and cared for Rihanna. They only wanted what was “best for her.” The image of her bruised, beaten body is repeated endlessly. They wished to protect her from pain, hoped she would be a more responsible subject, and pleaded that she would just say no to Brown’s (sexual) prowess. The media has done pretty much everything but actually talked to Rihanna – well, the real Rihanna. But that is not who they are interested in. Instead of addressing themselves to the “real” Rihanna, they are invested in the project of constructing, acting upon, and deconstructing her imago. What Rihanna is really doing with Chris Brown is not important, it is what our unconscious has already decided is true that forms the narrative. In this move, they simultaneously dehumanize her (by relegating her to being merely an imago of herself) and reconstruct her as a subject responsible to the societal good (what is good for her and the girls that look up to her). This discourse of responsibility has quickly turned into the desire for someone to take responsibility, i.e. to be held accountable or to be punished. Groups have begun to protest and Rihanna’s label refuses to officially release the single. In a swift motion, the desire to protect quickly turns into the desire to punish. Writing on how protection and punishment were intimately tied up in slave law Saidiya Hartman wrote, “in the very efforts to protect [her]… a mutilation of another order was set in motion… the effort to safeguard [her] recognized [her] as subject only as she violated the law, or was violated (wounded flesh or pained body).” The imago of Rihanna – which is very different from Rihanna herself who has denied any chance of reconciling with Brown romantically – violated the trust of our society that had come together to protect her from the black male monster. Not only had she violated the trust, but also had the nerve to flaunt her sexual excesses in our faces! The conclusion the media spectacle – and the music business that is attached to it – has reached is, Rihanna must be punished for her own protection. In order to protect her body from physical pain, we must inflict metaphysical and social pain on her. It is, after all, because we love her. This is going to hurt us more than it will hurt her.

Rihanna choose to play a dangerous game with the media, a game she feels she is in control of. This is the price of fame for a black woman. In the wake of Whitney Houston’s death and the media spectacle that has frozen her image into an imago and torn it into fragments for public consumption, let us take time to remember that this world, in very simple terms, does not love us. The spectacle’s perverted love is a velvet glove slipped overtop of a violent desire. The desire to make us what Hortense Spillers has rightfully described as “beings for the captor.” Beings for someone else instead of our self. Rihanna’s love affair with the spectacle is the real abusive relationship we need to warn her about. But my desire is not to preach. As she stated in the original quote, she is “gonna do whatever” she wants. Rihanna wants to live her life attempting to grab power from the jaws of powerlessness. Yet, this elusive power is little more than playing a game of Russian roulette with a fully loaded pistol. This is the game she “chooses” to play. The only conclusion then is to, as she once sung, “just pull the trigger.”


  1. this is interesting- do you disagree, then, with her label refusing to release her single? wouldn't this be a refusal to profit from the love of the spectacle, something that's proved irresistible to all of chris brown's supporters? in other words, chris brown is abusive, but took very little heat for it, got to prance all over the grammys, etc. i hear you about the misguided collective desire to punish rihanna as a bad subject, as if her personal life/choices are the same, flattened pop star identity that we consume. my question is, since preaching to rihanna or convincing her to do "the right thing" isn't effective or the right strategy, how do we, as consumers of her music, take some stance that's not just "well, she'll do whatever she wants"? how do we refuse the love of spectacle that is inherently violent towards women?

  2. I think her label refusing to release the single is a move not unlike Madonna, in another decade, flirting with censors and having her label hold back a video. Eventually that video got released, but only after a lot of free media got us all very interested in seeing it. I think it's just a publicity move, making us believe that the single must be all that and more.