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Sticks and Stones

We currently exist in an era of pop music where style is thumping substance with an iron fist. Or maybe I’m just getting old. Either way, each single that’s released is less about the hook, or the beat, and more about the gimmick, the new hair, the shock value. Such is the case with two new videos from Kanye West and Rihanna. Both are considered trend setters, but somehow I doubt either of them knows why.

I’m not shocked or offended by very much. Not when it comes to pop culture and media, anyway. I get that most of what celebrities do is to make money, that it’s nothing personal, and instead of flying into a rage about it I dissect and analyze what it means that we buy into it. In case you hadn’t noticed by now.

So most of Kanye West’s “Monster” did not catch me off guard, especially since I had heard plenty about it before hand. The issues are glaring – dead white women as accessories, evil black women as monsters. Generally, I found the video itself to be poorly executed, and as such lacked impact.

There was only one moment that I gave me a sharp sting like a slap in the face, and even now, thinking about it, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. That is the opening, where Rick Ross sits on a thrown, surrounded by female bodies hanging by their necks. The image is a direct reference to the typical rap video shot of the pimp surrounded by his ladies. Most of the time though, they are at least somewhat clothed and very much alive. There’s a similar shot with Jay-Z, where a dead women is draped on a sofa behind him. In both cases, the women are set pieces, emphasized by the Jay-Z or Ross’s lack of interaction with them, as opposed to how West is posed in bed with two dead women, posing and rearranging them. That moment at least can be read as an attempt to engage with someone who has already left him behind, something that West talks about a lot in his music.

In anycase, this is not just a matter of applying the video’s motif onto the template of a typical rap video, though maybe West is convinced that it is. It’s literalizing what women essentially are in videos like these – bodies. Perhaps West is actually doing us a favor when he points it out so blatantly. However, if he thinks he’s doing something edgy and boundary-pushing, he is sorely mistaken. He’s simply taking what is already an on-going trend – the high-fashion zombie aesthetic and the mainstream zombie paranoia – and using it on a song that takes its title from two other big pop tracks that were released within the same year, and then laying it over the same old song and dance. I’m –the-greatest-in-the-world-oh-and-check-out-my-hoes.

For the record, I love “Monster” as a song. It’s meaty and raw, and has both West’s aggression and vulnerability. It’s far more authentic of a sorelease than Rihanna’s “S&M,” and yet somehow Rihanna managed to trump West in the video department.

I’m sure there’s a lot that’s been written about the Rihanna video as well. Aside from David LaChappelle’s accusations of plagiarism, I haven’t read much. “S&M” is yet another twist on the delusion that sex sells (it doesn’t, in fact, controversy does, something the pop scene figured a while ago), layered with Rihanna’s efforts to represent herself as hard, indestructible, and kinkier-than-thou. To be honest, I thought she was doing a pretty good job with Rated R, her previous album which bordered on experimental. But I wasn’t that surprised when I heard the Loud was much more mainstream. Girl’s got to make money.

All that said, I like the “S&M” video even if the song is silly (still catchy though.) Instead of representing the S & M elements in a dangerous and dark way, the way a lot of the promotional material for Rated R was, everything is pink and bubblegum, down to the ropes she’s tied with and the whips she uses. It doesn’t make S and M play seem safe, that would dissolve its mainstream appeal as something that’s taboo and strange, but it does make it seem fun. Which it is, when you do it right. Not to mention, it makes it seem sexy in a girly, playful way rather than an aggressive, male-gaze kind of way, which I always appreciate. It’s far from portraying sadomasochism and bondage play as it really is, an expression of trust, because most of its use in the video is shown with Rihanna being oppressed, then oppressing her oppressors, or just having fun all by herself. The video is a fantasy, Rihanna’s fantasy in which she can be tough and dominant but without being so scary. It’s probably the fantasy of a lot of girls, actually.

She also uses the concept as a means to address media scrutiny, which gives us a parallel to West’s video. In “S&M,” Rihanna is up on a podium in front of reporters and flashing cameras, dolled up in a dress printed with slander and trapped behind plastic. At another point, she’s dressed up like a playboy bunny and the text of interviews and articles are projected over her, some making judgements about her possible issues with men, others her own statements regarding her possible bisexuality.

Likewise, West in “Monster” is clawed at by manicured hands at one point, and in another he’s standing in front of a window while zombie females try to growl and vogue their way in. In the song, it’s referenced by West and his guest reformers, Nicki Minaj and Jay-Z, how everyone wants a piece of them, women and moneymakers alike, and the video equates them to blood sucking monsters. But in “S&M,” these demons are nothing more than pests. Rihanna’s got Perez Hilton on a leash, grinning madly, while journalists wear ball gags and are tied and whipped. Either way, the torture doesn’t matter anyway, because like the song says, she gets off on the pain. My guess, Kanye does to, but he still thinks it’s cool to say that he doesn’t.

Call me naive, but I kind of love it when a woman takes her objectification into her own hands. No pop star could withstand the job if they didn’t love the flashbulbs, as hot and blinding as they can be. The last line of the chorus “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but chains and whips excite me” may seem to make absolutely no sense, until you think of the kind of damage words can do to a pop star. Rihanna can’t deny that she’s vulnerable to attack, that’s the price she pays for her fame, and she seems to be aware that even as a leading lady, her position isn’t that much higher than the dead girls in “Monster.” The power that she may lose by using the tenants sadomasochism in such an unsubtle and even ignorant way, I think is regained by the approach she takes. Kanye may talk a big game, but I doubt he’s having nearly as much fun.

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