Monday, 9 December 2013

Feminism, Intersectionality and Rihanna's bottom

Forget Lily Allen and Miley Cyrus for a moment, the pop video on everyone's lips right now, for various reasons, is Rhianna's "Pour It Up". I've been reading some very interesting and insightful articles on this clip the last few days (thanks mainly to Khalil West and Stephanie Davis) so thought I would compile them here for safekeeping, as a reading list of some excellent articles/opinions, and to add my own (white/cis/gay/male) 2 cents.

To say it's a video that divides opinion is an understatement. Set in what appears to be an underwater strip club, devoid of men, the clip really reminds me of Maurice Binder's iconic, seminal intro sequences for James Bond. It's the sexy silhouttes, and the pole twirling. Seeing as, barring Skyfall, Bond intros of the last 15 years have been excruciatingly bad, maybe RiRi (who drected the clip) should get in touch with producer Cubby Brocolli and offer her services?

The video has been slammed for being overtly sexual, and, yes, even for a gay man, the final scenes of Rihanna twerking and rubbing her crotch on that throne make me hot and bothered. The Feminist Wire got the ball rolling by publishing an article featuring a variety of reactions, good and bad, to the clip by some prominent women of colour:

Sound Off: Black Women Writers respond to Rihanna's "Pour It Up"

The same site then went one further in publishing this piece in support of the video by Muna Mire:

Talk Back: In Defense Of Rihanna

(Some important info gleaned from this piece: the original, male, co-director of the clip pulled out of the project and asked to have his name removed, prompting a ZINGER of a comback from Ri-Ri, who then became the clip's sole director. Meaning: this clip is not representative of the "male gaze" associated with exploitation.)

The excellent blogger Batty Mamzelle (who got considerable recognition a few months back for her article Solidarity Is For Miley Cyrus) expands on some of the Talk Back themes in the (self-explanatory) piece:

Sexualisation, Exploitation and Black Female Celebrities: On the stripper Anthems of Rihanna and Nicki Minaj

Mamzelle points out that Minaj and Ri-Ri use the act of stripping/strip club settings as a form of female empowerment, using their skills and appearance to, in effect, exploit men and earn money. But is it that simple?

The next article, by Parks & Recreation/The Muppets actress Rashida Jones, doesn't believe so, she believes Minaj and Ri-Ri are part of a bigger problem that needs addressing:

Why Is Everyone Getting Naked? Rashida Jones on the Pornification of Everything

I have to be honest - I was very pleasantly surprised by the quality of Jones' writing in this piece. No, NOT because she is a woman, but because she is a celebrity who achieved her fame as an actress, not as a writer (in this day and age, if you're not throwing side-eye at every demi-lebrity's attempt at expanding their "skill set", then I applaud your naivete).

I may not completely agree with her, but I love the way she has expressed herself, and hope to read more from her. And, ok, she HAS a point about the "tonnage" of female pop stars eager to expose their bodies at this point in time. Does the claim of "empowerment" lose its weight when getting naked seems more a job requirement than a genuine choice?

Maybe. So, why should the inclusion of Rhianna (and Nicki Minaj) be contentientious here?

I'll leave the explanation to Batty Mamselle:

Discussions of Sexuality are not the same for Women of Colour: Let's stop pretending they are

So why would this be so? Why should criticisms of white female pop stars not be relevant to non-white female pop stars? Well, in case you needed more convincing than the above article can provide, the following might help. This is one of the most insightful pieces written on "Pour It Up" so far, by three women of colour (one of whom is actually a stripper), transcribed from a discusion in Google Hangout:

Rihanna On My Mind: Chatting about the Pour It Up video

That article is really excellent, to me the kind of thing that makes me glad of our new media technologies, and the genuinely interesting interactions that can happen through social media. There is no filter, no need for an interpreter of any kind: let the kind of people portrayed in the video speak for themselves and tell us what they think of it.

As opposed to some random white dude who's not even in the same damn country.

So. What are my thoughts? Well, if you care to read on, I will tell you.

As I said above I am neither a black woman, nor a straight man, and to me those are the primary audiences for this clip (obviously, for very different reasons).

But what I am is a person who does not fit into traditional beauty modes, neither Western nor non-Western, and as such I feel that the kind of empowerment claimed for the Rihanna clip is only applicable to women who conform to certain body types. Which is not to say the clip is NOT empowering, not at all, just that I have my doubts that the clip is AS empowering to all women of colour as suggested in some of the articles above. The reach of its empowerment in limited, and [pure conjecture here] may even be damaging to women/girls who do not/never will conform to the beauty standard set by Rihanna, and in this video, her dancers.

That's not to say I dislike the video: far from it. I think it's a great piece of pop art.

But here's the thing, one hugely important and powerful aspect of "Pour It Up" that no-one seems to be mentioning: this is a POP video, so to judge it PURELY on image without taking into account the music (and not just the lyrics, but the melodies, arrangement, tone, etc) is not to judge it fully, in my opinion. It's unlikely that "Pour It Up" is watched with the sound off, and if it is, it's pretty safe to say that would be for masturbation purposes.

I love the song, but the feeling (yes, highly subjective and possibly problematic, I know) is not necessarily one of female empowerment. It's not one of exploitation either, though. To these ears there seems to be a deeply ingrained sadness to "Pour It Up". The whole song modulates between two minor chords, hardly the stuff of celebration, and there is a "sinister" sounding synth-string drone, reminiscent of Angelo Badlamienti's work for David Lynch, all the way through the track. Rihanna's vocals are, except for the wordless "woah-oh" bridge, softer and more controlled than on tracks like "S&M" and "We Found Love".

The arrangement is very spare, with constant drop-outs of the beat, suggesting it's not exactly a "club" track. The synths, as I kinda mentioned, sound reminiscent of 80s horror/thriller movies, especially that string part which underpins the whole track. While that kind of synth sound fits pretty neatly with conventions of the Trap genre (which is apparently very popular in US strip clubs), again, to me, it's not something that necessarily suggests celebration or empowerment. Compare it to A$AP Rocky's "Fashion Killa", whose video co-stars Rihanna, (and if rumours are to be believed, whose nascent romance with Rocky probably inspired the track) and is essentially a celebration of a woman's wardrobe and her shopping skills. "Fashion Killa" is light and airy, sounding warm and fuzzy and content, like the high of ecstacy or, suitably, the first blush of romance. In comparison, "Pour It Up" sounds menacing, less hopeful, more resigned. If "Fashion Killa" is an MDMA high, "Pour It Up" is a cocaine comedown (which, to be fair, is VERY Trap!)

Just to be clear, these aren't criticisms. These are observations. I don't want to seem like I am imposing upon Rihanna any ideas of what she "should" sound like. No-one, apart from Rihanna herself, or perhaps her most trusted producers, has the right to impose that on her, and as an artist she is more than capable of delivering hooky, quality pop music, and knowing what works the best for her, within her own limits. I recognise (and celebrate) that music is highly subjective, meaning different things for different people. I've also been involved in making music for half my life, so I tend to think about these kind of things a lot, and can't help analysing the "Pour It Up" song as part of the overall music video package.

Undoubtedly stripping and pole dancing has been beneficial for some women of colour, and it's not my place to tell these women, well, anything really! If a WoC finds this "Pour It Up" a resonant celebration of that life, then that is fucking awesome and they should OWN that for all its worth. Like I said, I do really like this track, and think that the Unapologetic LP has some of Ri-Ri's best work to date.

As a performer/singer/personality, I find Rihanna to be pretty damn good. She delivers great pop music, and I totally get how she is someone who acts with agency within a world where that could be denied to her. But then, as I argued the same thing a few years back about Beyonce, I think I may be more tuned to that as a gay man who follows pop music, and the careers of many hyper-managed female performers (while not being part of their primary target audience).

And let's be real here: Rihanna gives the BEST side-eye in modern music.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I first came to "Pour It Up" via this remix by Ynfynyt Scroll, which makes the track much more "club" friendly, and which may have skewed my view of the song a wee bit. It's awesome though, and well worth downloading: 

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