Of all the words carelessly scribbled across Rihanna’s oddly neutralized nude body on the cover of her new album, several stand out (and none of them are the album’s title, Unapologetic, which, let’s be honest, reeks a bit of overcompensation). “Censored” is the most peculiar, in my view. Honorable mention goes to “Side Effects,” scrawled in black along the back of her raised right arm. And while I’m at it, “Victory,” running down her left forearm, in spite of her success in the rafters of pop stardom (she has already matched Madonna in number one hits, and is closing in on The Beatles and MJ), feels just a bit premature. Rihanna’s public persona has been built scathingly hard-edged, like a glittering “Diamond,” to reference the word writ largest in the photo, spanning her taut, golden tummy, just beneath her Isis tattoo. I have to fight the urge to wonder where did all the “Love” go, because, there it is, the only word inscribed on her possibly angry, possibly devoid of all human-feeling face.
It seems prescient to note that in spite of the incessant web chatter praising the bold (if obvious) choice to remove the last of the few threads generally worn by the 24-year-old R&B-ish star, there is very little of her body that is actually bared. In fact, there’s so much verbiage on this pop princess, the most provocative reveal in the shot is Rihanna’s cold, calculating eye, staring out at anyone dumb enough to be waiting for whatever apology she’s clearly not giving. The shot looks more like the offspring from a one-night stand between No Doubt’s 2001 Rock Steady cover and Janet Jackson’s authentically sexy, topless, double-breasted/fisted shot from the Janet insert…and that was in 1993. In today’s oversexed, under-teased mainstream, where breasts and the rest are served up every week on DWTS, TMZ.com, HuffPost, and your local eleven o’clock news, it’s kind of hard to get excited about a milkshake that’s already been spilled all over the yard. Maybe RiRi’s handlers will get a clue and leak the un-inked original photo to drum up some extra sizzle— oh wait, they did …or, maybe they did.
But let’s get back to the words, lest anyone get the impression that I am complaining about not seeing enough of yet another black woman’s body on display for the enjoyment and fetishization of all. Besides the irony of slapping a word like “censored” on the voice-box of the very same throat that had young girls the world over singing about S&M, there’s something less than sweet about the “Side Effects” of Rihanna’s very public association with domestic violence. If bruises are side effects, they are none to sing about. But Rihanna’s recently been engaged in singing around the issue of her abusive relationship with Chris Brown, and industry critics have taken notice. Thomas Barnes of policymic said it plainly : “Everyone who writes about this album has to dedicate a full paragraph to the Chris Brown feature.” If there is a feminist strain to be found in her hard-as-nails tough girl visage, it has been muted in the blogosphere, where many an album reviewer has waxed poetic about the peculiarity of the fact that one of the best songs on Unapologetic is yet another post-beat-down collaboration with Brown. Jon Caramanica of The New York Times pulled no punches , questioning the song’s inclusion as emblematic of “trolling,” noting that “to make public art with the person who physically abused you is immature, pre-feminist, post-ethics…to make it cheerful and humane is just vexing.” It seems there is nothing femme-forward about forgiveness, and, conversely, that it is acceptable enough for an audience to forgive a battered woman’s return, if that woman is a pop star and the song makes us want to sing along.
There’s something very neat about this, perhaps a little too neat. Rihanna’s role as Tina to Brown’s Ike is uncomfortable, at best. The relationship reminds us that there’s an ugly side to sex, even as we clamor to consume her commercially packaged sexuality. If we take the fact that she is partially blinded by the word “Love” in the cover photo symbolically, we might empathize with her rekindled relationship with Brown. But Rihanna’s records don’t sell because of her great capacity to express deep and abiding love, they sell because she’s a mean, mannish man-eater. In many ways, and with good reason from a business perspective, Rihanna is the anti-Beyonce; where Beyonce is the soulful songstress who loves so hard she literally goes crazy, Rihanna is the synthesized dominatrix in a private room at the back of the club, where whatever happens, ya know, stays there.
Historical stereotypes of black women in America might draw the distinction differently: Beyonce is the Mammy/Strong Woman archetype, with a voice that rings true, melts hearts, and gives excellent advice. Suckle at her breast and both milk and honey come out. But Rihanna is the Jezebel, mixed with a little Sapphire (à la Amos and Andy), part-tyrant and part-seductress, who relies on wit, creativity and technology to put the welt into her belt. Her advice is good because it’s the kind you can’t write home about. You can’t rest in her fertile, curvaceous valley, but you can choke in her vice-grip. Her femme sexuality pops in part because it might as well not even be there; until she pops a human being out of her stash like Mama B, will the hermaphrodite-at-birth rumors ever fall completely silent?
If domestic violence was anything but a serious issue affecting millions who have little to no power against it, one might make the tasteless suggestion that Rihanna’s relationship with Chris feels staged, a complex ploy designed to distract from any passing notion that this is a woman to be soft with and who can be soft with you. But this interpretation falls a little flat, and we are left with the unfortunate situation of having to create a role model from a pile of balsam wood without any glue. It falls a little flat, because in pictures of the two partying in Germany this Thanksgiving, they look like they really could be in love, or at the very least are having a great time . And that might be sweet, if they’d been to therapy first, or if the tweens in her audience had. It’s easy to root for the underdog, but hard to root for the dog-eat-dog. Rihanna’s album is her first to debut No. 1 on the charts. The critics are doing the two-step along with her, but they feel kind of smarmy and dirty about it. Hard to see the clear “Victory” in that.