(Written for Jezebel February 9, 2011)
Rihanna is pushing the envelope with her latest salacious “S&M” video, which has resulted in it being allegedly banned by 11 countries according to the U.K.’s Daily Mirror. I guess chains and whips aren’t so exciting after all.
The banning of the video reeks of slut-shaming. Societies across the globe are incredibly uncomfortable with a woman overtly expressing her sexuality. A woman expressing her sexual desires outside of the realms of pleasing a man is seen as taboo. And when a woman breaks the confinements of patriarchy as it relates to sex, even if only artistically, she is taught her behavior is unacceptable.
But not all artists that are women are given a hard time for expressing themselves through their art.
While watching “S&M” repeatedly, I pondered about the whirlwind of controversy surrounding Rihanna’s video juxtaposed with Lady Gaga’s cinematic mini-films that are revered as art. Gaga’s over-the-top image and music is glorified as extraordinarily and arguably innovative (Madonna anyone?). But RiRi is just too hot too handle.
Remember Gaga’s “Alejandro” video? It simulates sex much more provocatively than “S&M.” Gaga in her latex nun get-up, the swallowing of rosaries, dry humping men in heels on the bed with their arms tied to the rail, was not exactly G-rated. And although the video raised some brows it was deemed art. “Paparazzi,” “Bad Romance” and “Telephone” all had their share of sexuality. There is an overwhelming sentiment that Gaga’s artistry was epic. Gaga has a catalog of overtly sexual videos prancing around in thongs and bra tops; and under the guise of art, Gaga warrants a certain level of acceptance Rihanna does not.
Rihanna’s good girl gone bad image is constantly questioned. Accusations of Rihanna being a slut are ever present. Society as a whole is uncomfortable with this 22-year old woman being so damn audacious. Gaga on the other hand remains unscathed. Gaga’s sexually expressive antics rock as long as it’s understood that her work is art. But what’s the difference between the two pop stars? Why is one revered while the other is too much to wrap our heads around?
Perhaps Rihanna’s “S&M” is not regarded as art because when people question if she has any actual talent. There is no denying that Rihanna is a star. One could even subjectively argue she makes good-catchy- music. But she is constantly criticized for her lackluster vocals. Contrarily Gaga’s talent is recognizable- pianist, songwriter and singer. You wouldn’t have much convincing to do to sell someone on the idea that Lady Gaga is a vocalist.
Eccentricity is another factor in Gaga’s art vs. Rihanna just being too damn much. Gaga exudes eccentric, free spirited, creative one. The eccentric artist types are not uncommon amongst white entertainers. No big deal. If one is indeed eccentric it is expected the music will follow suit of one’s image. Few people will consider Rihanna odd or even quirky. Rebel? Yes. Badass? Possibly. Eccentric? Nah. So even though “S&M” was a blatantly obvious metaphor symbolic of her relationship with the media, it is too out of the box for the images usually associated with a 22-year old Black pop singer. Rihanna’s work can’t possibly be art if people don’t really consider her an artist.
I wouldn’t discredit how much beauty may be tied into this as well. By most standards Rihanna is considered an attractive woman. Maybe the public subconsciously expects her to behave more prim and proper because of her looks. Lady Gaga is definitely not an ugly woman. But her attractiveness is often hidden by the theatrics of her image. Her theatrics scream gimmick. And with a gimmick you expect a certain shebang to go along with the act. Lady Gaga is seen as some super-human artist, which grants her the flexibility to be outlandishly bizarre because it falls under the umbrella of art. Rihanna on the other hand lacks the super-human quality. She is young pop singer we’ve literally watched transform from a soft-spoken sweet girl from the Barbados to a diva who makes no apologizes for being herself.
Badass Rihanna can be admired for her I don’t give a **** attitude when it comes to her sexuality, as long as she stays inside the box of who we think she is. But despite the conceptual creativity and aesthetic of the video; sadomasochism and a young pop singer who may not be seen as a true artist, is not afforded the privilege of her work being classified as art. Of course everything Gaga does is art (even if Madonna and Michael Jackson have already done it), because, well…she’s an artist. A “genius” one at that.