I distinctively remember the first time I came across Rihanna’s work. I was watching MTV and a nondescript brown-skinned girl wearing baggy jeans was singing a reggae-tinged song. I turned to my cousin and said, “How forgettable is this girl?” I couldn’t have been more wrong.
In many ways, Rihanna’s analogous to Madonna. She’s so savvy her acts of rebellion seem calculated. It isn’t about the talent or the voice. Though both variables are distinctive, they’re not overwhelmingly so. Her image changes so frequently, it’s as if she’s a shape shifter, not a pop star. Plus, she makes these brilliant pop songs that forcibly nudge their way into our lives.
Despite her slew of endorsements, there’s something about Rihanna as a woman that seems authentic. She connects. Consequently, what Rihanna does matters. I believe it says something about where our culture is, and where it may be heading.
What’s important to remember about Rihanna is that her defining pop culture moment isn’t something she orchestrated or chose to have so deeply embedded in the public consciousness. In this image, we don’t see Rihanna the pop star, but a woman who's been the victim of domestic violence. Due to her stardom an incident that would ordinarily have stayed private was thrust into the public sphere. From that moment, Rihanna, her choices and the lens through which we view both altered. And we haven’t stopped watching.
Since the incident, she’s had wonderful fashion moments, petty Twitter spats where she’s demonstrated how impeccably she throws shade, and become even bigger. Her own line of MAC makeup big.
Last year, I began researching a project about strippers. In the process I was forced to reconcile what I believed to be true about strippers and the reality. My upbringing (Christian, conservative, Nigerian) meant that my attitude toward sex work was that it was done by those whose options or morals had been significantly depleted. Then the process of researching the project flipped all my perceptions.
Strippers are people too (duh). They aren’t incapable of being morally prudent. There isn’t a fixed neat narrative that can explain how they ended up working in the sex industry. Their stories aren’t any less or more complex than anyone else’s.
So what’s Rihanna got to do with strippers you ask?
Rihanna just debuted the video for her song “Pour It Up.” (Obviously NSFW)
The song’s insanely catchy beat distracts from the ground breaking story it tells about a fascinating trend that the media isn’t discussing much -- women regularly visiting strip clubs. Yes. Women are going to strip clubs with women, to watch women strip.
Additionally, Rihanna is speaking about visiting a strip club in a braggadocios, materialistic way that’s commonly associated with men. The line "Bands make your girl go down" sounds like something a man who views women as property would say, except it's being sung by a woman. And either it’s gone over everyone’s head or no one cares. Either way, something significant has happened with this song and there’s an odd silence around it.
Unfortunately the “Pour It Up” video doesn’t come close to capturing the complexity of the song, its subject(s) or what it represents. The form was there (albeit not to my aesthetic tastes), sadly the video failed functionally. There are strippers. They are nameless, their faces are barely identifiable and they’re gratuitously dancing in water. There’s no real story. Rihanna twerks in a non-committal manner and smirks at the end of the video, a bit like a precocious child who misbehaved because she knew all the adults would react to it.
Rihanna’s “We Found Love” video was gripping. Showing a couple addicted to drugs and each other, it depicted that intoxicating, destructive, this-is-bad-for-me-but-it-feels-so-good love that women often avoid discussing with each other because being in that type of relationship is viewed as a sign of stupidity and weakness. In “Man Down,” we watch Rihanna shoot a man who sexually assaulted her. It sparked a conversation about violence, sexual assault, victimhood and justice.
“Pour It Up” could have been equally important. Instead, it’s a lazy attempt at being controversial.
This was an opportunity for Rihanna to provoke some interesting and important conversations. It was a chance to present strippers and stripping culture in a nuanced fashion. This could have been a moment where she pushed back against the demonization of strippers and humanised them. Instead of having those thought-provoking conversations, most people are just talking about Rihanna objectifying herself (which I’m sure was her intent), and the tricks the strippers are doing.
Rihanna is one of the few artists who has the ability to jump start broader conversations about womanhood, power, agency and sexuality. Lady Gaga's another, but it’s never with the same intensity as her costumes and theatrics distract. Katy Perry is equal parts palatable and provocative, but she leaves you wondering when her puppeteer will cut her strings. Beyoncé’s far too perfect and rehearsed. She doesn’t seem real (although unfathomably she is) and any blemishes she does have are so infinitesimal they don’t count.
That leaves us with Rihanna.
So Rihanna, in the unlikely chance you’re reading. We’re paying attention and will be for a while. Use your platform to push our conversations and culture forward. Next time, please give us something worth talking about.