Of all the scandalized reactions to Rihanna’s music video for “Bitch Better Have My Money,” my favorite comes, as is not surprising for this sort of thing, from the Daily Mail. Labelling herself in the headline as a “concerned parent” (a term to transport one to the days of Tipper Gore’s crusade against lyrics if there ever was one), Sarah Vine opens her column by talking at length about how so very, very reluctant she was to watch Rihanna’s new clip. Then she basically goes frame-by-frame through the video, recounting her horror at what unfolds. “By the time it had finished, I wondered whether I ought not to report [Rihanna] to the police,” Vine writes. “Charges: pornography, incitement to violence, racial hatred.”
Savor the outrage, luxuriate in the shock—these are as much the intended pleasures of the “Bitch Better Have My Money” video as the insane images onscreen are. Rihanna is looking to prosper through controversy in the same way that her idol Madonna has done so many times via the medium of the music video. “Bitch Better Have My Money” might be the most successfully provocative output from a major star in years, a fact it achieves in large part by hewing to the tropes of mainstream entertainment.
In the seven-minute clip, the pop star kidnaps and torments the wife of an accountant who bilked her, dismembers the accountant, and then lounges, naked and covered in blood, in a box of money. The staging and editing is striking, comic book-like, almost whimsical—I felt sickened as I watched, but I also giggled as Rihanna, making a phone call, casually stepped aside to avoid the trophy wife swinging from the rafters like a pendulum.
The song and the video are reportedly inspired by a real-life case of Rihanna’s accountant allegedly cheating her out of millions of dollars, and here the swindler is played by Mads Mikkelsen, who also stars as the titular cannibal on the NBC drama Hannibal. It’s a small bit of casting that offers a key to the entire message. If Rihanna’s display of violence is any more shocking, any more objectionable, than the displays of violence seen on Thursday night TV, or in Rated-R films, or in any number of previous carnage-laden music videos, it’s the objector’s burden to say, exactly, why.
The most common response: By treating the kidnapping of a woman as a badass, comical activity, Rihanna feeds the idea of females as objects to be used and abused for material gain and an audience’s enjoyment. The middle-aged male man who ends up sliced to bits gets almost no screen time compared to the model Rachel Roberts, who’s stripped naked, strung up like a piece of meat, conked on the head with a bottle, and nearly drowned. But each humiliation, in the end, is just a particularly vivid contribution to an old entertainment tradition. “There was little fuss over the raped and murdered bank teller in From Dusk Till Dawn, the brutalized prostitutes in Frank Miller’s Sin City, or the bikini clad college girls snorting coke and shooting down pimps in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, all of which are hailed as ‘cult classics,’” writes Roisin O’Connor at The Independent in a defense of the video.
“Bitch Better Have My Money” is that most American of genre—revenge fantasy, which includes about 100 percent of Hollywood’s action output. The “fantasy” component of this particular version is heightened by the total caricature of the victims and the fur-bikini swagger of the heroes. In films from Taken to most all of Quentin Tarantino’s output, defenseless women—raped wives, kidnapped daughters—are habitually the means by which righteous-and-entertaining violence is justified. So when Rihanna, a woman, takes revenge on a man by snatching his woman, it’s not so much a flipping of the script as a total rewriting of it. We live in a world where women are victims? Fine, Rihanna says; it’s in that world that she’s got to get her money back.
There’s a racial component here, too. It’s likely no accident that Rihanna’s riding with a multicultural female posse and that Roberts’s character inhabits one of the ultimate stereotypes of whiteness—the banker’s prissy wife. Rihanna was ripped off by a caucasian financier who was supposed to help her; she’s not the first person of color in that position, and she’s probably not the first to fantasize about doing something drastic about it. Why wouldn’t she make art about it?
Yes, Rihanna has lots of young fans who look up to her; yes, fantasy or not, airing a video like this constitutes bad behavior. But Rihanna’s entire brand is predicated on the fact that she’s not afraid to be bad. Being bad gets people to talk about her. Being sexy and violent does the same. She did not make this video to make the world a better place; she did it to project an image and get paid. Judging by the response, she’s succeeded on both counts.