A History of Violence (by Women in Music Videos)

Lorde joins the ranks of pop singers joyfully and brutally sidestepping tropes about victimhood.

VEVO / Island

The music video for Disclosure’s “Magnets” ends with the featured vocalist Lorde tying a guy to a chair, pushing that chair into a swimming pool, and then lighting the pool on fire. On Twitter she explained, “one of my life goals has always been ‘to one day play a hitgirl who pretends to seduce then burns alive douchey boyfriends,’” to which her followers exploded in a chorus of “YAS” and “I LOVE YOU” and “can you burn me too?”

“Magnets” would seem to confirm the existence of a trend that Miley Cyrus called out earlier this year when talking about Taylor Swift’s clip for “Bad Blood,” in which a team of women engage in explosive, slicey-dicey warfare. “I don't get the violence-revenge thing,” Cyrus told Marie Claire. “That’s supposed to be a good example?” To the pile of recent instances you can add Swift’s “Blank Space,” in which she bashes a boyfriend’s things and—it’s suggested, though not shown—his body to the point of unconsciousness; Lana Del Rey’s “High by the Beach,” in which the singer uses an enormous gun to blast a paparazzi dude out of the sky; and possibly the biggest bloodbath in mainstream pop history, Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money,” which depicts the gruesome dismemberment of a crooked accountant and the torture of his wife. The politics of the genre are, on one level at least, clear: These videos are meant to blow up social expectations that women remain passive.

The recent boomlet of murderess music videos doesn’t represent a totally new phenomenon, though. The stars of Dixie Chicks’s “Goodbye Earl” offed an abusive husband in 1999, Ashanti grimly pondered stabbing an adulterer in 2008’s “The Way That I Love You”, and at least three Lady Gaga shorts—“Paparazzi,” “Bad Romance,” and “Telephone”—feature the poisoning or burning of men. But often, these videos fall into two categories: ones that take place in total fantasy worlds—think Kesha mounting James Van Der Beek’s head on her wall after he hunted one too many unicorns, or Britney Spears as a sci-fi assassin/flight attendant—or ones where the killer’s desperation is so abject that it feels like a Very Special Episode.

Few of the recent crop of such videos quite fit into those categories, though. Justice often is less the point than the thrill and spectacle of violence, just as is usually the case in Hollywood action films and popular video games. In “Magnets,” Lorde isn’t dating the “douchey boyfriend,” nor is she the one being abused by him; she kills the guy on another girl’s behalf, and—dancing around in her slick leather tunic before ignoring his pleas for mercy—seems to relish the task. Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” rampage is a cheeky overreaction, and “Bad Blood” is a superhero-film sendup where friend and foe alike are mostly women. The joke of “High by the Beach” is that Lana needs a huge rocket-launcher to maintain her chill, while “Bitch Better Have My Money” is all about the comedy of carnage, with the evil banker’s crimes telegraphed only midway through, perfunctorily.

Rihanna offers a nice case study in how mores around music videos, gender, and violence may have subtly shifted over just a few years. In 2011, she released the video for “Man Down,” a classic victim’s revenge tale in which she fires a revolver at her rapist. The video is mostly remembered for the controversy it caused, with the Parents Television Council condemning it as “an inexcusable, shock-only, shoot-and-kill theme song” (a sentiment that’s similar to the one that caused country channels to ban Garth Brooks’s “The Thunder Rolls,” about a woman’s attempted reprisal against an abuser, in the early ’90s). But the PTC has made not a peep about the much gorier “Bitch Better Have My Money” video, perhaps because it—like many new music clips, now that online streaming is the number one way people receive music—was never meant to be shown on TV.

The change in venue has enabled greater levels of explicitness; just three years ago, Christina Aguilera’s “Your Body” video featured male victims who spewed cartoonish blue paint, while today Rihanna lounges in a box of lifelike banker blood. The Internet has shifted the nature of backlash, too. Instead of “what about the children?” protests to the FCC and networks, people write think pieces about whether a given clip is feminist or not. One school of thought says that the violence is an empowerment move that might even help warn off would-be attackers of women; another says it all plays into attitudes about right-through-might that, in the end, can favor male dominance in society.

But most everyone understands that the appearance of misandry or of immoral action is meant to be ironic, knowing, venting—a symbolic corrective in a world where men far more commonly hurt women than vice versa. (Conversely, pop’s men rarely choose to depict themselves attacking women, and when they do it’s with a sense of perverted transgression—Action Bronson’s little-seen but very ghastly “Brunch” video, or The Weeknd’s “Pretty,” in which he shoots up a girl in the act of cheating on him.)

The other factor worth noting is the online war for attention. As music videos have lost their position as youth-cultural canon enforced by MTV and instead just become another piece of content on which users have to decide whether or not to click, headlines about controversy help stand out. There’s already been a boom/bust cycle for music-video “NSFW” nudity; at some point, women-with-weapons clickbaiting may get there too, if it hasn’t already. And then it’s on to the next dare.