The just-released clip for her song “Needed Me” represents the third time that Rihanna has murdered a guy in a music video. In 2011, she tearily took a gun to a rapist for “Man Down,” triggering the Parents Television Council’s condemnation. Last year, she baited various ideologies of Internet commentators with her “Bitch Better Have My Money” video’s tale of kidnapping a woman and dismembering her husband, a shady accountant. Now, for “Needed Me,” she strides into a strip club and shoots a tattooed guy for unspecified reasons. Her apparent disinterest in the consequences to her actions within the world of the video is equal to her apparent disinterest to the consequences outside of it.
Last year, I speculated that images of female pop stars acting violent were becoming more common because of shifting gender conversations and—equally important—because music videos are now Internet sharebait rather than broadcast TV programming. There is frequently some political subtext to these clips, and Rihanna’s career is no exception. “Man Down” told a classic story about anger after sexual assault; “Bitch Better Have My Money” was a revenge fantasy with racial and gender dimensions. “Needed Me,” directed by the provocateur Harmony Korine (Kids, Gummo, Spring Breakers) initially might seem like a content-free fetishization of violence and outlaw imagery, but actually might be her purest vision of the underlying ideology of the girls-with-guns genre yet.
Viewers don’t really learn why she’s killing the guy, though you get the sense from all the gun-wielding cast members and cool motorcycle masks that he’s a rival crime lord. The other women on display are strippers, gyrating in slow motion as Rihanna walks by with indifference. When she finds her mark, he throws a wad of cash at Rihanna as if she’s a stripper. Mistake. She points her gun and shoots him. In an arena where women are made to be subservient sexual objects, she is something else entirely. You can extrapolate about popular music and culture more broadly without too much effort.
It’s not a particularly original video, though in keeping with Korine’s career, it’s hypnotic and powerfully stylized—and not at all afraid about being accused of glamorizing violence. That disinterest in sending the “right” message, in helping herself to the same buffet of righteous violence, sexual conquest, and money that culture has long availed to men, is Rihanna’s current M.O. In this, does she set a bad example? Is she contributing to America’s guns obsession? Should she take Miley Cyrus’s advice and stop playing with weaponry?
Rihanna might find the questions offensive if she appeared to care about them at all. She’s said time and again that she’s no role model, with the implication that it’s a double standard to expect her to be one. This song’s headline lyric is, “didn’t they tell you I was a savage? / fuck your white horse and a carriage.” Maybe don’t ask her to explain again.