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Rihanna’s sex-drenched “S&M” and its brightly hued, LaChappelle-biting video were predictably controversial when they were given the promo push here a few months back, and now it’s provoking a storm on the other side of the pond, with the British regulatory agency OFCOM deeming the video too hot for daytime tv and the Guardian putting forth a think piece that calls the song “a pivotal moment for pop.”
Of course, the idea that the “rise” of what Charlotte Richardson Andrews terms “raunch pop” is just happening now is kind of false on its face. The relationship between pop music and female singers’ sexual agency has always been a fraught one, from the orgasms simulated on “Love To Love You Baby” to Madonna’s career from Like A Virgin on to “Dirrrty” to “I Kissed A Girl” to now. Andrews, however, seems to think this is a new thing:
Rihanna’s video is an extreme portrayal of a particular vision of female sexuality that permeates pop. Young female artists offer a misleading impression of autonomous, feminist agency; they are aggressively marketed as role models and trend setters, yet the fantasies they play out on screen are manufactured.
Manufactured! Why, my ears. The real problem with the current iteration of raunch pop is actually a lot more depressing: Many of the singers engaging in it seem tired, forced through the motions and forced to be perfectly, cleanly “sexy”–the boundaries being broached are not “transgressive” as much as they are “pitched toward already-existent, male-outlined paradigms of attractiveness.” (Remember the crucial bit of the chorus to the still-loathsome “I Kissed A Girl”–“hope my boyfriend don’t mind it.”) It’s sex without any hint of body fluids, even sweat, compartmentalized for the purposes of ending neatly after who needs to get off (hint: not the singer) gets off. And the constant posing is wearying enough that Rihanna seemed kinda sick of the whole “sex” angle at one point, claiming that the song’s lyrics were actually a metaphor for her relationship with the media.
(Speaking of relationships with the media: Let’s not even get into the ickiness brought about by the confluence between Britney Spears’ musical output and her recent courtroom travails; her handlers have deemed her mentally fit enough to appear on a remix of the track and sing “You can be my fuck tonight” [EDITED: OK, apparently the official lyric has her singing “thug,” but I think the fact that a) the lyric immediately preceding has her saying “we can go make love together” and b) the word sounds like it was constructed from her uttering a bunch of consonant sounds and an ‘uh’ on other tracks makes said mishearing excusable/perhaps even intentional. And it’s not like it’s the only moment on the record where she’s taking on a sorta hoarily sexy persona.] on her (admittedly very very catchy) album track “How I Roll,” but at the same time they’re calling her mentally incapable of testifying in a suit against her former handler, the equally gross Sam Lutfi. These two things do not really seem compatible! They also undercut all the assertions by her cadre that she’s pretty much living out the dream outlined in Destiny’s Child’s “Independent Women Pt. 1.”)
If anything, the rise of dreary, going-through-the-motions “raunch pop” like the actively ear-irritating “S&M” and the miltaristic “I Kissed A Girl” makes singers like Ke$ha and Lady Gaga seem if not feminist, at least less give-a-fuck about the men watching them than their companions on the charts. They’re not covering themselves in habits (well, not the traditional type, anyway), but their skin-baring seems at least to be more about utter hedonism (in the case of Ke$ha) or putting forth some sort of Catholicized art-school-girl pose that’s been bubbling since their first CCD class (Gaga). The controversy over “S&M” is part and parcel with its marketing strategy, of course, but the real tragedy inherent in it–and in other nontroversies that will no doubt cause a thousand bloggers to squeal over the coming months–is that it turns something that’s supposed to be kind of fun and exciting into a plasticized chore.