The Song: Rihanna, “S&M”
The Crimes: Dressing a bloodless ode to kink up by saying it’s actually about the media? Na na na na na na, come on, girl.
Pop stars need their personas as much as they need the songs that take them to the top of the charts—and lest you think that need exists in a vacuum, trust that the people consuming the songs need those hooks as well. So Ke$ha is the “trashy” one, and Taylor is the “good” one, and Gaga is the “arty” one, and Katy is the “annoying” one. After the lukewarm response to her brooding 2009 album Rated R, the Barbadian pop star Rihanna decided to kickstart the process of reinventing herself as the “really, really, really sexy” one on her 2010 full-length Loud—and just in case you weren’t entirely sure of how far she’d go, “S&M,” an ode to getting one’s kink on that manages to turn the zipless fuck into something almost completely lifeless as well, signified the pinnacle of that particular campaign. (Or the nadir, depending on how you look at it.)
First, its musical crimes. “S&M” is pretty much a wholesale rewrite of Lina Santiago’s minor freestyle hit “Feels So Good,” only with the early-’10s thump, smug self-congratulation about being down with whips and chains, and brain-sticky overreliance on non-verbal sounds (“na na na na na,” the titular letters) turned all the way up:
That Rihanna pairs her lyrics about “lik[ing] it lik[ing] it” with a vocal delivery that’s completely flat in its affect shouldn’t surprise too much; as thrilling as “Umbrella” still can be, it’s not like she achieved her place in the pop firmament by showing off Mariah-style pipes. But it still creates a cognitive dissonance that makes one feel sort of bad for Rihanna; is the song actually a metaconfession, where her constant claiming that she “like[s] it like[s] it” is actually more proof of her being on the masochistic end of the relationship? Is “S&M” a cry for help buried inside a really aggravating pop song, and are the wordless utterances in fact coded messages saying “help, get me out of here and to a place where I can just put out a series of singles and not have to pump out albums to satisfy the demands of a dying model year in and year out”?
Making this track even more repellent was the brief attempt to placate the prudes and play down its sexiness by refashioning it as a sort of morality play about—what else?—Rihanna’s love-hate relationship with the media, with Rihanna being the “bad girl” for acting out and the media being the sadist who loved to punish her by… covering her every move. Yes, the 24-hour news cycle encouraged by the explosion of the gossipsphere gets depressingly ugly, particularly when it comes to the mouth-breathing coverage of young women; there were quite a few victim-blamey pieces that ran after her ugly pre-Grammy altercation with Chris Brown in 2009, and her raunchier side did get tut-tutted by those media outlets who only know how to deal with female sexuality when they’re the ones in charge of it. But claiming that Rihanna is pilloried for being who she is in the same way as, say, a Courtney Stodden (or even a Courtney Love!) is ludicrous. And can she really be that annoyed by the likes of Technicolored asshat Perez Hilton—whose noxious eponymous site is at the forefront of keeping women “in line,” even with the supposedly nicer persona that he espoused in the wake of the It Gets Better movement—when she’s putting him in her video and sending him mash notes via Twitter?
Rihanna’s chronic disturbing of the sexy was woven throughout coverage of her this year, from her dragging audience members up on stage to have her way with them to her raunchy declarations about her starring in topless photos to her sex-shop trips with Drake, and the payoff of course, was that Talk That Talk, Rihanna’s third album in as many years, got called “sexy” by nearly every outlet that bothered to cover it; this is how you see narrative-building paying off—or if you want to put it in the terms of this mess of a track, this is how the masochist can get her jollies. In this brightly hued video, though, Rihanna acts put-upon and literally tied up, with the whole mess of ball gags and latex culminating in what
LaChappelle ripoff artist director Melina Metsoukas called “a pop-art sticker killing… our fun death ending.” “Fun,” one supposes, because if she didn’t have the media to complain about, who would be there to watch Rihanna when she chooses to rise—and flirt—again?
The 11 Most Infuriating Songs Of 2011
11. Kreayshawn, “Gucci Gucci”
10. will.i.am feat. Mick Jagger and Jennifer Lopez, “T.H.E. (The Hardest Ever)”
9. Katy Perry feat. Missy Elliott, “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.) (Remix)”
8. Tyler, The Creator, “Bitch Suck Dick”
7. Maroon 5 feat. Christina Aguilera, “Moves Like Jagger”
6. Bon Iver, “Holocene”
5. Rihanna, “S&M”
4. Brian McFadden, “Just The Way You Are (Drunk At The Bar)”
3. [White Person], [White Person Cutely/”Seriously” Performing Urban-Radio Hit]
2. Lana Del Rey, “Video Games”
1. Jessie J, “Price Tag”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 28, 2011