Musicians have long relied on visceral shock value to generate attention and controversy in the hopes of selling songs.
From Elvis to Mick Jagger, Alice Cooper to Kiss, Marilyn Manson to Slipknot, Madonna to Lady GaGa, the list of those who’ve brazenly violated cultural mores in search of a headline and sales bump is infamously long.
Now we can add a 21-year-old songstress who hails from Barbados to that list. But first, a little background:
The world was saddened earlier this year when pictures of Rihanna’s badly beaten face (at the hands of fellow singer Chris Brown) were leaked to the press. In the legal proceedings that followed, the pop/R&B singer had little to say publicly about the violent incident.
Perhaps she was waiting for her new music to do the talking for her.
Well, it’s doing a lot of talking. The lead single from Rihanna’s fourth album, Rated R, is about playing Russian roulette.
Even in a world jaded by nonstop controversy and bad celebrity behavior, it’s hard not to be shocked by its lyrics and the image Rihanna has chosen to accompany it—a picture of her topless torso wrapped in barbed wire. (Which, for reasons of modesty, we’re compelled to not show in its entirety.)
The song is the story of a young woman who deliberately accepts the death-defying "challenge" of Russian roulette: "I’m terrified," she says. "But I’m not leaving/Know that I must pass the test/So just pull the trigger." That line in the chorus is one we hear several times, punctuated with the sound of a spinning chamber and a gunshot at the end.
Given what’s happened with Rihanna and Chris Brown, the glaringly obvious interpretation is that she’s offering some kind of commentary on women who choose to stay with cool guys who have violent streaks ("He says, ’Close your eyes/Sometimes that helps’").
Rihanna realizes, it seems, that such decisions could lead to a tragic end ("As my life flashes before my eyes," she sings, "I’m wondering, ’Will I ever see another sunrise?’"). Still, she chooses to "pull the trigger" anyway … and ends up dead, if the gunshot sound effect is to be believed.
But will everyone get it? Do I even get it? (Maybe my interpretation of the song is off by a quarter turn.) If not (and if so), what are the consequences?
I’m sure of this: Some young fans won’t get it. They won’t understand why Rihanna is wrapped up naked in barbed wire with a dominatrix-like mask. They won’t understand that her apparent glorification of the decision to put a gun to her head isn’t (at least I hope it isn’t!) intended as an endorsement.