"We Found Love"
Love, the old song goes, is a many-splendored thing. Unless, of course, it gets shattered along the way—piercing your heart with soul-slashing shards of romantic shrapnel that leave you forever scarred.
At this point in Rihanna's career, that seems to be her message. It's a message that's reflected subtly in the lyrics to her latest single, "We Found Love" … then rammed home with stunning visual—and visceral—force in the accompanying music video.
The first time I listened to the up-tempo Europop beats of "We Found Love," I thought, Wow. That's a pretty nice song. Especially in comparison to several of Rihanna's recent hits, which have jumped headfirst into such subjects as sex, bondage and murder.
"Yellow diamonds in the light/And we're standing side by side," Rihanna begins optimistically. "As your shadow crosses mine/What it takes to come alive." Then there's the chorus, a single line repeated throughout: "We found love in a hopeless place."
So far, so good.
But then there's that whole shadow business Rihanna alludes to. Look a bit more closely, and you can see that the love she sings about is something she feels compelled to relinquish: "It's the way I'm feeling/I just can't deny/But I've gotta let it go." The reason? She realizes she wants her man more than he wants her: "Love and life I will divide/Turn away, 'cause I need you more."
It's understated, as I said, and lots of fans won't key into it right away when they listen. So Rihanna proceeds to clear up the mystery for them in her video: a warp-speed montage that paints an impressionistic picture of a passionate-but-doomed relationship shared by a sex- and drug-addicted couple.
As the images begin, Rihanna's voiceover sets the stage: "I saw you screaming, and no one can hear. You always feel ashamed that someone could be that important, that without them you feel nothing. No one will ever understand how much it hurts," she says. "You feel hopeless, but nothing can save you. And when it's over, and it's gone, you almost wish that you could have all that bad stuff back so that you can have the good."
Viewers are then plunged into a manic torrent of love, lust, addiction, rage and dysfunction. Quickly intercut visuals tell the story of the couple's consuming love, alternating between ravenous sexual hunger and destructive abusiveness.
Rihanna's pictured frequently in lingerie (or singing in an open denim jeans jacket over striped underwear and no bra), and her man's hands are just as frequently all over her as the two cuddle and fondle and kiss. Images of pills, joints and the pair puffing and blowing smoke leave no doubt about whether there's chemical addiction going on. At one point it seems Rihanna's passed out on a street. And you can add in images of them shoplifting and vandalizing, as well as screaming and yelling at each other—not to mention the guy tattooing the word "MINE" on her backside while she's apparently unconscious.
Note that there's also a scene in which Rihanna removes her shirt while walking through a field, and we briefly see her bare back. It's a scene that prompted the Northern Irish farmer on whose land parts of the video were being filmed to ask Rihanna to put her clothes back on.
Melina Matsoukas, the video's director, sees this raw, unvarnished tale as a (hopeful) cautionary tale since Rihanna's character ultimately leaves her drug-addled beau (who many online commentators have pointed out looks more than a little like her abusive real-life ex, Chris Brown). "We love, obviously, to do provocative imagery, Matsoukas told MTV News. "We always try to definitely push the limits. I think because, in the end, it's not really at all about domestic violence. It's really just about it being toxic, and they're on this drug trip and that definitely plays a part, but I think it's also about being triumphant over those weaknesses, and she leaves him. It's not trying to glorify that type of relationship. The bad parts of it, that's what you don't want. In the end, her leaving, it represents her getting that out of her life. The drugs and the addiction and the toxic—that's what brings her downfall and brings a lot of harm."
Whether Rihanna's fans—10 million of whom watched the video on YouTube during its first week of availability—will so easily suss out such a positive message from this explicit story remains to be seen.