Musicians have been pushing the content envelope for a long time. So it was probably only a matter of time before a top-tier pop star wandered into seriously R-rated, Quentin Tarantino-meets-Game of Thrones territory in a music video. Now Rihanna’s done it.
The premise of Rihanna’s latest hit, “B–ch Better Have My Money,” is almost entirely captured in its profanity-plagued title, a line that’s repeated many times throughout this hip-hop/R&B hybrid (known as trap). She plays the role of a woman who’s not even a little bit amused about someone owing her money. “Y’all should know me well enough/B–ch better have my money!”
Or what, you ask?
Or Rihanna’s vengeance-seeking character here will kidnap the man’s wife: “S—, your wife in the backseat of my brand new foreign car/Don’t act like you forgot, I call the shots, shots, shots.” And the shots she’s talking about here are the kind that come out of a gun: “Like brrap, brrap, brrap.”
And there’s not much more worth noting about the song’s lyrics, other than calling out the fact that an f-word and repeated uses of “n-gga” turn up too.
The video fleshes out—literally—the song’s premise with Pulp Fiction flare. Rihanna and two female partners in crime do indeed kidnap the aforementioned wife, strip her topless and dangle her upside down on a rope, among other really bad things. There’s torture and drugging and marijuana smoking and drinking. And things get more ominous when Rihanna starts eyeing various bladed instruments, after which we see a wealthy accountant tied to a chair and squirming as she walks toward him.
It’s implied that Rihanna’s outrageous alter ego murders both the guy who owes her money as well as the kidnapped woman. And the video ends by focusing on the nude singer lying covered with blood in, you guessed it, a pile of money. That blood (plus one strategically placed dollar bill over her groin) is the only thing she’s “wearing.”
Violence, profanity, drugs and nudity are nothing new in popular culture, of course. But it’s hard for me to think of a music video where all four elements come together quite as jarringly as they do here, with all those disturbing elements mingling in a way that wouldn’t feel a bit out of place in one of the many premium cable shows that plunge into such murk in more extreme ways all the time.
Now it’s come to music vidoes.
Still, Atlantic writer Spencer Kornhaber shrugs it all off as essentially no big deal, just a provocative artist behaving provocatively, which, after all, is what provocative artists do.
“Rihanna is looking to prosper through controversy in the same way that her idol Madonna has done so many times via the medium of the music video,” he writes. “‘B–ch Better Have My Money’ is that most American of genre—revenge fantasy, which includes about 100% of Hollywood’s action output. The ‘fantasy’ component of this particular version is heightened by the total caricature of the victims and the fur-bikini swagger of the heroes. In films from Taken to most all of Quentin Tarantino’s output, defenseless women—raped wives, kidnapped daughters—are habitually the means by which righteous-and-entertaining violence is justified. So when Rihanna, a woman, takes revenge on a man by snatching his woman, it’s not so much a flipping of the script as a total rewriting of it. We live in a world where women are victims? Fine, Rihanna says; it’s in that world that she’s got to get her money back.”
To borrow from Billy Joel, one might paraphrase Kornhaber’s argument this way: “It’s just a fantasy. It’s not the real thing.”
But while some professional media wonks may state that they have no problem splitting those fantasy vs. reality hairs, what about everyone else, especially Rihanna’s younger fans? What malignant messages are they exposed to when they take in this kind of raw ‘n’ rude revenge shtick?
Writing for the U.K.’s Daily Mail, Sarah Vine ponders exactly those questions. “Rihanna’s fan base consists of young teenage girls, mostly of secondary school age (that is to say 11 and upwards), but she also—as anyone who has ever eavesdropped on a playground will know—appeals to primary school children, especially those with older siblings. And yet this video contains, in no particular order, extreme violence, torture, drug-taking, guns, negative racial stereotyping (towards both black and white), sexual exploitation and murder. Actually, sorry: not just contains, but also glorifies and justifies. After all, the man stole her money. What else is a poor girl to do?”
Near the end of her article, Vine concludes, as will I, “[Rihanna] is a global superstar adored by millions. So crime, according to what passes for the narrative of this video, does pay after all.
Because what other conclusion can we possibly draw? Certainly, if one happens to be an impressionable young person, who perhaps hasn’t quite understood the difference between right and wrong, the message would seem clear: if people don’t give you exactly what you want, then you’re perfectly within your rights to go on a drug-fuelled killing spree. These are the sentiments that, in 2015, are deemed acceptable themes through which to promote a pop song to 12-year-olds.”
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews.