Love The Way You Lie is the new single by Eminem, featuring Rihanna.
It hasn’t been released yet, so there is no official video. But the pair have performed it live and the fans are already busily uploading and downloading recordings of two of their favourite Rap/R and B artists, singing together on stage. And what a song for them to choose to make into their debut duet.
The opening on this rather hazy footage of an Eminem gig in the States, features Rihanna, looking Amazonian as usual, with some impressive pyrotechnics kicking off, singing the refrain:
Just gonna stand there and watch me burn,
That’s all right, because I like the way it hurts
Just gonna stand there and hear me cry
That’s all right, because I love the way you lie.
So this is a song about a fucked up relationship? Not really a surprise, it being by Eminem. And in this particular performance, apart from the (blurred and distant) aesthetic appeal of both singers, we are drawn to the massive photo backdrop featuring a man (Is it Eminem himself?) sitting in combats, a gun in is hand, facing the audience. The clues are that this song relates to themes of violence.
My initial reaction on hearing it was: Rihanna pisses all over Dido when it comes to a believable, hard and yet vulnerable feminine lyrical echo to Eminem’s staccato ‘macho’ rapping. I also had another echo in my head, of the tender yet macabre rendition of Henry Lee, in the Murder Ballads by Nick Cave and PJ Harvey. Completely different musical genres, and not as much real sexual tension in the Eminem/Rihanna collaboration I suspect, but an echo all the same. You don’t often hear a man and a woman singing, (let alone talking), together about a shared dynamic of violence within a relationship.
Obviously, this is because beyond the staged performance of representation, real violence is what happens when communication in a relationship has completely broken down. It is not the kind of thing you would phone your ex up about, after the court case, to say ‘hey babe, maybe we could lay some beats down onto a track’ about the beatings I used to give you. I don’t think that would work.
For me, this is why I am interested in this song. It is a depiction of something that is normally behind closed doors. Unspoken. Shameful. And it is something that the two people involved would not be able to articulate to each other, except through the language of actual violence, actual tears.
Rhianna we know has suffered domestic violence herself. When she released Rude Boy , a couple of months ago, I wrote about how the media seemed to resent the fact she had recovered from that experience, enough to come back fighting and shaking her booty, and enjoying (hopefully?) a sex life, at least imagining and singing about one. Somebody, somewhere seems to find it in their interests to typecast Rihanna and women like her, as perpetual victims. She rejects this typecast, and I can only say power to her elbow, and her very sexy booty for that.
With this new release, it is the Feminists who seem to be struggling most with Love The Way You Lie, and the complex gendered messages it is sending out. In the Gender Across Borders Blog, a very detailed article featuring an exposition of the actual ‘cycle of violence’ in ‘abusive’ relationships, basically argues that this song is a realistic description of, and a promotion of, violence against women by men. The author quotes lines in the song such as Eminem singing:
‘Maybe that’s what happens when a tornado meets a volcano’
‘If she ever tries to fucking leave again/I’ma tie her to the bed/And set this house on fire’
Stirring stuff indeed. (And, I have to admit I felt a bit of a stirring in my knickers, imagining Eminem tying Rihanna to the bed and leaving her to burn. That is possibly the subject of another post).
But to be serious, should we take the words so literally? Even when critics of Eminem say his lyrics normalise violence, homophobia and hatred of women, they never rely simply on the lyrics themselves to prove their point. This GAB article is no exception as it puts the song in the context of the rapper’s well-publicised traumas as a boy and young man, his comments in interviews, and his tempestuous marriage. This brings us back to that old argument about art and life and where do they meet and does it matter on a moral and political level? Polanski, Nabokov, Easton Ellis, Orton, Plath, Capote, Haneke. They have all told disturbing stories that have some relation to their lived experience. No matter how imaginative an artist or writer is, they still only have what enters and leaves their own brain to work with.
The discussion on the GAB Blog was quite interesting, as I think a genuine Eminem fan stepped into the comments thread, and related his lyrics to a different context, the context of how they speak to his fans and their experiences. The commenter, ‘b’, says:
‘Its a beautifully accurate portrayal of a love-hate relationship and the dangers of it. But will it teach people to identify these relationships and step away. No, because as the record itself says, “It’s the rage that took over, it took control of both, so they say its best to go your separate ways, guess they dont know you, cause today, that was yesterday, yesterday is over”’
The fans are the ones who buy the records, go to the gigs and pin the posters on the walls. If music speaks to them, for whatever reason, I think it should be valued. The meanings of that link between artist and fan might not always be comfortable, as ‘b’s interpretation of the lyrics shows. But they are probably true. (I am a little haunted by that huge image of the man with the gun (a soldier?) at the gig. For the U.S. has been at war for a long time now, and this kind of iconography is probably just everyday stuff for most young Americans. And that can’t be placed at Eminem’s feet).
Then there is the ‘homophobia’ tag, added to feminist critiques of Eminem’s music. I can’t be sure, but sometimes when feminists cry ‘homophobia’ I think they are being a bit disingenuous. Because, especially when it comes to representations in popular culture, I don’t see feminism examining how men are portrayed or how they express themselves at all, except as way of identifying how they hate on women. Eminem is a male artist who has a massive following, who deals with complex issues of masculinity and identity, including in relation to women and feminine identities. But to wheel out the label ‘homophobia’ when really you want to make a point about his portrayal of gender violence, and how that relates to actual crimes by men against women, I think is a bit low. Mark Simpson has written more eloquently than I could, about some of the complexities of Eminem’s presentation of masculinity, in relation to other men. I would be interested to hear Mark’s interpretation of the emerging reactions to this song…
Returning to the feminists’ dislike for all things Eminem, this quote from the GAB blog post’s author, made in the comments thread is very telling. The writer refers to an interview with Rihanna:
‘She talked about how Eminem’s song “broke down the cycle of violence” in a way she found “clever.” She also refered to Eminem as an “artist of class,” and said she connected with the song and knew it would be a hit. What disturbs me is the last part of the quote: “It’s something that I understood and connected with, which made me think it was a hit, and I want to be part of a hit. I couldn’t say no to Eminem.” ‘
Of all the things I could find to critique in this article this quote I found the most disturbing. The author is taking a comment by Rihanna, about how much she wanted to work with Eminem, who she respects. And she frames it in such a way that we are encouraged to think Eminem has some kind of power of Rihanna, beyond his obvious pull as a commercially successful popstar. The writer is leading us to see their collaboration in the same terms as the ‘cycle of violence’ which they sing about. I think that is hateful.
Like I said, artists and writers only ever have what they experience (including in their heads) as their material, at some level or other. (This does make me wonder about the lives of Peter Jackson and JK Rowling, but again, that is for another day).
So I will end by admitting that part of my fascination with this pair, and the dynamic they sing about, stems from my own personal experience of violence in a relationship. The guy I rapped that particular duet with is not available for a reunion gig. But, having suffered something that did leave me feeling ashamed, and confused, and weak, I found Eminem and Rihanna’s rendition kind of cathartic, and, to use a favoured word of feminists, empowering.
I love to analyse popular culture. Because the popular is by definition, the most expressive of the people. The thing I respect most about Eminem and Rihanna, as can be seen in the comments sections of the posts I have shared here, is that their work always garners a response, an energy and a debate (however inarticulate at times), amongst the people who actually love their music.
Anything else, really, I’d say, is pretty academic.