Rude Boy/Rude Girl #2

Posted: August 4, 2010 in Eminem, Gender Violence, Rihanna

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. M 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.

  1. earwicga says:

    It’s that old chestnut again that says that people only learn from direct messages i.e. ‘don’t beat your partner’. But the power Eminem has is immense and if he chooses to sing about domestic violence and especially ask Rhianna to join him puts the subject matter way out in the public domain, which is essential! Has Eminem spoken about DV in any interviews etc.?

    ‘real violence is what happens when communication in a relationship has completely broken down.’

    Possibly. I would say that ‘real’violence is what happens when one person feels entitled to communicate in that way.

  2. Hi earwicga thanks for your comment. you make some very good points.

    This is my first draft of the piece, and so I am going to think about it, and your comments for a little while before responding. As it really brings up a lot of stuff.

    I’d love to interview Eminem myself! But I don’t think that is going to happen…

  3. earwicga says:

    I’ve just read the lyrics, and very bloody clever!

    It struck me how language about ‘falling in love’ often uses violent terminology – eg:

    ‘You ever love somebody so much
    You can barely breathe
    When you’re with them
    You meet
    And neither one of you
    Even know what hit ’em’

    I like the song a lot. But then perhaps it talks to me as a survivor of DV. I don’t know how it would talk to an abuser. I can see that it could be seen to excuse their behaviour.

  4. earwicga says:

    And never say never, the world works in strange ways. I’ve found myself agreeing with people this week that I thought I would never have common ground with (including sodding Cameron).

  5. arctic_jay says:

    The problem with Rhianna is that she has the tempermanet of a real artist and some of the good instincts, but not the vision or, it seems, the courage. Instead of fully confronting the contradictions she represents she just plays around with them which ends up frustrating feminists (not necessarily a bad thing), but it also reduces her to a female stereotype.

    The “domestic violence” analysis never rang true. She was being a bitch, they got into a fight, and then she lost, BIG TIME. That’s not domestic violence. Abusive partners, despite common belief, aren’t people who lose their cool and become violent. They know exactly what they’re doing. They purposefully create volatile situations and then punish their partners for breaking down in order to further assert their dominance. That wasn’t Rhianna’s and Chris Brown’s situation. Did he overreact? Of, course, but who cares? Men get into fights all the time where the little guy gets his ass kicked and no one gives a shit.

    Rhianna clearly is attracted to aggressive men, likes a little danger, and probably has a few s/m kinks. In other words, she’s sexually normal, but instead of being completely unapologetic about her drives, she’s allowing the media and her handlers create a victim persona for her.

  6. Hi a-jay.

    Your comment shows exactly why I am glad Rhianna has the balls to sing about her sexuality and violence in relationships.

    She opens up the conversation.

  7. as a post script on art and life, Nick Cave’s album The Boatman’s Call was full of quite disturbing imagery about PJ Harvey, and his (break up and) relationship with her. Some criticised him for writing it, and PJ herself didn’t seem that impressed by such a tribute.

    ‘Her glove of bones at her wrist
    That I have held in my hand
    Her Spanish fly and her monkey gland
    Her Godly body and its fourteen stations
    That I have embraced, her palpitations
    Her unborn baby crying, “Mummy”
    Amongst the rubble of her body’

    And I have been writing about the most deep and difficult relationship I have had, recently, and I feel guilty for that. I may not have identified my boy by name, but I have invoked him and he does not have any right of reply.

    It’s a very interesting subject for me. And it gets to me and my writing right at the nub. All that with a pop song, eh?

  8. earwicga says:

    arctic_jay – Your comment seems to phrase DV within one context only, a nice neat category, but that doesn’t fit with real life which is messy and cannot be contained within your description of an abuser.

    They know exactly what they’re doing.

    Do they? Some do, others are reacting to past experiences, to anger, to any number of motivators. Doesn’t mean it isn’t DV.

    Instead of fully confronting the contradictions she represents she just plays around with them

    I disagree with you again. The words she sings fully confront her experiences. If there were no context then it would be impossible to know this, but there is!

    Elly – you are writing about yourself in your own forum. There is no need for guilt. Ever.

  9. arctic_jay says:

    Nice, neat categories are the foundation of communicative language. Ambiguity and nuance are great for poetry and other forms of creative writing, but debate requires precision and clear delineation. Life my be messy, but how we observe and describe it doesn’t need to be, as the form of language doesn’t need to match it’s subject.

    You can use the term “domestic violence” to refer to any violence that occurs between romantic partners if you want, but for most people the term refers to abuse, violence that is attached to a pattern of conflict, where there is a consistence state of victimization. With Rhianna and Chris Brown, by most accounts, it was a fight that went too far. People fight all the time and we don’t call it abuse.

    I’m not a Rhianna fan, so I’m not intimately familiar with her entire oeuvre, but I’ve heard her hits and saw her post-beatdown interview. Her songs flirt with the idea of eroticized aggression but with standard pop titillation and simplification, I’ve never seen her address how her own desires not only muddy the ethics of violence, but give her autonomy beyond the victim persona draped around her by the media. I wouldn’t mind being wrong on this account.

  10. ‘Life my be messy, but how we observe and describe it doesn’t need to be, as the form of language doesn’t need to match it’s subject’.

    wow a-Jay. That’s pretty astute. I agree with you. But I also disagree at the same time. Maybe we need different forms of language for different kinds of descriptions and analyses. Thankfully language is much more versatile than we give it credit for. For every Einstein there is a James Joyce, every Bach, an Eminem. Every Plath, a Rhianna.

    I like to attempt both clarity and chaos in my use of language.

  11. also I think you are wrong a-jay.

    I agree with you that violence in relationships is complex. But I think that Rhianna does

    ‘address how her own desires not only muddy the ethics of violence, but give her autonomy beyond the victim persona draped around her by the media’

    and that is precisely why she is seen as a threat. And why I rate her.

  12. arctic_jay says:

    “Maybe we need different forms of language for different kinds of descriptions and analyses.”

    I allowed for that. I said ambiguous, connotation-laden (non-semantics use of term) language is good for describing the world in forms of creative writing. However, I’m confident in stating that when it comes to debate, we need more Aristotle than Ashley Simpson.

    “also I think you are wrong a-jay.”

    Meh. I think she could go a lot further, but I don’t really blame her. I actually can’t think of any artist who fully examines how our desires make us morally responsible for our problems. Madonna explores kinks, but without personal bloodletting. Courtney Love and Tori Amos expose their fucked-upedness with aplomb but often in vague metaphoric language. Eminem deals with violence in probably the clearest terms in popular music but always with the same guarded, smart-ass bravado. Maybe the problem is formal as pop lyrics can only withstand so much exegesis.

  13. ‘Maybe the problem is formal as pop lyrics can only withstand so much exegesis’

    maybe you are right, Jay.

  14. earwicga says:

    ‘I think she could go a lot further’

    Why should she? Because you want her to? Fuck that.

  15. arctic_jay says:

    You are a strong womon and you speak with righteous anger. I regret wielding words that wound.

    See you at the menstrual hut.

  16. earwicga says:

    Where is the anger? And where is the wound? A woman’s dismissal is interpreted by you as being wounded and showing anger artic_jay?

    You couldn’t make it up! Except I think you probably are.

  17. arctic_jay says:

    Your perceptiveness astounds.

  18. OK you two stop bickering! I really appreciate you commenting on this post it was a tough one for me to write. I won’t publish any more sarcastic/snarky comments, though. ..

  19. […] My BooksSpaceMark Simpson's Pitbull Speaks!Invisible Men: Tom Martin's LSE Gender Studies CaseRude Boy/Rude Girl #2L.U.V. […]

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