If anyone was going to make a grotesque revenge porn music video, it was going to be Rihanna. I mean, the others could try, but are you really going to buy Taylor Swift or Beyoncé hacking a man who betrayed them to death? There’s no one else you’d really believe as getting their hands quite so dirty, letting blood drip down their calves as they stagger out of a crime scene in their birthday suit and heels. But Rihanna’s got an air about her that makes you feel like just about anything is possible—even gruesome, bloody, human butchery. Which is exactly what she gets into in the glorious video for track “Bitch Better Have My Money.” Which she directed, FYI.
The best thing about “BBHMM” is that it sounds like a Lil Wayne song, only it’s not annoying and shit, because Rihanna’s singing it. What I mean is: “BBHMM” is the kind of song a man releases. Rihanna gets a tough rap most of the time as she “allegedly” or “notoriously” doesn’t write her own music (although she’s savvy enough to claim co-writing credits where she can), but Rihanna is occupying a very unique space in the pop music market. Rihanna, when her career went stratospheric with “Umbrella,” her music was largely a throwback to the manufactured pop icons of the late 90s like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, and she’s mostly remained in that subset of female artists who lack the immediate control of their careers unlike the aforementioned Beyoncé or Swift.
Rihanna’s genius is that she’s managed, in a climate when female performers are viciously wresting control from the music industry’s estranged patriarchy, to thrive regardless. She’s used the system in her favor, and she’s languishing in it. So much so that’s she’s earned her right to completely upend that system, and much like Britney before her, she’s actually pioneering. When Britney released “… Baby One More Time” it was intended to be sung by a man (five men, in fact, The Backstreet Boys), but she made it a hit, and we shifted our perception of the type of music women were invited to perform in the pop genre. “BBHMM” sounds the same to me. It’s Rihanna taking a pop/hip-hop track we’d traditionally associate with the masculine, and chewing it to bits. It helps that the song was written by a woman too (not Rih, obvs).
Rihanna’s making money for her machine, but she doesn’t want you to forget exactly whose money that really is. She is, of course, the first artist in history to surpass 100 million Gold & Platinum song certifications. Which makes her very, very valuable. And she does it all while looking like she just stepped out of the Patricia Field 2002 Hall Of Fame, meaning that Rihanna is one of those rare women who makes ugly beautiful, and more importantly is able to commodify what would, on anyone else, look completely insane. And in “BBHMM” it’s not just the bricolage of everything-that-were-trying-to-forget-about-the-early-00s outfits that she’s pulling off. She’s pulling off kidnapping an Amazonian blonde in a suitcase, moving said human-stuffed suitcase with super-villain strength, all the while trying to extort the money she’s owed out of her cheating accountant all while joy riding with her girlfriends.
Obviously, people are upset about this. Because if it happened, it’s worthy of contempt, right? Especially if it happened while Rihanna was exposing her breasts, because for some reason when Chrissy Tiegen lets her boob flop out on Instagram it’s empowering and brave but when Rihanna does it it’s scandalous counter-cultural terrorism. Rihanna, bless her cotton socks, has always been a strong proponent of nudity. She was banned from Instagram for being too nude. She’s stood on red carpets with nothing but the very bare (pun!) minimum of her bikini areas covered to avoid being labelled a sex offender. She did the “Pour It Up” video. For a performer like Rihanna, nudity has become a sort of burlesque: it’s powerful. But in the “BBHMM” video, nudity is first portrayed as a vulnerability. The kidnapped blonde woman, swinging upside down from the rafters, is a topless fish primed for gutting. I’m not sure if Director Rihanna’s decision to have her topless was intentional or not, but it reads as a commentary on the way women’s bodies and their social dignity are intertwined. A dressed and bound woman would have been a simple kidnapping victim; a naked one is not only helpless, but reduced to an abject sexuality, literally stripping her of her persona. In Rihanna’s world, nudity giveth, and nudity taketh away.
There’s this fabulous Weekend At Bernie’s moment in the video that’s beautifully self aware, but also completely indulgent of Rihanna’s rag-tag group of girlfriends. There’s definitely been a huge surge in women in pop music playing homage to other women, and Rihanna’s been something of an outlier in the girl power worlds being built around Taylor Swift, Madonna, Beyoncé, and Nicki Minaj. But Rih has always had her posse, dragging her childhood friends around with her from exotic location to exotic location and quietly documenting it all on Instagram. Rihanna is the OG galfrand and yet she’s never really gotten recognition for it, probably because she’s never asked for it (Madonna), or ever given herself a self-congratulatory pat on the back for having a crew of female friends (Taylor Swift). The friendship subplot in “BBHMM” reminds me of Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ‘Em Up Style,” when Blu grabs “Soley and Mia” before heading off to her revenge shopping spree. Except that in “BBHMM” revenge involves a coldly calculated kidnapping, some torture, and ends in a pile of sawed off limbs.
Rihanna’s got a lot to be angry about when it comes to men, making it no real surprise that her surrounding herself with women is a very genuine, deliberate pursuit. Her career, for better or worse, was built by men (her being the non-biological progeny of Jay Z) already well established in the industry. She’s no doubt had to pander to them, and I always recall this one episode of My Super Sweet 16 when she was forced to go to a record executive's son’s birthday as the kids date, and was treated like faulty property by the little dipshit. And I hate to identify her by the terrible incident with Chris Brown, but it’s almost impossible to talk about Rihanna doing Tarantino-style revenge porn and ignoring that her ex beat her half to death. Speaking of Tarantino, there’s even a Pulp Fiction homage-paying montage of Rih fingering her weapons (one is even a chainsaw!) before finally choosing her implement of destruction. Each weapon is labeled with a masculine indiscretion: “Took what wasn’t his,” “deadbeat dad,” and “cheater.” Subtle this is not.
And while people applauded Bruce Willis for his sword wielding violence, for some puritanical reason that is beyond my immediate grasp, people are furious about Rihanna butchering her foe in this music video. There’s the notion, of course, that she’s glorifying sexual humiliation (in the naked kidnapped woman, discussed above), and murder. I would argue that the allegorical implications of the video run much deeper than that, and to assume the video was intended simply as a glamor piece is giving Rihanna far too little credit. And isn’t giving her far too little credit its own kind of sexual humiliation? Isn’t that saying that because Rihanna is shamelessly sexual, we can’t, shouldn’t, would be remiss to read into her narrative as anything other than a skin deep, superficial vanity? By playing into the trap whereby we demonize Rihanna we diminish the ability of a woman to use her art to analogize her feelings. And I believe that the “BBHMM” video is a Rihanna-told fable of retribution. Having been at the mercy of pop-culture sanctioned abuse for so long, Rihanna is bold and capable enough to use her visual medium as an outlet to fight back. It’s her The Bride moment, and we should let her have it, because she’s a woman who’s been tossed in the hot cycle through no fault of her own and she’s entitled to be mad as hell about it.
It turns out, there are many ways for men to hurt and control women, which is the unforgiving truth of the world Rihanna’s living in, but she seems earnestly unwilling to take it lying down. It’s important to note that the video ends with Rihanna buck naked and covered in the man’s, the titular “bitch,” blood, as further evidence of her fraught relationship to sex and skin. Sure, the naked woman before her in the video was tied up like a butcher's hog, tortured shamed, but that torture and shame was a nothing but a conduit for the way Rihanna herself has been treated. But for all the indignities that can be inflicted on a naked woman, Rihanna is most powerful when she’s embracing hers. She’s got nothing to hide, not even the sacrament of those whose heads she’s out for. Her nudity at the end of the video is a very real, very pointed middle finger to anyone—especially any man—who has ever reduced her or made her “less than” because she’s rocked out with her tits out. Rihanna’s school of feminism is salmoning against the other women dominating pop, but making progress nonetheless. She doesn’t seem interested in changing the status quo, but rather in conceding the existence of a certain power structure (of which she’s been a victim and a benefactor), and manipulating it to her advantage. By now Rihanna is well acquainted with how gender politics in her industry work, and she’s playing the system from deep inside it, completely without shame. After all, in the end, she gets her money. And isn’t that exactly where power comes from, anyway?
Kat George is on Twitter.