First, let's cover the obvious: Rihanna is a badass. Since hitting the scene in 2005, the reggae-revival ingenue has reinvented her own sound and the implications of modern pop almost as many times as she has reinvented her hairstyle (approximately 1 gazillion). The 19-year-old who sang about umbrellas is now 23, and though we still can't get that song out of our heads -- ella, ella, ella -- many of us seem ready to abandon her as she nears the period of her career when the music comes with some, well, statements. The release of her latest music video, the visually arresting "Man Down," seems to have sent many press panties straight into a bunch because Rihanna shoots a man in the opening, a scene many are using to call for the video being banned from the airwaves.
But before we judge the dance diva too harshly, let's weigh the following evidence:
1. The song is a cover. This, for those who don't know, means that it has been sung before, and though nobody created a miniature and occasionally violent movie for it, the lyrics still repeated the phrase, "I just shot a man down." The violence is not new. Rihanna did not shoot the sheriff or even the deputy: She shot a man who attacked her.
2. The video reeks of personal experience. A weighty number of her online critics cite Rihanna's gender, the fact that she is a woman, in the argument against the video's violent content. What will our children think? If even women start attacking people in music videos, where will it all end? While I don't have an answer to either of those misinformed questions, it's important to point out that Rihanna's character's premeditated vengeance is directed at a man who physically attacked her. Two years ago, Rihanna herself faced domestic violence, and though it took her a while to speak publicly about the situation, it has taken her even longer to channel it in music and onscreen. Sure, this is a topic we don't expect from our pop princesses: Britney doesn't pull a Kill Bill in any of her music videos, but would we really want her to? We've come a long way since "... Baby One More Time."
3. She's sorry. The Rihanna in the video is racked with guilt even as she pulls the trigger, and while we're not suggesting it's ever OK to kill someone, the images onscreen are significantly less cold-blooded than the stereotype accompanying most R&B videos. The first lines of the song are, "I didn't mean to end his life / I know it wasn't right / I can't sleep at night." These are the lines that play after she shoots the man, as she stares blankly out a window with fluttering curtains -- the surest symbol of guilt the music video industry has got. The lyrics don't condone violence; they condemn it. The only problem is that the issue is circular.
4. And then there's this. Although we're fans of both artists, A to Z can't ignore the fact that Tyler, the Creator's is pretty much the creepiest allusion to violence we've seen since the trailer for the new Twilight movie. The 5-minute video finds him breaking into a woman's home, sniffing her underwear and lurking behind her in a mask, three activities he hasn't been accused of spreading to the masses like Rihanna has of violence. If we're looking for musical scapegoats for society's issues, why would we start with Rihanna?