In Defense Of “S&M”: Rihanna, Pop’s Sudden Sexual Scapegoat

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Posted on 05/31/2011 at 11:54 AM

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The Popdust Files: rihanna, s&m

So there’s this song on the radio about sex. I know, right? Someone should do something about that one song. Your daughters are being seduced! Your sons can’t bounce their ears away! If only that one song were banished, all the world’s oversexualization would disappear with a flourish of whips and chains.

That will never happen. But if you’ve been reading the press lately, you’d be forgiven for thinking that one sex song is responsible for all this: “S&M” by Rihanna. It’s not only attracted professional TV protesters the Parents Television Council and music-video censors punting the video’s airtime to late nights, but it’s the target of every pop pundit with a point about sex, music or women. The latest? Richard Russell, founder of Adele’s label XL Recordings. He’s told the British press at length this week that when female artists use “faux porn” imagery, it makes him queasy. But when Artists like Adele come along with their purity and their unadulterated pipes, there’s no more queasiness! Convenient how that works for Russell.

In most articles we’ve seen, Russell isn’t cited as naming any names outside the collective “top 10 hits from female artists.” But others have. The Guardian did. The Daily Mail did (for non-Brits, that’s barely a step above a tabloid, but still.) They’ve all got a variation on the same paragraph, calling out recent songs that fit Russell’s copulatory criteria. Well, recent song: there’s usually only one, and it’s almost always “S&M.” Conveniently for them, this also lets them intersperse their stories with apparently no longer queasy-making photos of Britney and Rihanna kissing at the Billboard Music Awards.

And we thought Trey Songz invented sex. Why should Rihanna be the sudden scapegoat for all things fornication? Of course, people have presented their reasons. Here are a few, with our comments:

It’s about sex! Totally, totally about sex! SEX!

We’ll concede to you one point: “S&M” is totally about sex. Even if Rihanna wants to play coy about it, come on. “S&M” gets right to its point with no metaphor play.

But it should go without saying that Rihanna’s hardly alone. Let us jog your memory: “I’ll meet a real nice girl, have some real nice sex.” “Tonight, I’m fucking you.” “Get you off with a touch, dancing in the dark.” “What’s next? Alien sex!”

Don’t think only pop and R&B get faux-porny, either; sex can be found even in the rawkiest of the rock. You can go back as far as you want–back to ’70s cock-rock, further back to Elvis and his pelvis, further still to the blues and bawdier folk music–but since we’re talking recent pop history, let’s go for one of the anointed Saviors of Rock that got Top 40 airplay: Kings of Leon. You know, the band that put “YOUR SEX IS ON FIRE” on the radio while yarling the praises of road head. Chains and whips might excite you, but unless you’re really inventive and outside the bedroom, they’re not going to make you drive off a cliff.

It’s kinky!

Not many people really make this argument; when people criticize Rihanna’s still-sorta-vanilla “whips and chains” lyric, they’re criticizing sex in general, not the kind of sex.

Nevertheless, Rihanna’s still not alone. Remember Britney Spears’s “3,” about a specific act that’d get Andy Samberg and Justin Timberlake‘s retroactive approval? And speaking of Timberlake, “SexyBack” contained the couplet “You see these shackles baby, I’m your slave / I’ll let you whip me if I misbehave,” and nary a hackle was raised.

The video was really, really over the top!

Not really, no. This is where Rihanna kind of has a point: kinky implements aside, there’s remarkably little in the way of sex or nudity in there, certainly no more than any arbitrarily chosen music video recorded in the past decade.

To compare, let’s look at an older video that–well, that actually wasn’t over the top either, but is still practically pornographic compared to Rihanna’s: the much-banned, much-panicked about video for Madonna’s “Justify My Love.” (No YouTube age wall, but NSFW.) It’s got one major thing Rihanna’s video doesn’t: actual, lengthy simulated sex. And without all the quick cuts, you see more action. So forgive us for asking more from our controversial sin clips than a paparazzo in police tape.

“S&M” is everywhere, so of course it’s the sexual standard-bearer!

There was indeed a point, not far behind us, where “S&M” was everywhere. No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Played on every radio station with various degrees of censorship–for a little road-trip game, see which stations mute “sex” and which don’t. But in 2011 alone, it’s been joined by chart-toppers “Hold It Against Me,” an extended sex pun and “E.T.,” of the “alien sex” line. Either one of these would make a fine sexual scapegoat. And that’s assuming the No. 1 single is all anyone ever hears, which brings us back to point one. There’s really no argument to be made that Rihanna’s any more inescapable than the other pop stars in her tier.

“S&M” is a uniquely horrible song, so no wonder it’s singled out.

This is just schadenfreude, and weirdly placed at that. For all its S-S-S-and-M-M-M, Rihanna’s single is basically “Disturbia” with the synths thrust out front.

You could pull out the usual arguments about pop music, but none of them hold up that well here. Autotune? Rihanna’s vocals are stronger than the norm, and there’s only so much you can fake. You won’t hear T-Pain, for instance, attack a chorus like this. Synthesizeritis? You’ve got thousands of songs to criticize too. Lyrics? OK, they’re not top-shelf erotica, but neither is anything else. There’s nothing about “S&M” that’s truly outstanding. Which is the single’s problem, if you think it has a problem, but hardly suited to outrage.

Anything Chris Brown.

This is possibly the worst of the lot, and the one most commenters know to dance around. Of course “S&M” is the big controversial song, and of course Rihanna’s the artist to deliver it. As the argument goes, “S&M” must be the result of Rihanna either being traumatized or acting out, so no wonder it’s the song everyone blames. Never mind that S&M and abuse are two different things, or that Rihanna’s more qualified to address her sexuality than anyone who is not Rihanna, or that blaming Rihanna is kind of sketchy in this context. For this argument to work, you’ve got to think sex is completely separate from anything else, something only certain people are allowed to think or sing about.

And that’s a big distinction to make. Sex is just one topic in pop, and “S&M” is just one song about it. Listening to Rihanna won’t stop you from listening to Adele. And they’re not so different; Adele’s music is hardly chaste and may well get more explicit in the future, and Rihanna’s done her share of big, “Rolling in the Deep”-esque ballads like “Russian Roulette“. There’s no reason to make Rihanna the scapegoat for all of the music world’s sexualization, because it never needed a scapegoat in the first place.

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