Britney Spears and Rihanna’s careers have diverged since “S&M” tied the two together, but their latest videos, “We Found Love” and “Criminal,” are awfully similar. Both songs are middling–Spears’ “Criminal” is a trifle, neither as immediate as her other singles nor as sonically inventive as Femme Fatale‘s album tracks, and “We Found Love” is a lot of empty noise by Calvin Harris with emptier lyrics that doesn’t bounce enough to distract you from Rihanna’s foregoing time to grow between albums. Their videos debuted only a few days apart. Both were filmed in or near the U.K., upsetting politicians and farmers therein. Both are racy; both contain one or both of violence and crime. Both feature bad boys and their bad schemes. Both unabashedly evoke the artists’ personal lives, and both are the more effective for it.
Spears’ video is the subtler of the two. After her increasingly blank press appearances, and the tendency among writers and spectators to call her every smile plastered on or conservator-mandated, it’s hard not to hear the video’s first line, “Would you try smiling just once,” as a subtle dig at the press. That the line’s delivered by Spears’ twit of a date, who spends his time in the video either being abusive, being a cad or trying to bro-bond with the partygoer guys over the former two, only makes it sting more. When “Criminal” becomes genuinely uncomfortable to watch as Spears is dragged from abuse scene to abuse scene, enter real-life beau Jason Trawick playing the titular criminal and punching the dude out of the video. There are two ways to view what transpires next, each contradicting the other. You could say Trawick lures Spears into his lurid life, the burly guy to her girly self who “saves” her only insofar as he swaps ballrooms for bullets and a slightly different kind of bastard. But then again, she’s the one who kisses him first (he only makes overtures), and she’s the first to pull a gun. The song won’t help you choose an interpretation–”I’m in love with a criminal” tells you only that, and the music’s too static to evoke much of anything. How you see “Criminal” depends on how you see Spears’ personal and love life, and more importantly, how active a role you imagine–or want to imagine–she plays in it.
The same question is asked in Rihanna’s “We Found Love,” mostly of her own doing. There’s model/love interest Dudley O’Shaughnessy, handpicked by Rihanna. There are two explanations: if you believe unsourced rumors, it’s so they could furtively date (apparently model dudes, crop tops and fields combine in only one way), but if you believe the video, it’s because he looks like Chris Brown when his hair’s dyed Sisqo blond. The resemblance is provocative, as is the voice-over: “It’s like screaming, but no one can hear. You almost feel ashamed that someone could be that important, that without them, you feel like nothing. No one will ever understand how much it hurts. You feel hopeless, like nothing can save you. And when it’s over, when it’s gone, you almost wish that you could have all that bad stuff back so you could have the good.” What follows is a whir of scenes: Requiem for a Dream pill showers, dilating eyeballs and camera reeling, fireworks and fire and mushroom clouds, makeouts in cheap restaurants and pharmacies and apartments shot to look so dingy and uninviting the only attraction to be found would have to come from a partner. Eventually, it turns darker, with scenes of Rihanna sinking into a bathtub like she’s in Spears’ “Everytime,” her partner kissing her with the same rhythm of knife jabs and–the most disturbing part thanks to Rihanna’s personal history–a fight in a car. It makes “We Found Love,” the most celebratory of Rihanna’s singles in a while, sound too celebratory; “we found love in a hopeless place” doesn’t sound like a triumph but a consolation. The video, improbably, makes empty words like “yellow diamonds in the light” and “love and life I will divide” sound meaningful, but it wouldn’t have happened had Rihanna’s personal life not been a decoder.
Spears and Rihanna aren’t alone in drawing from their personal lives for music videos. It’s a trope as old as iconic videos; just this single cycle, Kelly Clarkson rips through a wall of bad press and pooh-poohs the pop blogs in “Mr. Know It All,” Beyonce’s baby-to-be is the star meme of “Countdown,” and Lady Gaga mythologized her fling with serial Nebraska partier Luc Carl into a cornhusk-and-mermaid fairy tale. They’re different, though–the tension is missing. Clarkson’s bad press and leaks might have hurt her, but in interviews, she comes off as completely resilient. Beyonce’s marriage to Jay-Z, from all outward appearances, is the most solid in music. And of all the things Lady Gaga can be accused of, passivity is probably the last. Watching their videos with their personal lives in mind might make you more interested, but it won’t make you uncomfortable.
The same can’t be said for Spears or Rihanna. The former’s romantic history might as well be studded with asterisks to point out iffy partners and bad decisions, and the latter’s history with Brown is continually rehashed both by Brown’s music–even tracks like “Look At Me Now” seem as implicit in their response as direct apologies like “Changed Man”–and by the muted-to-flaring disapproval whenever Rihanna mentions sex or acknowledges Brown on Twitter. It doesn’t matter whether Spears or Rihanna have themselves moved on, because the discussion around them hasn’t. Anything Spears releases is automatically filtered through how much say she has in it; every other Rihanna song gets pulled into the Chris Brown storyline.
This remaining tension is what makes “Criminal” and “We Found Love” so effective. The intimate scenes almost seem too intimate, but it’s not because of how much skin is shown or where the camera lingers. Casting love interests who either resemble their partners or are them adds almost voyeuristic context; when the affairs turn seedy, those parallels only become more pronounced. You’re already watching for personal allusions just by dint of Spears and Rihanna performing; what makes these videos work is how they acknowledge this and wring the drama out themselves, on their own terms. Neither artist, nor their representatives, has said much about the parallels; Spears’ commentary on the video is as terse and usual, and Rihanna and “We Found Love” director Melina Matsoukas have mostly talked around any Brown comparisons. They don’t have to; their videos are more effective statements than anything they could reveal in an interview. Instead of ignoring the rumors viewers will bring to their videos, they redirect them, filling out the story and making initially unpromising singles the most compelling things either artist has released in months.