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Rihanna's 'Russian Roulette' is loaded -- but what does it say?

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For much of her career, Rihanna was seen as being not entirely herself. From her high-profile signing during Jay-Z’s Def Jam tenure to her steely, minimalist presence on blustery tracks by the-Dream and Tricky and Ne-Yo, Rihanna’s most successful setting in pop has been somewhere between mystery and machine, giving little of her personality yet simultaneously commanding our interest in her. The most famous hook of her most successful song, “Umbrella,” was her repetition of a nonsense fraction of a word, with which she invites a lover to join her in not feeling the rain around them.

That aesthetic was complemented by her often noirish, sci-fi inspired visuals, in which her inherent sex appeal was charged with distance and the sense that some other force was directing her movements. By giving us so little of herself, Rihanna’s songs let us fill the gaps by imagining her intentions, and that approach resulted in many excellent, unnerving singles.

Her new slow-burn of a song “Russian Roulette,” written by Ne-Yo, is akin to the sleek, paranoid club pop of “Disturbia” and Kanye West’s last album. In any other year, it would be a noteworthy but not unexpected continuation of many of her favorite themes -- claustrophobia, psychological tumult, the sense of having lost control. But this song is the first from her since her much-publicized February fight with then-boyfriend Chris Brown, which she's set to discuss on "Good Morning America" tomorrow. For better or worse, any new music from her will be seen in that evening's long, sad shadow.

If Rihanna’s career has been about noir, “Russian Roulette” is the moment in the novel where someone finally pulls a gun from a trench coat and changes everything. Lyrics like “I’m terrified but I’m not leaving / I know that I must pass this test” and “It’s too late to pick up the value of my life” pointedly allude to that event and a very bleak set of emotions accompanying it. Yet Rihanna purposefully avoids any hard statements about how (or if) the song relates to what she knows we’re all thinking. For music fans more accustomed to the upbeat revenge ballads of the Dixie Chicks or the stay-strong resilience of Mary J. Blige, Rihanna’s choice of metaphor in this song -- that she’s powerless before fate in a game of roulette for her life -- will come as a shock and, understandably, perhaps a disappointment to fans hoping for something more reassuring.

Yet there are so many reads to this strange, oblique song that you can’t just walk away from it with a perfunctory sadness or tsk-tsking that she should set a better example. Is there any power in Rihanna’s choosing, of her own volition, to play this violent game of chance? Is she talking about her career -- that the correct next move for her feels entirely unknowable after a night like that? Is this just a well-timed dramatic sliver of the many complicated emotions surrounding her assault, one that could make other victims feel heartened that they aren’t alone in such contradictory thoughts?

True to form, Rihanna leaves all these possibilities open, refusing to point us to any one of them. For most of her career, this has been an evocative, rewarding artistic path. Rihanna is an artist who thrives on misdirection, but given the incredibly high profile nature of the incident with Brown and the widespread speculation about the details of their relationship, one wonders if her typically removed way of writing about difficult feelings is the most effective approach here.

One place to start looking for clues is in the long, complex history of songs sung by women about being the victims of domestic violence. I’m in no way trying to sum up the whole history of this topic here, but a few famous examples do stand out. The most immediate parallel might be the Crystals’ “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss),” written by the husband-and-wife team Carole King and Gerry Goffin about the Crystals’ Little Eva’s own experience with abuse, and her sense that her man did it out of love for her. Like “Roulette,” this is a song about domestic violence sung by a woman, yet with lyrics written by a man -- but they are very different artifacts. King and Goffin’s song is an outspoken pop document of private pain, while “Roulette” is an inscrutable tune alluding to one of the most talked-about moments in pop culture this year. Neither Little Eva nor Rihanna is known for original songwriting contributions, but it is striking that they would trust a man -- even a longtime collaborator – to put words to situations so strongly charged with gender power dynamics. Whether that’s just a reflection of their longstanding writing processes or a conscious decision is impossible to know.

The tradition of this topic in jazz and blues dates back decades and decades as well. But there seems to be an expectation of a certain kind of optimism in pop music that doesn’t necessarily exist for those genres, and that changes the timbre of how the subject of abuse is received. When Bessie Smith or Ma Rainey sing about domestic violence, they're working in a genre that has a claim to more hard-bitten authenticity, and somehow it seems to better prepare the listener for what’s coming. When a similar song comes from a beautiful, wealthy, pointedly commercial pop artist, there’s a differing set of expectations that make a song like the Crystals tune – and Rihanna’s – more upsetting. When Courtney Love covered “He Hit Me,” she had the same dynamic working for her -- her public image of being dangerous, volatile and often at the cusp of stability helped her make her version of “He Hit Me” one of the Hole’s most recognizable songs, while the original flopped on the charts.

There are race and class dynamics working as well in our reaction to and expectations of songs about abuse. It’s especially charged when seen in light of the new film “Precious,” which has been alternately lauded and slammed for its unsparing – some might say fetishizing – portrait of African American female urban misery. I obviously can’t make any claims to speak to the complexity of that experience, and won’t attempt to here, but it’s fascinating to see how these ideas play out in different genres. In contemporary country music, there’s a wide streak of the “avenging angel” in many of its songs about emotional or domestic abuse — see the Dixie Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl,” Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats,” Martina McBride’s “Independence Day” and even a very young Taylor Swift’s warning to boys that if they do her wrong, she will write chart-topping albums about them. These are spitfire blond women setting cars on fire and murdering people in their songs.

Outside of Jazmine Sullivan’s fantastic “Bust Your Windows,” there seems to be an unspoken assumption in contemporary R&B that women of color, if they’re going to sing about abuse, need to do it in an uplifting, redemptive way or in a more easygoing kiss-off fashion to have the public buy it. Maybe that was a necessary and positive turn to correct hurtful stereotypes of women of color as helpless abuse victims, but it makes a song like Rihanna’s much more uncomfortable. Her story in this song ends with a gunshot, which is deeply unsettling in light of the fact that we know real violence took place.

This is all compounded, again, by how little Rihanna offers us here in the way of clues to decode the song. All the subtext in “Roulette” is inserted by the listener, and that seems entirely purposeful from her and Ne-Yo. While that’s a fascinating device, I’m not sure it does justice to the severity of what a listener naturally will take away from the song. Rihanna is exploring some of the most fraught psychological terrain in human relationships, but she intentionally pulls back whenever any detail threatens to get specific. The silvery detachment of the music – distant reverbs, ephemeral voices -- only adds to the effect. “Roulette” is a song about feeling depersonalized, but it doesn’t offer much forward momentum in exploring that feeling — it just is depersonalized.

Maybe that’s only one sentiment that the rest of her upcoming album, “Rated R,” will further shade in. Many fans were hoping for a big She’s Over Him blast of a single, and she didn’t give us one. That doesn’t mean one isn’t coming later, however, and her new video “Wait Your Turn” offers more hints -- the eye patch she's wearing suggests she’s been harmed but has embraced that scarred quality, and when accompanied by lyrics like “there’s so much power in my name" may mean she too is out for blood. Her recent interview in Glamour and her appearance on "Good Morning America" may offer more hints into her intent. "I want to give as much insight as I can to young women ... to help speak for them," she told the magazine. If that's so, however, then why is her first single so deliberately stylized toward internalizing pain? It's hard to tell right now.

But what if, hypothetically, “Roulette” is really, truly, how Rihanna feels about herself, her self-worth and what she wants out of her relationships? No one questions the difficulty of what she’s going through, nor her instinct to trawl the darkest corners of her psyche and public profile for material. By acknowledging these self-destructive feelings, she could help other victims know they aren’t isolated in such thoughts. The best art engenders empathy among its audience, and even the bleakest songs about abuse can work toward those ends. But other such close reads of "Roulette" have to compete with a much bigger and emotionally powerful explanation of the song. It’s tough to see many fans walking away from this reserved and demanding single – filled in by events in Rihanna’s public profile — without an image of abuse that suggests it’s a reflection on your worth as a woman.

Rihanna doesn’t owe us anything, of course, and is entirely entitled to sing about her abuse and emotions about it any way she pleases, even if (especially if?) it makes us deeply uncomfortable. There are many directions on the moral compass that get us to a better understanding of the human heart, and sometimes the best art sets the worst examples. But one wonders if, by sticking to what she has done best – using images suggesting she’s at the mercy of others -- Rihanna made the most of a truly unique opportunity to show us something more of herself.

-- August Brown

RELATED:

Rihanna reveals new single, 'Russian Roulette'

 
Comments () | Archives (21)

Wow, I haven't seen such overwrought analysis since my UCLA musicology classes.

You think Rihanna has any clue who Bessie Smith is, nevermind whether or not she's carrying on her legacy?

Any sentiment in her music is hollow sensationalism manufactured to sell records. If she were interested in exploring gender relations, domestic violence or any other "psychological terrain," she wouldn't pose for the album cover with a come-f-me stare and her boobs popping out all over the place.

You give this song way too much credit.

"since her much-publicized February fight with then-boyfriend Chris Brown" August Brown please explain to me how what happen in February was a fight. Are you that clueless?

Are you for real?
All this ink spent on somebody else's song, somebody who could maybe actually SING for real and maybe even WRITE their own songs?
Too daring?
Rihanna doesn't write her songs.
These guesses at this really bad song (sounds like something Shirley Manson from Garbage would have thrown away in 1998, for being just too retarded even for a drunk audience...) are absurd.
Rihanna is no artist. She sings what will sell her "new image" and capitalize on the scandal she went into. FOR HER OWN FAULT.
She went back to that animal multiple times.
She would have again if those pics wouldn't have revealed her for the idiot she is. I'm sure she could meet him again in secret. All her words are always lies. She denied the affair even the week before she got beaten up for Grammies. Pathetic.
Role model?
Female fierce?
No way.
She's a sad, untalented chick whose only quality is being beautiful.
There is nothing else in her beside that pretty surface. And she is dressing that like a ho, so it's starting to not be even that pretty again.
Get back for once talking about music, real musicians, real singers, and art in general.
Rihanna belongs to NONE of those fields.
I long for the day when her 15 minutes of very undeserved celebrity will wash away.
Give room to people actually able to sing, to dance or to be a real human being, stripper of high level.

I just wanna thank Rihanna for her interview. Good job riri.

Check out Rihannas interview at
http://playzit.blogspot.com/2009/11/rihanna-speaks-out-interview-with-good.html

It's true, she didn't write this song. Ne-Yo wrote it. Why don't female pop stars write their own songs?

Is August Brown a man? Strike that a woman may have been worse and pretend to be more clueless. I didn't even bother to finish the entire piece ttytt. Rhianna is not required to point you to your interpretation. Sigh...the 21st century. Internet tells you how to think even if veiled in lies, hyperbole and cruelty affectionately called snark so the blogger can sit home and live off of surfers hitting the page. American Idol has the performers do "genres" every week and after it's over the public is clueless about why the performers aren't in their favorite "genre". No concept of the real purpose of MUSIC. Although this is quite more serious, same thread. People cannot think for themselves or interpret complexity. If it's not rap with the in your face clear cut point of view, or some crap about butterflies, or some girl who's mad at the cheating man, Boobus Americanus is rendered "confused". No hook? Oh it's a crappy song. God forbid you ever had to read philosophy or complex poetry. Anyway, Rhianna is a child herself. Raised in freaking Barbados not the streets of LA, Chi or Philly. She is not your role model, mentor, feminist leader or bumper sticker. She's a kid who got the crap kicked out of her and trying to make sense of herself and how to live the "embarrassment" publicly while contributing to conveying by her actions how hard it is to be a girl. And boy for that matter. People need to cut her a break. GO Rhianna, make millions and get out. I'm so sorry you lost your youth one night trapped in a car...like so many millions of other women. The moms watching you understand and offer you open arms.

August,
You are quite an impressive writer. I might have to become a fan. In your article, you introduce many to the varied dimensions and potential perspectives of Rihanna's 'Russian Roulette,' but I do not agree that there is a 'mercy of others' mentality at all. When you think of the literal game, it is not played at the force of others (certainly there is a pressure element), but you choose to pull the trigger and 'play,' despite the potential consequences. I believe that the song can most logically be correlated to domestic violence, as individuals will often return to their violent partners never knowing if the next episode will be their last. The thrill of Russian Roulette is symbolic of the indescribable emotions of tumultuous love, and in the song these feelings are described as chilling ('take a breath, take it deep, calm yourself') and exhilarating ('you can see [my heart beating] through my chest') yet (at least somewhat) desirable ('but I'm not leaving; know that I must pass this test'). When you play Russian Roulette and when you stay with an abusive lover, you know that there are life-threatening risks at every turn, so though it is your choice whether or not to continue, ‘if you play...you play for keeps.’

P.S. I thought August was female, like other names derived from elements of seasons and nature (i.e. Summer, April, Autumn, June, etc.), so you can imagine my surprise upon learning you are actually male.

Yes, the author is indeed a good writer. As stated above, this was over-written and over analysed. Rihanna is a product to be sold, and the way she presents herself lends one to come to no other conclusion. The author of this song definitely had the Chris Brown smack down in mind when he wrote the song... however, this should not be misinterpreted (as August does), as some mystical transcendence and self-discovery by Rihanna.

Should she become an activist against domestic violence and the way the media portrays women, then we would have reason to believe she has more depth than the the album cover she appears on.

I suggest you consider tempering your writing talent... actually critique someone noteworthy.

Nice comparison to the Crystals tune. Very true. Just one thing, Little Eva wasn't a member of the Crystals. Goffin and King wrote the song, supposedly, about Little Eva and a relationship she was in, but the Crystals and La La Brooks, I believe, performed it. And the reason it flopped on the charts was because Phil Spector (who produced He Hit Me. I think that's an interesting tidbit to add to the article) and the label decided it was too controversial of a single choice for the early 60s, so they yanked it from the airwaves and music stores shortly after its release.

Here's fresh meat for the haters:

When I first heard the song I thought immediately: James Bond movie opening credits song. It would be perfect. Just the right pacing and imagery for some smokey silhouettes of guns and people.

Please resume your hate-fest. You can now merge in your hatred of James Bond movies with your hatred of Rihanna.

And yeah, a bit over-analytical on the review.

- Bill in Spring

Why should Rihanna do anything but be an artist? That is her job. Yes she was abused publicly, but that doesn't mean she should become the face of domestic violence. Mary J B didn't become the voice of sexual assault. Tina Turner didn't become the face of domestic violence, neither did Halle Berry.

A lot of you girls have a lot of hateful and spiteful things to say about someone getting brutally beaten. Maybe you need to address YOURSELF as harshly as you talk about Rihanna.

Well i love that song its so deep and real somethin most people are scaried to talk about . als it takes time to get over sombody let her be gosh people. She is still making really good music for everybody SO GET OVER AND ENJOY WHAT SHE IS GIVIN US DAMN !!!!!

August Brown is akin to Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers back in the early days.

There was obviously talent there, but Flea was so concerned with blowing your mind with his out of control, million-notes-per-second shredding abilities that it ruined everything around it. Not to mention just being superfluous and sounding pretty douchey.

In short: rein it in.

Wow this was way overthought and I personally really liked this song. Who cares if people were expecting something upbeat and positive? This is what she gave us and there doesn't need to be this huge overthought report on it.

Rihanna needs to get beat down by chris brown again. Stop making crappy music, and whinning to the world. NO ONE CARES.. Go back to africa.

YOU GUYS RIHANNA TOLD US THAT THE SONG IS A METAPHOR AND HERE'S WHY:

OK, IN THE GAME RUSSIAN ROULETTE ITS ALL ABOUT CHANCE....SO SHE'S COMPARING THE GAME OF RUSSIAN ROULETTE TO THE GAME OF LOVE. SHE'S BASICALLY PORTAYING THAT WHEN YOU'RE IN LOVE YOU SEEM TO TAKE A CHANCE AND IN THE END SOMEONE IS BOUND TO BE HURT(NOT NECESSARILY SHOT)!!!

THAT'S WHY IN THE SONG SHE SAID...."AND YOU CAN SEE MY HEART BEATING, YOU CAN SEE IT THROUGH MY CHEST". OK YES SHE'S SCARED AND LATER ON SHE STATES "IM NOT LEAVING, JUST KNOW THAT I MUST PASS THIS TEST." ONCE AGAIN THIS PART IS SAYING THAT SHE'S GOING TO TAKE THAT CHANCE ON LOVE EVEN IF IT ENDS UP BEING HURT. AND THE BIGGEST PART OF THE SONG WHERE EVERYONE GETS CONFUSED IS "SO JUST PULL THE TRIGGER." THIS IS SAYING OK LET ME PULL THE TRIGGER...GO HEAD AND FACE MY FEAR NOT KILL YOURSELF (REMEMBER METAPHOR).

PERSONALLY I LOVE THE SONG EVER SINCE I HEARD IT THE FIRST TIME AND I KNEW IT WASN'T TO BE TAKEN LITERALLY LIKE SOME OF YOU ARE....SHE'S AN ARTIST SHE IS SUPPOSED TO MAKE SONGS FULL OF CONTROVERSY AND PAINT PICTURES IN YOUR HEAD. REMEMBER ARTISTRY EQUALS METAPHOR AND SYMBOLISM!!!

I don't know what to talk about. I was just bloggin about Rihanna. So I am tired of typing. And I heart my finger today. Actually I hurt my index,middle, and the finger after the middle one. But now only my niddle hurts. I am sleepy. I am bored. I am listening to music. Reading free books online. And searching RiRi stuff.

Bye Yall,
RiRi's # 1 Fan (Fo-Eva) LIFE!!!!!!!!!

"For music fans more accustomed to the upbeat revenge ballads of the Dixie Chicks or the stay-strong resilience of Mary J. Blige, Rihanna’s choice of metaphor in this song -- that she’s powerless before fate in a game of roulette for her life -- will come as a shock and, understandably, perhaps a disappointment to fans hoping for something more reassuring."

Well exactly - it takes guts to make a "dark" single in this psycho-babble pacified, Prozac-poisoned brain-dead thing we call popular culture. Even if it was written by someone else, even if you're a "commercial artist" and even if your image is manufactured - whose isn't? I've never liked much hip-hop/urban music but I was floored by her mesmerizing performance on SNL...I'd hardly heard of her before. Keep making interesting, challenging music Rihanna!

Steve: "hollow sensationalism manufactured to sell records" - this might as well be the definition of popular music - from Elvis to Sgt. Pepper to The Cure to Nirvana to American Idol. Any notion of any of them being truer artists than any of the others is absolute pablum. What should she pose in on her record cover - a black nun's habit? Would that stop domestic violence cold?

A very powerful analysis, I haven't seen anyone dissect a song like this before! But I have to agree with the other comments on here though: Rihanna is not exactly a real artist, I doubt she even care what she sings nowaday as long as it "sells".

Considering SHE does not write her songs, I don't know why people are reading so much into it.

I don't agree with this analysis. This song is really about standing your ground, even when you are terrified to the max. Even when you really don't know what the outcome will be- as usually is the case in the game of Russian Roulette, you still have enough courage to play the game- even when it involves life and death. The importance of choice and acting in the face of fear.

She understands the value of her life and so she is the one that lives! in the end, because "she must pass this test!"...not powerless , but powerful in the face of fate!


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