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

November 4, 2009 |  4:24 pm

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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

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Rihanna reveals new single, 'Russian Roulette'

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