When Rihanna first appeared on the music scene in 2005, her image was simple and well defined: she was a teenaged cutie who sang a hybrid of pop and reggae-lite. Fast-forward six years and she’s taking greater risks creatively. But is it true growth as an artist? Or is it just an opportunity to stir up controversy and gain attention?
Last week, the Parent’s Television Council and several media watchdog groups came out in force to criticize Rihanna’s music video for her latest single, “Man Down.” In the clip Rihanna is shown shooting a man to death after being sexually assaulted by him. The images are indeed graphic and violent. (Particularly the blood splatters shown and the image of the man with blood pouring out from behind his head.)
This isn’t Rihanna’s first time coming under fire for her lyrics and images. Earlier this year, her song “S&M” was criticized for being explicitly hypersexual and not appropriate for the radio airwaves. The song was banned in eleven countries and was flagged by YouTube for mature content. Before that, she appeared on Eminem’s “Love the Way You Lie,” taking a hurts-so-good approach to domestic violence.
Rihanna would likely attribute this newfound edginess to her maturation as an artist. But the truth is, just like sex, controversy sells. And she knows this. She’s been pushing the envelope to differentiate herself from her competitors for years now. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Madonna has been perfecting this art since the '80s.
But with great power comes great responsibility. And if Rihanna’s tweets are any indication, she doesn’t want to accept that. “I'm a 23 year old rock star with NO KIDS! What's up with everybody wantin me to be a parent?” she tweeted recently.
Here’s what’s up with that: whether she wants to be or not, whether she accepts it or not, Rihanna is a role model even if she’s not a parent. (And truth be told, she probably has a bigger influence on her fan base than their own parents do.)
This doesn’t mean that she should necessarily alter her art in any way. If she has a message she wants to get out, by all means, do it. Ultimately, it’s up to radio and television stations to decide if the message is appropriate for the airwaves. And parents do need to be aggressive about controlling what their children see and hear.
In a later Tweet, Rihanna said: “We have the freedom to make art, LET US! It's your job to make sure they don't turn out like US."
Where does this freedom end? Are there any limits to the things we want artists to have the freedom to create? And does being an artist automatically shed you of any and all responsibility to the images you place in the world? No, it doesn’t. No one can stop an artist from creating. But we can hope that creative freedom can be coupled with a desire to add positive images to our culture whenever possible.
(Photos from left: Kevin Winter/Getty Images, Ethan Miller/Getty Images)