S&M with Rihanna

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BBC Radio 1 has refused to play the official version of Rihanna’s new song, S&M, in the daytime, deeming it inappropriate for younger listeners. The BBC-approved radio edit of the track has been renamed Come On and all references to sex, whips and chains have been removed. The original lyrics include the offending:

Cause I may be bad, but I’m perfectly good at it

Sex in the air, I don’t care, I love the smell of it

Sticks and stones may break my bones

But chains and whips excite me

The video has also been causing controversy, with YouTube flagging it as inappropriate for under-18s and the Brit Awards organisers rumoured to be worried about the way she might perform the track at the ceremony. Whether or not the track and video are indeed unsuitable for under-18s (no doubt readers will be divided), I think the most interesting aspect here is why this particular song has been singled out amongst a plethora of tracks and videos containing sexualised lyrics and content.

For me, it’s her portrayal of an arguably more authentic and complex BDSM sexuality as a woman who is sexually assertive. Many music videos portray sexual dominance and submission, but because this generally involves a half naked woman (or, more likely, multiple women) contorting herself into bizarre positions at the behest of a fully clothed man there is no outcry about the supposed dangers of exposing BDSM sexualities to children; after all, male dominance underpins our society, particularly when it comes to sex. So while feminist commentators like myself might complain that kids are being taught that female sexuality – and sexual confidence – equates to displaying yourself for male entertainment, which is repressive and potentially damaging, Youtube and the BBC needn’t take action because these videos do not threaten the social status quo.

To give just one example, Ciara and Justin Timberlake’s Love Sex Magic sees an skincrawlingly-arrogant Timberlake holding Ciara on a chain and her writhing all over him – see Soulbounce’s take down here – but no 18 rating from YouTube. Meanwhile, Radio 1 happily played 3Oh!3’s Don’t Trust Me all last year, which includes the charming lyrics “Shush girl, hush your lips, do the Helen Kellar and talk with your hips” and the additionally sexist “Don’t trust a ho, never trust a ho, Won’t trust a ho ‘cos the ho won’t trust me”.

In S&M, Rihanna sings about what she wants, what feels good to her and what she likes, and unlike most female pop singers, this doesn’t amount to wanting a man to want her. The video features her in both dominant and submissive positions, although even when she is tied up or in latex, we never see a man dominating her. Crucially, we see men both actively engaging in and being forced to engage in sexually submissive behaviour, with a man happily playing puppy for Rihanna (rather cute I thought, but I’m odd like that) and male journalists taped and gagged up as she prowls around them with a whip.

She uses S&M as a metaphor for her relationship with the press: we see them writing notes calling her “slut” at a press conference, which she conducts trapped behind a sheet of plastic in a dress made of newspaper cuttings about her. Through both masochistic pleasure in the face of the media onslaught and defiant (albeit very mild and playful) sadism as she gags and plays with the journalists, she shows that their words cannot harm her and that her sexuality is her own. Although she conforms to pop music video norms by remaining visually hyperfeminine and conventionally sexy throughout (god forbid a female pop star refuse to be sexy!), her subversion of the genre’s usual portrayal of sexual power singles S&M out as a unique threat to the status quo, and therefore to young eyes and ears. Oh, and she eats a banana.

So the Beeb decides to play the radio edit during the daytime, alongside – guess what? – the latest offering from Chris Brown. Apparently it’s fine to endorse the man who abuses, but not the woman who enjoys consensual BDSM.

S&M’s not perfect, but I like it.

Disclaimer: I’m not implying and certainly don’t think that consensual sexual activity involving men dominating women is inherently bad, but in the context of pop music, the constant M/f power hierarchy in lyrics and imagery is a problem and should be challenged.

Image by captain.orange, shared under a Creative Commons licence.