How controversy made Rihanna an icon
Published 09/12/2012 | 05:00
The singer's assault by Chris Brown – and their reconciliation – is now part of her brand, writes Julia Molony
LET me start by saying it feels a bit rich to be lecturing Rihanna about the state of her life. After all, she's the highest selling act in the world right now, a 24-year-old who commutes to work in a private jet, and I'm, well, a 32-year-old freelance journalist sitting at a messy desk who had coffee and a bag of crisps for lunch. There's probably a thing or two she could teach me about getting one's act together.
Rihanna is a recording industry tycoon, who lifted herself out of a difficult background in Barbados – crack-addicted father who was violent to her mother – to fulfil the fantasy life of the very successful few.
But she's been in for a lot of lecturing of late. Especially in the wake of the growing evidence that she's back together with Chris Brown, the 23-year-old rapper who, you will remember, is best known for assaulting her in 2009, in an attack that left her bloodied, bruised and, rather gruesomely, covered in bite marks.
He was charged, served community service and has made earnest public noises of contrition. But his rehabilitation campaign took a bit of a knock recently during a spat over Twitter with the comedienne Jenny Johnston. After admittedly being provoked, he responded with a tirade of sexual and scatological abuse. It was pretty grim, and seems to suggest that, at the very least, he's still having problems with anger management.
The timing perhaps wasn't ideal, in that Chris and Rihanna have been edging ever-closer to going properly public with a reconciliation. Until now, we've mostly had teasing suggestions and inference over Twitter, where she's posted photographs of the two of them in an embrace and of Chris, with no top on, in a hotel room.
But if the world disapproves, Rihanna doesn't care. For the literal-minded among us, all the evidence of her haters-gonna-hate dismissal of furore is written into her new album, the title of which is Unapologetic.
And if you didn't get the message the first time, she's got Brown singing a duet with her on there, titled Nobody's Business, in which they croon about their special love. Of course, it would be more likely to really be nobody's business if she stopped singing about it. If the world is aflame with controversy about Chris and Rihanna, it may be because they brought it up in the first place.
But Rihanna's troubled love life is fast becoming part of her brand. The darker aspects of her relationship history have now explicitly been repackaged and commercialised. The morbid curiosity that draws us into her relationship with Brown is a key part of the force that has already propelled Unapologetic to the top of the charts, bringing her level with Madonna's record-breaking chart-sales in the UK. That the music is great – infectious and original – is vital, of course. But as with so many young female pop phenomenons before her, Amy Winehouse, Britney Spears, it's the dysfunction that brings Rihanna a cult following. It's the damage that makes her an icon.
And it doesn't take a qualified analyst to unpick the psychopathological motivation at work here either. Rihanna has herself explicitly drawn a connection between the violence in her background (her father was the victim of abuse and was himself abusive) and her impulses in relationships.
She plays on notions of masochism in her music and her persona, it's part of her scorching hotness and gritty eroticism that make her so appealing.
"I like to be spanked. Being tied up is fun. I like to keep it spontaneous. Sometimes whips and chains can be overly planned – you gotta stop, get the whip from the drawer downstairs. I'd rather have him use his hands," she said in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine. From somebody else, this could read as a relatively innocuous post-porno chic expression of sexual styles. From a woman whose partner is a known abuser, it takes on an altogether different, and more troubling, significance.
And when she's not presenting her romantic life by playing provocateur with Rolling Stone, she's submitting to the more motherly probing on Oprah's couch, casting herself as a concerned rescuer of a troubled man. When asked about the 2009 incident, she expressed her concern. "Nobody's going to say he needs help. Everybody's going to say he's a monster, without looking at the source. And I was more concerned about him," she said.
Last week, Brown played a gig in Dublin to huge crowds. His behaviour hasn't dented his success, and Rihanna's complicity has only served to amplify hers. The public might disapprove, but it won't change the fact that the industry execs who control their careers are cleaning up. And why would they step in to try and change the story that's making them so much money?