Monday, January 2, 2017

24 songs from 2016

I know that time is arbitrary but I do love end of the year lists as a time of accounting for things loved and obsessed over. 2016 as has been written about by people much more capable was the year of Black excellence in music – not that ever year doesn’t see phenomenal work by Black musical artists but this year was a cornucopia of insistent, urgent, important Black music. Intersecting with this was also a year of the album – the surprise album, the album as multimedia project, the album as exclusive to one streaming platform, the album that requested to be listened to in its entirety, the album that was released unfinished and tinkered with. Of course there was Beyoncè’s Lemonade, but also Solange’s A Seat at the Table, the “finally” of Frank Ocean’s Blond(e), the magic of Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book, the black queer bravura of Blood Orange’s Freetown Sound, the grimey sexy interior space of Rihanna’s Anti and more beyond. Below in no particular order are 24 tracks that really got under my skin and into my head this year – there were others that were also there from the recent past and the far past (a lot of Nina Simone and Emmylou Harris this year) and some that I adored but they didn’t linger (I’m still working through my Lady Gaga feelings). Lemonade isn’t here since it’s not on Spotify (and I wanted to make a playlist) and I am not even sure if you entirely do justice to the music without the video (or maybe that’s just a pretension on my part). But know this, I had “Hold Up” stuck in my head for weeks and “All Night” is my favorite track and I want it played at my wedding (if I ever get married).

And here we go:
1.     “Calling All” – Phantogram – I’ve always been into Sarah Barthel’s voice and the sound of this group, but Three was their first album I found necessary listening front to back. The songs are layered with samples, ghostly voices, glitch sounds, and thicker emotions than past albums. Barthel’s sister death by suicide lingers over this album, but this closing track is an all-out embrace of sexual desire and exploration with a mocking chorus that opines “We all got a little bit of ho in us.” One of those tastemaking blogs suggested that this song was ruined by its chorus but I glory in Barthel’s distorted voice tempting the listener and speaking to our baser instincts. A downbeat electronic stomper. “You know you wanna shake.”
2.     “Wolves” – Kanye West with Sia and Vic Mensa – I know people have a lot of feelings about ‘Ye but he remains to my mind a true artistic genius – by which I mean what he does creatively doesn’t always make sense and he doesn’t really care when he’s in the grips of inspiration. The Life of Pablo was an album where he let us see him tinker and retool as the album was sort of released and then re-made and reconsidered. I love Frank Ocean but I prefer this version of the song with Sia and Vic Mensa since I love the richness and texture of Sia’s voice alongside the haunting backing vocals. On “Wolves” as on some of his best tracks Kanye perfectly marries his darkest fears and discontent with his lyrical playfulness and sexual frankness. The song sprawls and ever second is thick with eerie sounds and despair.
3.     “Fuck Apologies” – JoJo with Wiz Khalifa – Armed with a voice beyond her years, JoJo finally returned with a new album and a take no prisoners attitude. This track is built on a neverending forward motion as JoJo owns her actions and refuses to demure. A perfect R&B track with a looping guitar and JoJo’s forceful vocals this song was on repeat for me for weeks and remains my go-to track for blasting away unwanted criticism.
4.     “iT” – Christine and the Queens – My current obsession is the debut album by Christine and the Queens aka the alternate persona of French singer Héloïse Letissier. Moving between genres and languages, Christine toys with gender and sexuality in provocative ways. Watch the amazing video for “Tilted” IMMEDIATELY. Okay, did you? Good. Okay, that song is awesome but my favorite is the album’s opening track “iT” staged as a dialogue between Christine and “the Queens” which are Greek chorus also voiced by Letisser. Despite the protestations of the Queens, Christine becomes a man (elsewhere in the album she calls herself a HalfLady). The song accumulates instruments as it builds before ending simply with the chorus accepting Christine as a man. Divine.
5.     “Crisis” – ANOHNI – Jesus Christ, ANOHNI’s Hopelessness was devastating when it was released and 2016 only further got gripped with a kind of fatalism that makes returning to this album difficult and necessary. In spite of the album’s title, ANOHNI (formerly Antony and the Johnsons) is not simply giving up even as she sings about drone bombings, the false progressiveness of Obama, and mass graves. This is a delicate album of electronic music lovingly produced and showcasing ANOHNI’s nuanced voice which can rise and fall like a blues singer. As with many of the album’s tracks, “Crisis” speaks from the place of power and privilege, from the person who caused the deaths of the vulnerable. The despair, the apologia, is uncomfortable and beautiful and never allows for easy escape for the listener. But there is empathy here and that is what makes me tentatively hopeful when I listen.
6.     “Unnatural” – the Jezabels – The Australian indie rock group’s album Synthia is appropriately draped in 80s synths cascading over ethereal yet urgent vocals. The singer claims her unnatural status in rich evocative lyrics which jive with the album’s overall feminist bent (on the track “Smile” the chorus calls out men for asking the speaker to smile in public). Standing apart has always been the speaker’s “surplus” and it may mean she consorts with the darkness but it also makes her sparkle.
7.     “Blended Family (What You Do For Love) – Alicia Keys with A$AP Rocky – Okay, I know that public sentiment has kind of turned against Alicia and her slightly eccentric public persona but I’ve always loved her. Her album this year Here marked a return to a grittier older R&B vibe when her last two albums seemed to be coasting into the colder realm of smooth R&B and Coldplay style dreamscapes. Like many tracks on Here, “Blended Family” is a song that makes me always sing along. Alicia is in fine voice singing about her own family situation (her very public taking up with producer Swizz Beatz while he was still married with children) and the old school vibe with that guitar riff is warm and inviting. A$AP’s feature works organically and seamlessly.
8.     “Ivy” – Frank Ocean – What can even be said about Blonde? Picking a single track is difficult partially since the album is mixed so the tracks flow together in a kind of acoustic poem or fever dream. The triple punch of the first three songs is invigorating but this one stands out to me for that haunting guitar and the amazing control Frank has over his voice. He glides between a nearly conversational sing-song to the crooning R&B voice to the cast off pleas to the lost love. The intentionally jarring distortion of his voice at the end serves to keep the song slightly off kilter and functions like the divot in a perfectly cast pot, reminding us of the human creator.
9.     “Cranes in the Sky” – Solange – A Seat at the Table is so fully formed, so perfectly formed and yet the individual songs function like linked short stories in a longer novel. “Cranes in the Sky” has a deceptive lightness acoustically and yet Solange’s honeyed voice sings about the endless search for a way to kill the pain. Solange’s central metaphor of the title cranes flying away mirror the song in its uncompromising beauty in the face of a difficult world.
10.  “The Valley” – Claire Maguire – Where her first album was full of pop music bombast on the level of Kate Bush, Maguire’s second album Stranger Things Have Happened is tight and intimate with the scratchy closeness of a 1960s folk album. “The Valley” aspires for the Laurel Canyon bitter sweetness of a Joni Mitchell or Linda Ronstadt. One imagines Maguire singing this song alone in her mirror in a black and white film and as magically as the music arrives it fades away.
11.  “rEaR vIeW” – ZAYN – Zayn Malik aka the hottest One Directioner went out on his own this year with a moody alt-R&B debut album that shoots for the murkier and darker end of R&B. This track showcases Zayn’s falsetto as he pines for a woman and recounts what he’s heard secondhand. Malay – the producer for Frank Ocean’s channel Orange – tricks out the song in lush instrumentation and helps push the sense of desperate yearning. Poor Zayn.
12.  “But You” – Blood Orange – Dev Hynes’s Freetown Sound is a love letter to, in his words, those told they were “not black enough, too black, too queer, not queer the right way.” Hynes is a dynamic producer (see Carly Rae Jepsen’s last album, Solange’s True EP) but he’s also a multi-instrumentalist and vocalist. Freetown Sound includes his voice alongside appearances from Carly Rae, Debbie Harry, Nelly Furtado, and others. “But You” is a song of love and an acknowledgement of unseen importance in those unseen by society. Hynes’s R&B vocals are tentative, whispered, yet also intimate and real. He’s not in full voice always and at times allows his voice to break slightly. This song works its way into the feels like the boy at the back of the class with a note he leaves for you to read at home alone in your room.
13.  “Ain’t Your Mama” – Jennifer Lopez – My life goal is to age like JLo – if I can look that good in my 40s than I will be blessed. This empowerment anthem uses the mothering metaphor – the woman refusing to baby her partner – to acknowledge Lopez’s age while also reminding us that she is the sexiest triple threat mother you’ve ever met. The song’s stuttering drum beat and her nasal cools pair with a chorus you are meant to belt along with in a bar.
14.  “Desperado” and “This Is What You Came For” – Rihanna – When Rihanna FINALLY released Anti it was a dark grimey album, a journey into the imagined fantasies of our cold ice queen sex goddess who wants to smoke up, dance alone in front of the mirror, and have sex on her schedule at her whim. If Lemonade is a public display of complex Black female community, Anti is a private interior world of Black female sexual agency. On “Desperado,” Rihanna crooks her finger at a boy and draws him into her Western fantasy of sex, tells him she doesn’t really want him, but says she’d rather not be alone. AND YOU BETTER GO WHEN SHE SAYS GO. This is the song that makes me dance in coffeeshops. “This is What You Came For” isn’t from Anti; it’s a Calvin Harris summer trifle that shouldn’t linger and yet it burrows deep inside. Rihanna isn’t always the strongest singer (although she’s vastly improved as on tracks like “Love on the Brain”) but her voice is one of the most distinct and it carries an icy vulnerability. She can play her voice like an instrument and Harris harnesses this and chops it up and in other places lets her coo and whisper and telegraph so much need on the dance floor. Her world, we just live in it.
15.  “Almost Makes Me Wish For Rain” – Lucius – This track has the synthy drum and bass sound of 80s pop but also the bright sparkle and blended vocals of a 1960s pop song. The two lead singers weave their voices in and out moving between rich multitracked choruses and softer solo parts. The song feels cheesy at first listen but there’s a sorrowfulness in the lyrics about the wishes for rain to wash away potential happiness; the closing rain noises feel less trite and more like a bit of defeat.
16.  “U-turn” – Tegan and Sara – I know not everyone has welcomed the full on embrace of melancholy pop by the pop punk lesbian twins from Canada, but I for one am all as long as their songs come tinged with a nostalgia and regret. Initially a teaser for the new album, I was immediately taken with the ear-wormy wonder of “U-turn” in all its snarky obviousness (“Shape up for I’ll drop you like a call”) and the delightful meta-narrative of a song about writing a love song. The doubleness at the center of the song makes it a kiss off masquerading as a paean to love. Sold.
17.  “Phenomenal Woman” – Laura Mvula – Mvula’s first album was beautiful but at times overly mannered and cerebral. Her second album The Dreaming Room opens out with more intentional bangers, moving between jazz, R&B, disco, and world music. “Phenomenal Woman” is brief and direct with a martial rhythm that drives forward a simple yet urgent message, echoing Maya Angelou’s classic poem of the same name.
18.  “Running Man/Gospel OP1” and “See Her Out (That’s Just Life)” – Francis and the Lights – Francis Farewell Starlite is the voice behind Francis and the Lights, featured on songs by Drake, Chance the Rapper, and others but just this year releasing his first full-length album. Francis blends an old-school crooner approach with the glitchy experimental sounds of alt-folk artists like Bon Iver (featured on the album) and more avant-garde rap. “Running Man” glitches and pops as Francis multi-tracks himself into a falsetto chorus like a more electronic Bon Iver with poppier aspirations AND AMAZING ELECTRONIC STRINGS. “See Her Out” has an older feel with epic sad synths and vocal stylings which suggest 1980s Peter Gabriel dealing with the heartbreak of the girl who got away. The track is laden with need and recognizable pain.
19.  “House on Fire” and “The Greatest” (with Kendrick Lamar) – Sia – Okay, so last year I was singing Sia’s praises and then she released her album This is Acting and my love affair never ended. People criticized her songs for at times turning on obvious metaphors – “House on Fire” doesn’t hide its point and instead places the metaphor front and center and for me this is the song’s strength. The song opens quietly and elegantly suggesting a waltz before layering in instrumentation and Sia’s raspy throaty ever distinct voice. “The Greatest” is a more straightforward empowerment anthem placed on top of tinkling music box sounds and a tropical lightness. Another track that I found myself singing for weeks, especially that promise that “I’ve got stamina.”
20.  “What You Do To Me” – John Legend – The beauty of John Legend’s voice cannot be understated. His entire album Darkness and Light is evocative and gives me chills. This track with its deep felt desperation, cooing yet ominous backing singers, and dramatic strings lingers with me. There’s a classic feel to the track’s presentation especially the interplay with the female singers and Legend’s falsetto falling apart in the final minute.
21.  “Hold the Line” – Broods – Georgia Nott’s smoky voice implores, cajoles, and insists with the listener. She describes the intoxicating give and take of a relationship over a dense blend of guitar and electronica. An immensely satisfying pop song.   


Thursday, December 31, 2015

20-ish Songs From 2015 I Was Obsessed With

I love reading end of the year round-ups in music, movies and literature because it gives me the chance to find the stuff I missed or reminds me of the stuff I was totally going to check out and forgot about. Since music increasingly comes to us in diffuse ways – Spotify, free tracks on the Internet, YouTube clips shared by friends – it’s not always easy to periodize music, or, rather, my obsessions for music are often months or years after they were properly “released.” While music is often intrinsically linked to times in my life – like the summer and fall I was deeply obsessed with Joni Mitchell’s back catalog or the fall I listened to one Alicia Keys song on repeat for months in my dorm room – it can be hard to remember the years (and the calendar is a fairly arbitrary marker for everything, but especially tastes and loves). Still, here is my attempt to present twenty-ish songs that made me wanna dance or served as mood stabilizers or were just continually looped for days on end. Some come from equally amazing albums (everyone should listen to Jazmine Sullivan’s Reality Show, for example) and others are songs that floated separately from an album or don’t really need to be appreciated alongside the rest of the tracks (we live in a world where we increasingly learn songs as discrete units through commercials, movies, the incidental music at Kroger, a friend’s Facebook, a dance party). With that preamble, here are in no particular order are 20-ish tracks that were very very necessary to me this year.

1.     “Four Door Aventador” / “The Crying Game” – Nicki Minaj – Technically, Nicki’s album The Pinkprint was released last December but I preceded to listen to it on repeat for the entirety of winter 2015. This was the album where Nicki finally melded her talents for rapping and spectacle with a cohesive record that plays well from top to bottom; I’ve always loved Nicki but her first albums felt like a series of producers each attempting to make a successful single without any consideration of the balance of the album as a singular unit. The Pinkprint has less of Nicki’s outsize personalities and the central character her is “Nicki” the “real” person underneath it all. “The Crying Game” balances Jessie Ware’s haunting lament with Nicki’s sly verses (“Blood drippin' out your arm on my Asian rugs / We was just planning a wedding, Caucasian doves”) to tell a story of heartbreak that resonates. “Four Door Aventador” find Nicki slowing her flow but slaying against a driving beat that never stops – basically every line is quotable and the song never arrives because Nicki’s already arrived.
2.     “#HoodLove” and “Dumb” (featuring Meek Mill) – Jazmine Sullivan – Jazmine Sullivan consistently makes some of the best contemporary R&B with a voice far beyond her age, a swagger that insists that the listener pay attention, and a willingness to play across time periods and influences. Reality Show is a nearly perfect album with the concept of turning inside out the tropes of reality tv – I kept remembering other songs on the album that I wanted to put on this list and suffice it to say you should just go listen to it all. “Dumb” which opens the album is an epic track that tells off a man as only Jazmine can – “now if my tears don’t mean nothing / don’t insult me with lies” – but she’s through with the idiot who left her. “#HoodLove” was made for blasting in the car as the insistent bass underpins Jazmine’s statement of love. Across the album, Jazmine’s voice moves from a plaintive coo to an enraged growl; her influences range from blissed out late 80s/early 90s R&B funk on “Let It Burn” to the enchanting 60s girl group sound of “Stupid Girl.” Loves loves loves it.
3.     “Tunnels” – MS MR – With their second album, MS MR went all in on 80s pop with synthy goodness while maintaining their bluesy vocals. I loved the whole of  How Does It Feel but this was the track I kept coming back too – it’s a dark song (about the ways we mechanize ourselves against emotion) masquerading as a dance song: “A slave to the pulse / it’s sink or swim / I think I’ve dug myself in too deep again.”
4.     “bodyache” – Purity Ring – Melding glitchy, twitchy music box sounds with Megan James’s crystalline vocals, this song circles and circles in a sort of 80s fairytale about what happens to our body when we lose someone’s intimacy.
5.     “Hands to Myself” – Selena Gomez – In a year of pop princesses making a bid for “adult” pop moodiness, Selena’s Revival was the attempt I most enjoyed. “Hands to Myself” is the clear standout with its hand claps, foreboding guitars and a message about physical need and want that borders on obsession. And it’s so damned catchy.
6.     “LA Hallucinations” – Carly Rae Jepsen – The “Call Me Maybe” wunderkind also made her grownup album packed, one that made use of Carly Rae’s supple voice and placed her in the midst of a faded Polaroid version of love. My favorite was definitely “LA Hallucinations” which name drops Buzzfeed and TMZ in the service of a classic pop star trope – the pop star questioning the validity of her life and love given her substantial fame – what saves the song from becoming too obvious is the care given to producing the strong and maintaining a sheen that feel just scuffed and just unsettled enough. These are hallucinations after all.
7.     “Confident” – Demi Lovato – Demi’s album was for me the also-ran of this triptych (Selena, Carly Rae, Demi) of pop ladies. There are some exceptionally fun tracks on her album but I honestly never made it past the song with Iggy (in fact, I often turned the volume when Iggy showed up and ruined the song). BUT, I love this song – the militant horns and drums, the insistence of the beat, the chorus, the killer video where Demi and Michelle Rodriguez sublimate their sexual desires through a love of shared tattoos and physical violence. And there’s always place for another up-tempo pump up song.
8.     “I’ve Got Life (Version)” – Miss Lauryn Hill/Nina Simone – Criminally underexposed, Nina Revisited: A Tribute to Nina Simone is a fabulous album – Alice Smith’s cover of “I Put a Spell On You” is a standout but the whole thing is phenomenal. The album also gives us several covers by Lauryn Hill and this amazing track where Miss Hill raps over my favorite Nina Simon song (the medley “Ain’t Got No/I Got Life”). Miss Hill spits that lay bare the ongoing workings of oppression, racism, and more social issues insisting that we “listen” over a looped version of the feverish drums from the Simon song. While she’s been gone for a while, and we can debate the whats and the whys of her disappearance, this track is a reminder of what L Boogie can do when she blesses us with her voice.
9.     “Déjà vu” and “Cheap Thrills” – Sia – Sia has a preternatural ability to craft a perfect pop song and these two songs are keen examples of this. On “Déjà vu” she works with disco god Giorgio Moroder to craft a perfect disco confection that seems scientifically designed to make you dance around your bedroom in your underwear. “Cheap Thrills” which she released in the last few weeks is Sia wearing her best Rihanna drag, down to the oddball phrasing aided by Sia’s own idiosyncratic voice that carries notes in strange fun ways. And who doesn’t love a swell of crowd chanting?
10. “King Kunta” – Kendrick Lamar – I guarantee that anything meaningful I might say about To Pimp a Butterfly has already been said elsewhere but this track remains a deceptively fun song – deceptive since the urgent walking beat and female backup singers trick you into thinking this song is one thing while the actual verses wake you up to something very different. To Pimp a Butterfly is very much an album and this song gathers further salience when listened to as part of the greater tapestry.
11. “On My Mind” – Ellie Goulding – Ellie Goulding has a strange operatic voice that bends around words and notes. With Delirium, she went all in on pop instead of the cyclical synthy electronic that undergirded her last album. I loved this track from when it was very first released and continue to love it even if it’s reached the tipping point (aka it was playing at frat house as I walked by) – the blend of guitars, Ellie’s ululations and the lyrics (“You wanted my heart / I just liked your tattoos”) make for the perfect song questioning the ways our bodies betray our better instincts.
12. “Still Want You” – Brandon Flowers – The Desired Effect, the second album by the front man for the Killers, is a lovely album and this for me is the standout – a love song for apocalyptic times that mines the sweet spot of Talking Heads’ love songs.  J’adore.
13. “Sleepwalker” – Emily King – One of the artists that I could not for the life of me explain how they came across my transom and yet, bless that suggestion or algorithimic nudge. This song is one of several exceptionally enjoyable tracks from King’s The Switch – there’s a bluesy poppy quality to the song that’s timeless and I love the grain of her voice and the way she uses it to make the listener smile and bop their head.
14. “Everyday” – A$AP Rocky featuring Rod Stewart, Miguel, and Mark Ronson – A superbly produced song with Mark Ronson making everything crackle and shine as Rod and Miguel trade off on the hook while A$AP make amends. Rod Stewart may be best known at this point for his songbook pablum but his blue-eyed soul blends perfectly with Miguel’s bedroom voice. Old school/new school and I wanna go there.  
15. “Until the Levee” – Joy Williams – Half of the now disbanded folk group the Civil Wars, Joy Williams made a joyous album Venus that moves between folk, blues and the swelling emotion of the spiritual. “Until the Levee” has an epic quality with its backing choir and the swelling of the music but it’s the voice at the center that makes it all work.
16. “Good Guys” – Mika – Mika just keeps making pure pop music that draws liberally from chamber pop, French 60s pop music, and musical theater. “Good Guys” could easily come at the thoughtful moment in the second act of a musical where our gay hero reconsiders his place in the world and namechecks a laundry list of queer men – the sly movement between “good guys” and “gay guys” adds to the fun. And yes, the chorus cribs from the Wilde quote – “some of us in the gutter are looking up at the stars.”
17. “Talking Body” – Tove Lo – Between this track and “Habits (Stay High),” Tove Lo has made her mark as the go-to for chilly icy songs about hedonism as a lifestyle as regret and yet no one really thinks she regrets these things. Besides using “fuck,” “Talking Body” is quite tame and yet the pure expression of need and the objectification of the other partner pushes this from romance into unhindered late night booty call – sure she says if you do it right, “we fuck for life,” but who hasn’t said that before and then had “a thing” in the morning? In Tove Lo’s world, bodies are simply vessels for pleasure.
18. “YOUTH” – Troye Sivan – Aussie YouTube celebrity Troye Sivan’s first full-length album Blue Neighbourhood plumbs the same moody R&B/soul by way of indie pop lane as Bieber and yet everything here is murkier and more tender, needier but also more confident. I first heard this song in a video of Sivan performing the song on the Tonight Show where he was a wonder of limbs and energy; the song carries that energy with its buzzy charm and the backing singers who come in on the chorus. “YOUTH” is an earworm yet also a heavy love song in which the speaker presents his youth as all he has and all he can offer.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


Call me a dinosaur, but I still buy CDs. I know, it's weird. I'm strange that way. I thought of this a while ago when the new Lady Gaga album dropped and Amazon offered it to the world for 99 cents but I still bused and walked to Target and bought Born This Way (the deluxe edition, mind you). When the poor boy cashier (it was his first day, I chose the one bottle of pesto sauce without a barcode, sorry!) rang up Born This Way he offered the comment "sold a lot of these today." Gaga did sell a million plus albums her first week but one suspects the bulk were on iTunes and elsewhere, still, I like being part of those hordes descending on stores and buying something that we can put into our hands. Something that I put into a CD player, something comes with pictures and lyrics and production notes and endless thank yous to God and random idols. I like that when I bought the most recent Kanye album last November the hippy dippy guy in his fifties who works at my favorite record store here (he wears straw hats, no big deal and has a goatee) knew what I wanted as soon as I walked in and had it behind the counter. I like buying hard to find albums off artists' websites (David Byrne and Fat Boy Slim's amazing concept album about Imelda Marcos) or special-ordering imports (hello glorious covers album by Marianne Faithfull). I know that I can buy things cheaper in iTunes and cheaper still can find things in the various illegal streams of music that are uncorked faster that anyone can stop 'em. Not all albums were created equal - lots of pop artists write a series of singles that don't together constitute an album so much as a vessel for radio play and iTunes downloads. I love a well-turned pop tune, but I also love artists that craft albums where songs flow together, make sense together, balance each other, constitute a journey, tell a greater story when considered as a unit, when listened to in one sitting (possible on repeat). When I get a new album I listen obsessively, I hear lyrics everywhere and I know the album backwards and forwards, fall in love with songs that are never singles and decide that a certain ten second moment is the best on the album. And everytime I move, my CDs outnumber everything else.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Sex in the Air, RiRi Likes the Smell of It

Predictably, Rihanna’s video for “S&M,” the newest single off her album Loud, has scandalized the world – or at least, everyone seems to be talking about how scandalous it is and at one point MTV was considering editing it before showing it. The single is apparently too hot for radio or television in the 11 countries where it was banned. I find the treatment of the single even more preposterous than that of the video since the song’s lyrics are rather innocuous unless you already know what sadomasochism is, and are certainly not as bad as, for example, the incredibly graphic and Grammy-winning ways Eminem has described killing his ex-wife.

The chorus of Rihanna’s catchy new single goes:

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
Apparently the BBC has taken the step of censoring the song – their version “Come On” removes the words “sex,” “chains,” “whips” and the parts where RhiRhi chants the offending letters in the song’s real title. All of which adds up to outrageous conservatism. I highly doubt that listening to this song will lead listeners into a life of submission, domination or sexual role playing, and if it does than I fail to see the problem with that either. Have we had a spat of teenagers engaging in S&M against their own will? Are our impressionable youth putting on latex, grabbing riding crops, and leaving home?

Which of course leads us to the provocative video for this track which RiRi dropped last week. (You can watch it here without having to prove you're 18).

The video plays as a garish campy revenge fantasy with Rihanna taking blood thirsty journalists hostage, walking gay celebrity blogger Perez Hilton on a leash, and wearing a dress made of the worst rumors-as-news that have been slung at her. “S&M” opens with Ri being hauled into a press conference for “Cox News” and placed behind cellophane. Here she is glamorous with long red-black curls and that newspaper dress, explaining the joys of pain and pleasure from behind Saran Wrap that suggests Friedan’s classic Feminine Mystique. From the outset, however, the video suggests that the balance of power is more complicated than we might think, because the journalists wear s&m ball gags and nod in unison at her words, suggesting that while she is their captive, they are also captive to her. Rihanna as dominant arrives in a latex couture walking Perez Hilton in front of a suburban home, taking him to pee on a pink fire hydrant, spanking him with a riding crop, and tickling his stomach. Then the scene cuts to Rihanna in latex lingerie with a hood relishing the discomfort of the journalists, now bound and gagged in her subterranean lair. She grinds on the unwilling journalists, spanks them, pours a bucket of sweet meats on them, and kisses one of the women. Our scene changes to Rihanna’s body splayed across a desk in a newsroom with journalists snapping photos and ultimately covering her body with pop art Post-Its.

Intercut throughout are shots of a wild sex party with Ri and an orgy of ambiguously gendered people and sex dolls, all filmed with a fish-eye lens to heighten the drunken feeling of the proceedings. We also see flashes of vulnerable Ri standing against a backdrop of streaming offensive headlines, and Ri dressed in anime-inspired pajamas and fighting the strings that have her trussed up.

What does it all mean? It’s hard to watch this video without thinking of Rihanna’s assault by Chris Brown, but I am a little disturbed that her celebration of power and violence within consensual s&m must be read through this incident. Jezebel’s brief commentary pushes a bit too hard on the seemingly crazy idea that “one who’s been called a victim” might “recast oneself as authoritative and commanding.” I guess my issue is not so much with us looking at “S&M” as an expression of self-assertion in the wake of intimate partner violence but rather that Rihanna’s position as “victim-survivor” (to use Traci C. West’s terminology) should limit her right to express sexuality (whether it be hers or one that was constructed merely for shock and sales). By casting her sadomasochistic relationship as one between her and the media, Rihanna in many ways cleverly predicts fall-out from this video and suggests that it is all a bit laughable. In the video she shows reporters branding her a slut, a whore, and a princess of the Illuminati. While Chris Brown is never mentioned, his actions contribute to the media frenzy.

Rihanna’s blackness adds another layer of complexity. Sadomasochism as a way to grab sales is nothing new in pop music – Madonna’s 1994 music video “Human Nature” mocked those that were scandalized by her Erotica album and Sex book by putting her in black latex and letting her spank backup dancers. Christina Aguilera’s homage to Madonna and other pop provocateurs in the video for “Not Myself Tonight” similarly played with BDSM. The difference, of course, is that, as Steven Shaviro has noted, white female pop singers can play at other edgier identities and still retreat to the comforts of their whiteness. Black female singers cannot escape the long shadow of being stereotyped as sex-starved animals. Controlling images, according to Patricia Hill Collins, are “designed to make racism, sexism, poverty, and other forms of social injustice appear to be natural, normal, and inevitable parts of everyday life.”

Ciara kicked up a storm of controversy in her “Love Sex Magic” video with Justin Timberlake when the white pop singer tugged on a chain around her neck. Later in the video JT uses CiCi as a table and spanks her when she’s on all fours. The unreleased single “Blindfold Me” by Kelis describes a fantasy of being blindfolded and bound brought to life. Kelis and then-husband rapper Nas acted this out in a fascinating video that opens with the nightmare scenario of a woman abducted in a parking lot late at night and unfolds to show the kidnapping as a planned BDSM encounter within a couple. Obviously, the difference between the videos is that of racial difference – the image of a white man yanking a black woman by a chain holds a deep historical memory that popular culture is not comfortable playing with. “Blindfold Me” shows an encounter within a relationship between two African Americans – it still gives the viewer the unnerving image of a black woman in bondage, but the power dynamic is not as freighted with racial significance.

Rihanna’s video avoids much of this by placing the singer in the role of dominatrix for much of the action, yet we are still given the shot of her trussed up. Here though, the video wants to play the image for laughs – this doesn’t reduce the complexity of the image shown, or its seeming lack of cohesion with the overall thrust of the narrative – but does alleviate some of the discomfort we might feel. Writing about s&m, Pat(rick) Califia notes that “A sadomasochist is well aware that a role adopted during a scene is not appropriate during other interactions and that a fantasy role is not the sum of her total being.” Califia and other pro-s&mers are adamant about the performance aspect of power play and that these scenes are entered into with consent. Califia argues that the props and sexual acts in an s&m scenario are “metaphors for the power imbalance” at the center of the proceedings. Queer theorist Leo Bersani argues against the potentially utopic understanding of power play noting that these excursions into role play are “nothing more than a comparatively invigorating release of tension” and one that actually valorizes existing power dynamics. Turning back to “S&M” we can see that RiRi plays with existing dynamics between celebrity and the media, but cannot undo the overall structure, in part because that would be tantamount to biting the hand that feeds her own fame.

What I found most subversive about “S&M” in contrast with the videos by Kelis and Ciara, is that along with asserting herself as the dominant party, RiRi is also removed from a dyadic sexual exchange. Kelis and Ciara are both paired with an erotic partner within the frame of the video; Rihanna is shown sheparding a group of journalists and romping with a room full of gaudy and genderqueer people. The only individualized male figure is Perez Hilton as her submissive/ dog – but he is not shown as a viable sexual outlet and our extratextual knowledge of him identifying as a gay man removes him as a sexual possibility. Or, alternately, this opens up the far queerer reading that “S&M” suggests – that in the video’s frame Rihanna’s desires are polymorphously perverse and sadomasochistic, that her sex play encompasses crowds of people without respect to gender or sexuality. Where the previous video’s off Loud celebrated masturbatory self-love (“Only Girl In the World”) and vaguely feminist coupling (“What’s My Name”), “S&M” removes her from the heteronormative running and instead shows her in a bizarro world offered by deterrotorializing the body via BDSM.

Taking that power as a woman of color makes “S&M” more radical, placing Rihanna in a position similar to Madonna in “Justify My Love” or taking a step further the dominatrix façade that Beyoncé suggests but never explores with her framing and posturing in her videos. Rihanna flips our racial script and shows the complexities of power play, the ways in which we cannot completely slip the yoke of dominant structures, but if we open up our sexual options beyond the dyadic twosome this way lies fun, perversity, and wicked humor. That's not to say this video cannot be read as just a recapitulation to the controlling images circulating, that someone might not see RiRi as proving that once again black women like to have sex, a lot, like so much that they kidnap people for it. The key here, as with all S&M is that for her it's consensual, and for the kidnapped media it's a fantasy. Rihanna takes power, yields power, holds power within the fantasy scenario - her body is object, but also actor, and that works against the controlling image of black women as simultaneously sexual animal, and passive sexual good. It's a complicated text that could read as complicit with hegemonic ideals, but than what popular text isn't?

An addendum, according to the BBC the version of "S&M"/"Come On" they are playing is a remix from the Rihanna camp, a sanctioned censored version. That hasn't stopped RhiRhi from voicing her dislike. Ah capitalism.