The first music video broadcast on MTV, which launched in 1981, was “Video Killed the Radio Star.” The second was Pat Benatar’s “You Better Run.” In the performance video, Benatar struts in front of her backing band of goofy men while posing hard and threateningly in the direction of some off-screen lover, the viewer. The whole thing takes place in a warehouse, or some other backlot location, as was favored by oodles of those classic ’80s video directors.
Videos have changed a lot since then. Some of them still take place in undecorated warehouse sets, sure, but most of them at least tell stories, even if only vague ones. And it’s a vague story that’s told in Rihanna’s just-released, very NSFW video for ANTI‘s “Needed Me.” But it’s a story that only Rihanna would have the guts to tell, and one that signifies her very special place in pop culture as a star who doesn’t need and doesn’t want our approval.
Rihanna’s last few videos — for “Kiss It Better” and “Work” — were the kind of beautiful, narratively undercooked things expected of pop stars, and thus not at all similar to “Needed Me,” which was directed by Harmony Korine. This latest video is barely three minutes long, and in those brief minutes Rihanna does basically two things: she poses in a sheer dress while wielding a gun, and she stomps through a strip club to use that gun, shooting a man point blank in his forehead. It’s not the first time Rihanna has murdered someone in a video, and it probably won’t be the last, because she’s managed to carve out a place as maybe the most daring, no-fucks-given pop-star of all-time.
This attitude has only recently bled its way explicitly into her videos, but Rihanna has low-key inhabited that space for years, as proven by her attitude on social media, where things have calmed down but where she was once banned for posting topless photos and was otherwise constantly posting weed-drag selfies. As silly as the no-nipple rule is on Instagram, you wouldn’t find it being broken by someone like Beyoncé, or Lorde, or even Lady Gaga, who has maybe killed more men in her own music videos. But what separates “Needed Me” from the videos of Gaga or even her own “Man Down,” which finds Rihanna killing a man who’d sexually assaulted her, is that, in “Needed Me,” we don’t see any explicit reason for the guy’s death.
Maybe the guy was a dickhead, maybe he was an abuser, or maybe Korine and Rihanna just thought it wold be pretty cool if Rihanna shot some dude in the head. (For what it’s worth, the target of Rihanna’s gunshots does fight back, however weakly.) There is no textual answer to why Rihanna is killing men, no matter how hard one looks. The aesthetic of the video is nearly identical to Korine’s last feature, Spring Breakers, and it does the same thing as that film, but in a literal fraction of the time: idealize female sexuality and blatantly establish woman’s dominance for little more than the thrill of it. Korine was perhaps the first to do this in a movie starring Disney stars, but he obviously wasn’t the first to do this, as evidenced by Species, Hard Candy, the concept of a succubus, etc. Neither is this the first time for Rihanna, who also did it less efficiently and more gratuitously in her “Bitch Better Have My Money” video, though there she didn’t discriminate by gender in her killing.
So, Rihanna unapologetically kills dudes in music videos. What’s the point? The point is that each of Rihanna’s 10 albums has charted in the top 10 of the Billboard 200. She’s one of the best-selling artists of all time. That Rihanna is willing to release videos, and create art, so at odds with the still-very PC mainstream media (one can imagine Rihanna’s “73 Questions” being much less rehearsed than Taylor‘s), says two things. First, that the consumption of music, specifically music videos, has, thanks to the internet, become such a solitary, choice-based activity that a video with a pop star explicitly killing someone is no longer guaranteed to make headlines, though it is pretty much guaranteed to blow up on Twitter. This is because there’s no chance of a mom flipping through the channels and seeing that her daughter’s favorite pop star is committing murder on MTV. If Pat Benatar released her video for “You Better Run” today, would she be talking to a faceless guy… or would she be chasing him down the street and potentially killing him, or at least maiming him good? This also says something about the new need for dangerous personae to be literalized by action rather than implied by words — but then again, pop music has never been a place for subtlety.
Second, it says that Rihanna has slyly achieved such high status that she’s beyond any possible controversy that something like this could stir up. She doesn’t care if she causes outrage, because what’s outrage other than publicity? Her spot is nearly unimpeachable. Thanks to being so prolific, her reputation doesn’t rest on shifting the paradigm like Beyoncé’s does, and she can’t be ruined by one false move, as Gaga was with Artpop. One could say that this kind of in-your-face aesthetic is the thing that defines Rihanna, that her brand now depends on her being brashly defiant of the law and decorum, a tactic that would otherwise be unmarketable for a young woman entering pop, but Rihanna didn’t start this way. Sex was always her thing, sure, but for the better part of a decade that was it. Well, sex and weed.
And so it becomes even more impressive that she’s managed to create this new body of work that has centralized Rihanna-on-man violence, especially given the fact that, for a moment, it seemed her career would be defined by the opposite. Rihanna may not be the most vocally awe-inspiring of our current crop of pop stars, and she might not be the most consistent, but she’s fueled by an insistent and interesting personality, and that is why, beyond all the hits (and misses), she’s continued to be so successful and beloved, and probably will be for quite some time, no matter how many people she kills in her videos.