When I heard the buzz about the performance of Rihanna and Britney Spears the day following the Billboard Music Awards, I was peeved for a couple of reasons.   And I hadn’t even seen it yet.
First of all, there was buzz.  The fact that people were talking about it means that the uninspired formula worked.   The two singers sang the “S&M remix” while gyrating around two stripper poles, holding chains, neither wearing pants, ending with a contrived pillow fight.  I’m not sure how we started with stripping and finished with a fake slumber party, so one can only guess that fulfilling stereotypical male fantasies was the connecting link.
Second, the unnecessary heterosexual girl-on-girl kiss shared at the end of the song confirmed my hunch that this performance was designed primarily to please the male crowd, or at least, what we think the male crowd wants.  Haven’t we been here before, circa 2003 with Madonna?
My annoyance quickly melted to concern as I pondered the sadomasochism theme.   “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but chains and whips excite me,” the song beats and bumps.  The remix featuring Britney amps up the violent overtones even more.   Tough, I don’t scream mercy.  It’s your time to hurt me.  If I’m bad tie me down, shut me up, gag and bound me, cause the pain is my pleasure.  Nothing comes better.
Pain is my pleasure?
It’s your time to hurt me?

It’s hard not to notice that many of Rihanna’s recent music and videos contain strains of violence, whether hinted or outright.  Coming on the heels of Chris Brown’s highly publicized dating abuse of her, the emerging violence in her songs and videos gives reason to pause.
Some have criticized her new video for “Man Down,” in which a young woman (played by Rihanna) in the first scene shoots and kills a man who, we find out later, had previously raped her.   While I can’t say that murder is ever excusable, it is possible to interpret the story in different ways, e.g. perhaps the murder is what she dreamed about doing while trying to recover from such a heinous crime perpetrated against her.  And it could serve as a starting-off point for discussion of rape and its consequences with a mature audience.  The danger, however, is that empowerment might be equated with violence.
Perhaps more disturbing is “Love the Way You Lie,” a collaboration between Rihanna and Eminem (no stranger himself to depictions of violence against women), which shows a couple physically fighting in one moment, and then kissing passionately the very next, glamorizing the idea of a conflicted, violent relationship.   The idea is that they love each other so much that they do crazy things, and could even hurt each other – which they do.  The man ostensibly lights the house on fire while Rihanna sings in the background. “Just gonna stand there and watch me burn.  But that’s all right because I like the way it hurts.”
Why should she have to stand there and accept this terrible violence?  And why would she like it?

Photo source

Eminem throws his two cents in, just in case there was any room for interpretation of this violent dating relationship.  “If she ever tries to [expletive] leave again, I’m gonna tie her to the bed and set this house on fire.”
Meanwhile, teenagers – obviously their main demographic – are left with the notion that violence and passion can be interchangeable; love and hurt a natural pair.
Now let’s rewind to the S&M performance and its lyrics.  Pain is my pleasure.  It’s your time to hurt me. How is Britney’s plea to be tied, bound, and gagged much different from Eminem’s threat to tie up his girlfriend and burn the house down?  Perhaps they are different, but the lines are blurring.  While some think Rihanna’s purported enjoyment of sadomasochism is a perfectly acceptable expression of her sexuality at the ripe age of 23, it is oversimplified to say that S&M is fine, but murder is wrong.  How do we draw that delicate line?
How does a 16 year-old pop music fan make a distinction between violence as a permissive expression of sexuality and violence in a relationship as an exertion of control, dominance, and possessiveness?   If we continue to create this confusing continuum of fun-excitement-passion-sexuality-tension-hostility-explosiveness-violence, how can we expect teenagers, male or female, to make the right decisions about healthy relationships?