Subvert, verb:

2a. To overthrow (a nation, government, ruler, etc.); to bring down, depose, put an end to; to defeat, vanquish. Also: to overcome (an ostensibly more powerful force).

2c. To undermine without necessarily bringing down (an established authority, system, or institution); to attempt to achieve, esp. by covert action, the weakening or removal of (a government, political regime, etc.).

6.trans. orig. Literary Criticism. To challenge and undermine (a conventional idea, form, genre, etc.), esp. by using or presenting it in a new or unorthodox way.

-Oxford English Dictionary online, 3Aug15

Today I want to talk about subversive music videos. The heyday of the music video began in the 80s, with MTV as the primary distributor of these little nuggets of film. Some music videos were just performance showcases; some told a story. Pop songs now conjured video images in the heads of those who heard the song.

Rihanna, face coated in blood, stares into the cameraAnd in every age of music videos, there are videos that are controversial, that cause generations of adults gasp in horror and shield their children’s eyes. “Shock value” is a term often tossed around with these videos. “Sensationalism.” “Excess.” And today I want to look at some videos that have all of those things in one way or another, and analyze them against one other factor: subversiveness.

To be subversive, a video must present symbols in a way that challenges existing power structures. By “symbol” I don’t necessarily mean something overt like a burning cross–which is a symbol used in the videos I’m discussing today–rather, a symbol is any image that represents a larger category of images or tropes. A symbol might be a tree, a building, a cigarette, a sandwich, or something film-related like a close-up or an “ass shot”. i hear you cry “but if symbols can be anything, why are we even talking about them?” Because symbols measure subversion: a single thing like a tree can mean a thousand things in a thousand different contexts. Literary theory, kids, hold on to your symbolic hats, ’cause we’re about to talk about pop videos.

One thing to note: all of these videos involve personas, as in the singers acting out a role to tell a story in the video. While some of them are based on fact, like how Rihanna’s accountant really did screw her out of millions of dollars with bad financial advice, nonetheless the performances are not meant to represent the artists as much as the artists’ personas. I will refer to the artists by name, but know that in context of the videos I mean their persona for that video.

Madonna: Like a Prayer

The video opens with a flurry of images: Madonna running with sirens in the background, white men assaulting her in an alley, a burning cross, a black man being arrested, a church. Madonna runs off and hides in said church where she has a vision/moment/thought trip that comprises most of the video. In the church, she frees a Black Jesus statue from his special Catholic saint cage; he comes to life.

four screens from the video: the saint icon, madonna with the crosses, Madonna gazing into the cell, Black Jesus and Madonna about to kissThen Madonna dances around with a black gospel choir and makes out with Black Jesus, inter-cut with scenes of her singing while crosses burn in the background. About halfway through the video we get the twist: we see the scene of her assault, but coherently this time: three white men assaulted her, the black man shooed them away but was arrested, presumably charged with her assault. Back to gospel choir and burning crosses.

Gospel-Choir-Madonna-Like-Prayer-Music-VideoIn the end of the video, Madonna’s in the police station talking to the police, who let out the black guy who saved her.Finally, everyone who appeared in the video–muggers, cops, black man, Madonna, gospel choir–takes a theatrical bow and a red curtain lowers with the words “THE END.”

curtain call at the end***

It’s easy to reduce this video to its most “shock value” signs, at least for the time of its release: “Like a Prayer” is the “making out with Black Jesus” video. Ironically, the figure played by Leon Robinson was supposed to be Saint Thomas, but hey, authorial intent often times means less than popular interpretation. The video is chock full of signs rich with cultural meaning: Jesus, the stigmata, weeping blood, burning crosses, the police. The power structures that all of this imagery is working towards dismantling could be the Catholic Church (the Vatican officially condemned the video, so…), or the police, or the systems of institutional racism and injustice in America. And particularly during its release, the imagery was provocative, especially since like most pop artists, Madonna had a following that included children and teens.

Looking at the video in 2015, a few things stand out to me. One: The race relations between police and young black men is more relevant than ever. In that respect, this video has not aged out of subversive use. Two: To some extent, this reads as a white justice fantasy, by which I meant that this is a story by and for white folks that features Madonna being accepted with open arms by the black community and then heroically saving a young black man with her whiteness. If Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained was a white vengeance fantasy, then “Like a Prayer” is a white justice fantasy. Three: the theater curtains and curtain call at the end of the video are important, drawing out the constructed, artificial nature of power structures represented in the video.

Lady Gaga: Telephone, ft. Beyoncé

Lady Gaga has been thrown in prison (possibly from killing her murderous boyfriend in the her last video, “Paparazzi”), and gets bailed out by Beyoncé.

title screen for Telephone, with Lady Gaga in prison on the phone and Beyonce in a hotel on the phoneThe drive away in the Pussy Wagon from Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films, and go to a diner where Beyoncé poisons one guy (who she presumably has a bad history with) and Lady Gaga poisons everyone else in the diner including the dog.

Lady Gaga holding a bottle of poison

There is then an All-American dance party.

Foreground: a dead diner customer. Background: Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, and backup dancersFinally, Lady Gaga and Beyoncé escape with law enforcement in pursuit and drive off into the sunset.

Lady Gaga and Beyonce, wearing robes and cowboy hats, stand next to the Pussy WagonLady Gaga’s obsessions over the course of her career include both fame and monstrosity, thus her album “The Fame Monster,” where we can find this song. I chose this video because like the Rihanna video I’ll be discussing next, it features violent women. Like the Madonna video, “Telephone” sets itself up as another constructed medium: in this case, a film rather than a stage play. Much of what Lady Gaga makes is about the constructed nature of her own fame as well as celebrity culture.

So is this video provocative? Absolutely. There’s enough spikes, near-nudity, death, and nifty outfits to sink a very fabulous ship.

Is it subversive? Well, kind of, kind of not. While I find Lady Gaga’s overall commentary on fame, appearance, spectacle, and monstrosity intriguing and oftentimes subverting of its own celebrity structures, this video spends more time recreating structures than breaking them down.

Take the prison scene, for example. Mostly, it recreates the women-in-prison tropes of 70s exploitation films, just with an updated look: butch female wardens punishing Lady Gaga, catfights between prisoners, makeouts between prisoners, and a dance number in leather thongs. Bitch Planet this is not.

Take, also, the Quentin Tarantino references. In Kill Bill, the Pussy Wagon was driven by a rapist man, then stolen and co-opted by Uma Thurman’s character Beatrix Kiddo to wreak bloody vengeance on those what done her wrong. In “Telephone,” it’s presumably Beyoncé’s car. The other Tarantino reference is that Beyoncé’s name/nickname in the video is “Honey B,” a reference to Honey Bunny, one half of the diner holdup duo from Pulp Fiction. This foreshadows what the duo will do at the diner. They poison folks using service and sweetness (honey). The deaths of everyone except for Honey B’s awful man (played by Tyrese) are ultimately gratuitous, unlike the death Rihanna’s video. The brutality is unexpected and subverts the structure of women as automatically sweet, kind, and servile.

Ironically, the most subversive part of the video was the All-American Dance Scene at the end. Juxaposed with the brutal poisoning, its use of the American flag and an enthusiastic dance routine make it an ironic end to the story. This is the performance you’ve come to expect of us, the dancers seem to say. So were the murders just a part of that performance?

TL; DR: The meat dress was subversive. The women-in-prison was not. The murder-and-dance-away was kinda subversive.


Rihanna: Bitch Better Have My Money

(video is NSFW )

Rihanna’s 2015 video, “Bitch Better Have My Money,” or BBHMM for short, was met with Like-a-Prayer-esque shock and horror after it dropped.

The video opens with an image of a trunk with bloody legs sticking out of it. Then we see a white woman in sheer lingerie getting ready, kissing her husband, and leaving her house with an ornamental dog. This is inter-cut with Rihanna dragging a large trunk into an elevator that the white woman enters…ding, when the elevator opens at the bottom floor, it’s just Rihanna, the trunk, and the dog.

Inside the elevator with white woman dog, trunk, RihannaThe video then goes through a series of tortures that Rihanna and her two flunkies are doing to the white woman: stripping her, hanging her upside down in a shed, Weekend With Bernie-ing her (knocking her out and pretending she’s conscious) in front of a cop, almost drowning her, and making her drink and smoke drugs. There are several shots of Rihanna on the phone.

Rihanna and her two flunkies and the white woman sit in lawn chairs. The white woman is passed out; Rihanna waves her hand.Throughout, the lyrics:

Bitch better have my money!
Y’all should know me well enough
Bitch better have my money!
Please don’t call me on my bluff
Pay me what you owe me
Ballin’ bigger than LeBron
Bitch, give me your money
Who y’all think y’all frontin’ on?
Like brrap, brrap, brrap

Louis 13 and it’s all on me, nigga you just bought a shot
Kamikaze if you think that you gon’ knock me off the top
Shit, your wife in the backseat of my brand new foreign car
Don’t act like you forgot, I call the shots, shots, shots
Like blah, brrap, brrap
Pay me what you owe me, don’t act like you forgot

The turn of the video happens at 4:50, when Rihanna and company return to the house of the rich woman. We meet the “bitch” that the song has been talking about: not the woman, not any woman, but rather the accountant, played by Mads Mikkelsen, who we learn has ruined Rihanna’s credit and stolen her money. We see him tied up, gagged. We see Rihanna selecting weapons that are labeled with different sins (“cheater,” “ruined my credit,” etc), inter-cut with re-plays of the scenes we saw before of Rihanna on the phone. This time, though, we see the flip side of the conversation: Rihanna’s been asking for her money, using the wife as collateral, but the man doesn’t care. He’s sleeping with sex workers, wasting cash, living a life of excess. To him, his wife is just as much of an object as Rihanna and gang have been treating her.

tumblr_nqug5f35fN1uqfp9do10_500The final scene of the video goes back to the opening image: the trunk with the bloody legs. The camera turns and we see that the legs are not those of the wife, but of Rihanna, who is naked, covered in blood, lighting a cigar with money, and lying on the trunk full of cash. Presumably, the wife lives, and the accountant is dead.

Final scene with Rihanna naked and bloody in trunk full of cash.The sheer violent imagery of the video shocked a lot of folks. Unlike Lady Gaga, from whom “Telephone” was an expected spectacle, Rihanna got blasted for such a tonal departure from some of her previous work. The violence in BBHMM was exaggerated and theatrical in the way that rap video violence is exaggerated and theatrical, but it had one less step of hyperbole and showmanship than “Telephone.” I think that’s why many folks condemned the video so strongly: it’s too violent/graphic, they said, meaning that it’s unironic violence that’s not being played for laughs coming from the hand of a black woman.

There’s been a lot of critical commentary on the video, including Karley Sciorentino’s thesis that the white woman and the white man represent the idea of whiteness more than actual people, and the idea put forth by HuffPo’s Barbara Sostaita that the video is a metaphor for reparations. My favorite commentary on the video’s scenes of violence towards a woman comes from the brilliant Mia McKenzie of Black Girl Dangerous: That a white woman (specifically) is turned into the object of a vengeance fantasy to help the survival of a black woman is putting White Feminists’ shorts in a knot. If it were the accountant’s brother, McKenzie points out, certain white women commentators would not feel so uncomfortable because, y’know, dang men, and we’re all in this together and stuff. The critical commentary surrounding the video is a part of the measure of its subversiveness, much like “Like a Prayer.”

I think this video does very clever things to subvert the following power structures: race, gender, rap video tropes, and the male gaze. Rihanna doing things that many men have done in many movies, music videos, and video games is subversive to begin with: why do we decry her but not other artists with similar content in their videos? Why is this terrible, but not Grand Theft Auto or Eminem’s “Kim”? Mads Mikkelsen, who plays Hannibal the cannibal on the NBC show Hannibal, is an interesting choice for the accountant. His presence seems to ask: Are you offended? If so, why this? Why now?

The nudity in the video is by and large non-sexual. The stripped white woman is not there to be sexy, she’s there to be meat, an object with which to earn money. Twice we see Rihanna nude or near-naked: once at the end, and once when she’s in a pool. There’s one sexualized shot of her butt in a thong swimsuit, but it’s only half the frame: the other half of the frame is the white woman being hidden from police, underneath a pool floatie.

music-rihanna-bbhmm-3Were you looking at her butt? Because then you are just as dumb as the cop, and as powerless as the woman under the water. Rihanna has the power in this situation.

riribbhmmA powerful black woman who is willing to act in a violent, monstrous capacity in order to ensure her own survival is a subversive image in the USA in 2015.


What did you think of these videos? Do you find them subversive, or not? What other pop videos do you find subversive? Tell us in the comments, preciousss.