Sunday 22 August 2010

Eminem/Rihanna: glamorising domestic violence?

I'm a little late with this one, but here are three perspectives on the contentious single 'Love the Way You Lie', all of them interesting and thought-provoking. (By featuring just excerpts I don't do any of the writers proper justice, so I recommend clicking the links and reading more).

The first two views, from Jenny McCartney and Laurie Penny, both suggest the latest Eminem song, featuring Rihanna, glamorises violence against women. Their articles aren't principally focused on reviewing the song: the former is writing (in last Sunday's Observer) about the issue of 'sexualisation' of girls through the influence of pop culture, and the latter is critiquing (in the Telegraph) the new 'brutality chic'.

Reviewing the song and video, Elly Badcock and Jo Gough are far more sympathetic to the controversial track, arguing it is more complex than it might first seem.

Jenny McCartney in the Telegraph:

Eminem's voice describes how he has hit his girlfriend, and feels ashamed: he woos her back with promises of change, but remarks to himself that "if she ever tries to f---ing leave again, I'm gonna tie her to the bed and set this house on fire."

At which point, the lip-glossed Rihanna (who has herself been the victim of domestic violence) sings the languorous chorus: "Just gonna stand there and watch me burn / But that's all right because I like the way it hurts." Given the specificity of the Eminem persona's plans, the burning doesn't sound too metaphorical to me.

The reception has been split between those who have criticised Eminem for romanticising domestic violence, and those who applaud him for raising the "difficult issue" at all. I don't get the latter argument. Of course he's raising it: the problem is what he does with it. The rather brutal love glamorised here is intensely passionate and fated to end in destruction: specifically, that of the woman.

Laurie Penny in the Observer:

'Suggesting that women are sexual beings is not problematic, particularly in pop, which has always commodified desire, but suggesting that women are submissive sexual objects who invite abuse and violence is deeply problematic. That narrative is central to the language of pop music today.

Last week, Eminem and Rihanna's video for their latest single, "Love the Way You Lie", was seen by millions of young people; the song appears to glamorise abusive relationships, with Rihanna, who is well-known as a victim of domestic violence and has been celebrated for dumping the boyfriend who assaulted her, singing about a lover who likes to "stand there and watch me burn/But that's alright because I like the way it hurts".

Yes, we can see almost all of Rihanna's legs in the video, but the type of passive, meekly brutalised sexuality being represented here is infinitely more troubling than its extent.'

Elly Badcock and Jo Gough at Counterfire:

Eminem and Rihanna’s recent chart-topper, Love the Way You Lie, tackles the painful and prominent issue of domestic violence without resorting to shallow stereotypes. The song follows the story of a violent relationship, narrated by the abuser. We are privy to the twists and turns in logic that run through the abuser's mind as he attempts to justify his behaviour – “but your temper’s just as bad as mine is”, he pleads.

Interestingly though, we also glimpse the moments of clarity – the shame and the galling realisation of what it means to be a woman-beater. And it is this that makes Love the Way You Lie both fascinating and instinctively repulsive – this is not the ramblings of a deluded maniac but of a troubled man struggling to draw lines between love, fear, hate and anger.

Rihanna is noticeably absent for the majority of this track, coming in only for the chorus: “Just gonna stand there and watch me burn; well that’s alright, because I love the way it hurts. Just gonna stand there and hear me cry, well that's all right because I love the way you lie."

This is, to say the least, uncomfortable – a song about domestic violence in which the only female voice is reduced to painfully affirming, over and over, how much she loves the beatings...

The idea of the loving relationship is why so many victims return, and through the chorus repeating that she loves the hurt and lies it highlights the psychological hold within violent relationships. Love is used as a reason for both the violence and for staying together.

There is a quiet strength to Rihanna's singing, and coupled with the ironic undertone of the lyrics, the chorus could also be reaching out to perpetrators. Of course the woman doesn't love it, and no matter how much he excuses or gets her to excuse the violence, it is not justified...

The song and video leaves you with a haunting insight into the cycle of domestic violence and where it can end up- and gives the message to leave the situation before it is too late. The song's message is for both the victim and perpetrator, sung by a victim and perpetrator who are no longer in abusive relationships. It sends out the message that there is a way out.'

And my own view?

Although I admire the subtlety of Elly and Jo's review, and think they make interesting points, I'm ultimately not convinced. I think the video is deeply problematic - it makes a violent relationship appear sexy, blurring distinctions between erotic role-play and domestic abuse - but even if you ignore that and focus only on the song, there are serious problems.

The male voice is dominant - and it's not a terribly self-questioning one. Rihanna's voice does indeed have a certain strength - and her sections are musically seductive - but there's no avoiding the problems with her lyrics.

Crucially, the whole thing is framed in terms of love: this is a love duet (a twisted and unusual one, yes, but that's still what it is). And that's a problem, because domestic violence is ultimately about power rather than love.

It's correct, admittedly, that 'love' is a major psychological factor in why many women in such situations will cling on to the relationship. This track gives eloquent expression to that, I agree, and artistically that gives it a lift.

The difficulty is that it's framed in a way that is far too uncritical - the lyrics are reinforcing that impulse ('stay because I'm in love') rather than challenging it. It also obscures the other, less sentimental, factors involved in women remaining in abusive relationships - a point well made by McCartney elsewhere in her article.

Finally, I'm unconvinced there is any kind of journey to enlightenment in the lyrics. I can't detect some new self-knowledge on the abuser's part by the end - just more self-justification, which leaves any 'message' at best ambiguous.



  1. people should try to understand the meaning of lyrics if you go deeper u will understand the real meaning of the lyrics of this song. this is not a novel lyrics are like poetry

  2. they are not glorifying domestic abuse but they are showing the real truth about what goes on in domestic abusive relationships this is exactly why a few cases are reported because women tend to get used to the beatings and false prommises(that this wont happen again) KUDOS to EMINEM for showing the worlf the real truth about domestic violence i have been involved in an abusive relationship myself and when i watch that rihanna and eminems video i get a flashback of what really happened to me so for those who havent experience this please think before you comment

  3. I'd like to say that while talking about the issue of domestic violence is the first step in trying to create awareness, it is equally important to communicate the message within a context that can positively educate those who are not particularly aware of the issue. I think the questions we need to ask regarding the Eminem/Rihana production are:
    1. What message does a person in an abusive relationship gets from the song? Will it give people strength to cope with challenges or make a change in their lives?
    2. What about someone who is not directly affected by domestic violence? Will this person be more aware of the issue because of the song?
    3. Finally, are these two major recording artists/celebrities using their influence to make a positive difference?

    One band that addresses all these questions is the Celtic-rock band Apsylon. They've not only written a song that addresses the seriousness of domestic violence, but they also put their money where their mouth is. They are not a major recording artist, but an independent group that donates part of their album sales to two organizations that deal with domestic violence and teen dating abuse. I wish we would hear more about artists like Apsylon ( who truly are trying to make a positive difference.

    Anyway, that's just my two cents; thanks for reading.