October 2013

Arts & Letters

Rihanna and pop music’s history of domestic violence

By Anwen Crawford
Is it really nobody’s business?


As a teenager, Eva Boyd – better known by her stage name, Little Eva – babysat for the songwriting couple Gerry Goffin and Carole King, who worked out of New York’s famed Brill Building. Goffin and King wrote ‘The Loco-Motion’ for Eva, who took the song to Number 1 on the US charts in 1962, with more than a million copies sold. 

Eva’s boyfriend was beating her. Noticing her bruises, Goffin and King asked her why she stayed with him. “Because he loves me” was the gist of Eva’s reply. In light of this, King wrote the music, and Goffin the lyrics, to ‘He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)’, which was recorded by The Crystals, also in 1962, and produced by Phil Spector. With its slow, rigid arrangement and Barbara Alston’s over-enunciated, flat, almost affectless vocal, ‘He Hit Me’ was a commercial flop. Radio programmers wouldn’t list it, and it failed to enter the Billboard Hot 100. 

Fast-forward 50 years to last November, when controversy erupted over Unapologetic, the seventh studio album by Barbados-born singer Robyn Fenty, better known as Rihanna. The album features a collaboration with Rihanna’s on-again off-again boyfriend, R&B singer Chris Brown, who was sentenced to five years’ probation for an assault on her in 2009. Police photographs of Rihanna’s bruised and swollen face were leaked to the press and widely circulated online; her injuries required hospitalisation. “Always be my boy / I’ll always be your girl / Ain’t nobody’s business / But mine and my baby,” sings Rihanna on ‘Nobody’s Business’, the tenth track on Unapologetic, a shimmying duet with Brown that bears the latent musical influence of Chicago house and borrows from Michael Jackson’s ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’. 

In pop music, very little is ever truly new. ‘Nobody’s Business’ is a nod to the blues standard ‘Ain’t Nobody’s Business’, variations on which have been recorded by Bessie Smith, Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday, and which Jackson quotes on his own track. “I’d rather my man would hit me / Than for him to jump up and quit me / Ain’t nobody’s business if I do,” sang Holiday on a 1949 Decca recording, her magnificent voice already disintegrating. Holiday, too, had suffered domestic violence, as had Tina Turner, who recorded a version of the song with her abusive partner, Ike. Rihanna – like Holiday and Turner before her – asks us to keep our noses out, but her private life is clearly somebody’s business. Unapologetic has sold nearly 3.5 million copies worldwide.

Why do some songwriters choose to make pop product out of violence against women – particularly black women? What complicity do performers have in that process, if any? Are they mere dupes of their producers, or are these women trying to convey to us the complex nature of their decisions to stay with – or return to – abusive partners, despite our resistance to hearing it? These questions don’t have simple answers, or even right answers, which doesn’t mean that they’re not worth asking. 

It’s easy to dislike Rihanna, and many people do. At 25, she’s one of the most commercially successful recording artists in pop history and has been a dominant presence on the charts for the past half-decade, but to some listeners she’s the ne plus ultra of contemporary pop as pure commodity, a chess piece moved about the board of commerce by production teams and corporate sponsors far more interested in money than in music. What makes her dislikeable is that she doesn’t seem to care; lack of interest (or the performance of it) is her vocal signature, with boredom and contempt somewhere close behind. It’s very punk.

In contrast to her chart rival Beyoncé, Rihanna is no paragon of black entrepreneurialism and middle-class respectability. She is not likely to sing at any president’s inauguration. Despite her riches she has the words ‘Thug Life’ tattooed across her knuckles, in homage to the slain rapper Tupac Shakur. Several of her best songs play on this toughness: songs like ‘Rude Boy’, with its coldly precise cymbal claps and the singer’s challenge to her would-be lover, “Come here rude boy / Boy, can you get it up?” Rude boy is Jamaican slang for a street tough, and Rihanna’s ability to slip in and out of Caribbean patois, along with her musical links to dancehall, mark her out from the pop also-rans. ‘Man Down’, from her 2010 album Loud, takes a classic dancehall trope – “Oh mama, mama, mama, I just shot a man down” – but turns the assailant into a woman. Amid wailing sirens Rihanna delivers her vocal in a syncopated, swaggering contralto. 

Almost every contemporary pop song gives a listener the impression of a “live” vocal performance, but each is a composite, stitched together syllable by syllable from dozens of studio takes. Rihanna’s most famous song, ‘Umbrella’, foregrounds this post-production: “You can stand under my umbrella / -ella, -ella” was the vocal hook that ruled the charts in 2007, the song’s title chopped and stretched into an alien shape. For ears attuned to the vocal science of dance music and its robot-diva breaks, this might not have been anything remarkable, but in a pop context it was that rare thing: a new sound. 

Rihanna is the first singer to have fully internalised Auto-Tune. It’s not that her producers don’t use the ubiquitous pitch-correction software, because they certainly do; more that the coldness of her vocal style, the strange mechanistic detachment of it, is the sound of someone who has learnt to Auto-Tune their voice before the software is even applied. To some listeners this might be further reason to object, but to others Rihanna heralds the future of pop, where the boundary between technology and human performance continues to blur.

Rihanna’s vocal detachment is as sullen as it is bored, and Unapologetic is unusually melancholic for a pop record. Many reviewers described it on release as tired, listless or downbeat, and the descriptions seem tied to discomfort with the album’s subject matter. As philosopher Robin James has written, “Rihanna does not turn her damage into the best of all possible success stories.” Unlike Taylor Swift, who released ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’ around the same time as Unapologetic, Rihanna has no narrative that chimes with mainstream feminist notions of resilience and overcoming. Her toughness reads as stubborn perversity, not self-loving triumph. 

In 1963, Goffin and King returned to the theme of ‘He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)’ with ‘Please Hurt Me’ – “If you’ve gotta hurt somebody / Please hurt me” – recorded by both The Crystals and Little Eva, the latter as a B-side. It’s a better song than ‘He Hit Me’, with a rhythmic sway that comes straight from doo-wop, but it’s no less disturbing. It could be argued that the hurt is meant to be emotional, not physical – “If you’ve gotta break a heart / Then please break mine,” the lyric continues – but given what they knew of Little Eva’s personal life, Goffin and King must have realised that the song would have a stranger, darker resonance. 

Rihanna upsets people, I think, because her lyrics and persona hark back to these earlier female performers, like Little Eva and The Crystals, and even Dusty Springfield, who pleaded in song to be broken by love, and then promised to not get over it. “Like a bullet your love hit me to the core / I was flying till you knocked me to the floor,” sings Rihanna on ‘No Love Allowed’, the penultimate track on Unapologetic, and we can’t help but hear this knock, too, as an assault on the body no less than the heart. 

For her part, King has come to regret her role in the creation of ‘He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)’, telling NPR in an interview last year that she wished she’d had no part in writing it. Years later, King was herself a victim of domestic violence – at the hands of her third husband, Rick Evers – and she, too, stayed with her abuser, as so many women do. Meanwhile, in May 2009 the song’s producer, Phil Spector, was jailed for the murder of actress Lana Clarkson by a single gunshot wound to the mouth. It was not the first time that Spector had been implicated in domestic violence: his second wife, Ronnie Spector (born Veronica Bennett), walked out on him in the early 1970s. “I knew that if I didn’t leave at that time, I was going to die there,” she later said. Battered women are prevalent in the history of pop music because they are prevalent everywhere, and this common suffering, rather than the women who sing or write about it, is the real cause of our disquiet. 

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

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