Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Reading Eminem and Rihanna's 'Love The Way You Lie'

Ever since Eminem and Rihanna's video for their hit song "Love The Way You Lie" was released, I've been thinking about the song's violent lyrics and its video's violent imagery. The folks over at Sociological Images helped me wrap my initial thoughts around the video:

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a beautiful song. Rihanna’s vocals are gorgeous; it’s was hard to not feel heartfelt while listening to them. And that’s the problem. It’s a powerful form of socialization. That we might internalize the message that passionate love and incontrollable rage go hand-in-hand is really very scary. It suggests not only that you should tolerate interpersonal violence but that, if there is no violence in your relationship, perhaps you don’t really love one another.

How many individuals feel happy when their partner expresses jealousy, even goes into a jealous rage? Why is that dynamic normalized in varying degrees? There's no denying the song's popularity. According to Yahoo! Finance, "Love the Way You Lie," "...has reigned at No. 1 on the Digital Songs chart for five consecutive weeks and has sold more than 1.4 million downloads." A portion of the lyrics:

Told you this is my fault
Look me in the eyeball
Next time I'm pissed
I'll aim my fist
At the dry wall
Next time
There will be no next time
I apologize
Even though I know it's lies
I'm tired of the games
I just want her back
I know I'm a liar
If she ever tries to fucking leave again
I'mma tie her to the bed
And set the house on fire

Graphic and shocking to say the least, as are the images in the video, which features movie and television stars Megan Fox and Dominic Monaghan:





Graphic and shocking was largely the point. The song was authored by Eminem, who then asked to collaborate with Rihanna, in part because of her history as an intimate partner violence (IPV) victim (listen
here for an excellent discussion on Rihanna, Chris Brown, and the gendered politics of IPV). Against my general principles, I dug into the "bee-bop" popular culture internet sites to see what I could find about how this song and video were intended to address IPV. In fact, there are direct connections being made between the video and IPV.

For instance, Megan Fox has
donated her video appearance fee to a shelter for battered women. And in a VH1 interview with Rihanna, the music star explains her and Eminem's personal connection to the song's theme:

"It's something that, you know, [Eminem and I have] both experienced, you know, on different sides, different ends of the table," she said.

"It just was authentic. It was real," Rihanna continued. "It was believable for us to do a record like that, but it was also something that needed to be done and the way he did it was so clever. He pretty much just broke down the cycle of domestic violence and it's something that a lot people don't have a lot of insight on, so this song is a really, really powerful song and it touches a lot of people."

[...]

Ultimately, the song was something Rihanna felt was in line with her past relationship. "The lyrics were so deep, so beautiful and intense. It's something that I understood, something I connected with," she revealed.

"The concept of 'Love the Way You Lie' was essentially a look at the relationship that Eminem was in with his wife, Kim, so I kind of felt like I was playing Eminem a little bit, and Megan Fox was kind of playing Kim.

"It's the story of them getting to know each other, and it's the story of their tumultuous relationship, and it was the story of the breakdown of their relationship," he continued. "Ultimately, what I think he's trying to say in the song ... is that he should have walked away a little bit quicker than he did and not let it get as messy as it did."

At least explicity, there was critical thought put into this popular culture artifact. My question is, how will young people from different demographics and different life experiences interpret the song's and video's violent content? The one empirical study I could find on Eminem's music and its effects on listeners found that young adults who listened to his songs with misogynistic lyrics were largely unaffected by them, though the study was only conducted with research participants who were college students (Cobb & Boettcher, 2007).

In my
dissertation, adolescent research participants spoke quite openly about the ways they saw IPV as completely normal. These were teens who had experienced multiple forms of violence throughout their lives (peer, family, romantic, drug, physical, verbal) -- certainly not the average college student. I wonder what their interpretations would be.

Then yesterday, I heard a male radio DJ essentially state the following after "Love The Way You Lie" was played: "You know, Megan Fox is supposed to play an abused victim in that song's video, (chuckling) but in the video, she's the abuser. I didn't see her get hit once. She was doing all the hitting!" Uh, yeah, real funny. Was that the video's intent? And did he miss all the punching of the walls (physical intimidation)? Contrast that point of view with a female student in my Sociology of Popular Culture class:

As for the video, I think maybe it has good intentions, especially using two artists who have a history with IPV, but I don't think it will be beneficial. Using [Dominic Monaghan] and Megan Fox (a sex symbol for everyone today) [it] seems to glorify the topic by using two high end celebrities. This video seemed like it wanted to make domestic violence look sexy and possessiveness look masculine.

Perhaps for some listeners, the song and video do raise consciousness regarding IPV prevention -- what Monaghan said the video is intended to accomplish. But certainly not for everyone. For the student quoted above, the video was offensive and reified traditional gender norms. To get a little academic, from John Storey (1993):

...an image containing references to pop music culture might be seen by a young audience as an index of freedom and heterogeneity, whilst to an older audience it might signal manipulation and homgeneity. Which codes are mobilized will largely depend on the triple context of the location of the text, the historical moment and the cultural formation of the reader (p. 80).

Since people with different social histories interpret popular culture differently, I'd be interested to see how young people from different demographics digest this song and video. Do the cultural artifacts problematize IPV (the stated intent) or further normalize and perpetuate this form of violence?

Or, as indicated by the radio DJ, does this video mobilize codes that perpetuate misunderstandings about co-occurring violence in intimate relationships? For instance, too many people assume that when males and females hit each other, the physical ramifications are equally harmful. Does the video gloss over the fact that verbal abuse, social isolation, and other forms of control (e.g., forcing what a partner wears) can be more damaging than physical violence?

The song's and video's influence will likely diminish over time. Nonetheless, "Love The Way You Lie" demonstrates how people's readings of the same cultural product can vary greatly, and how received meanings can be shaped more by audiences' past experiences than by the cultural producers.

Non Internet Sources:

Cobb, M. D., & Boettcher, W. A. (2007). Ambivalent Sexism and Misogynistic Rap Music: Does Exposure to Eminem Increase Sexism? Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 37 (12), 3025-3042.

Storey, J. (1993). An Introductory Guide to Cultural Theory and Popular Culture. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

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9 comments:

  1. Dave I was on a painting job and heard this song play repeatedly in on the radio. I was listening to the lyrics and was thinking exactly the same thing...Thank you for posting this article and commenting on this subject.

    I agree that this song is so powerful, yet sending a very dangerous I think harmful message.

    There were little girls running around humming and singing along to this song who were playing in the yard. I was like "this is terrible." If I had a daughter Id turn it off. "love the way you lie." is such a powerful song - added with emotion and music creates a perfect vehicle right into the subconscious mind. Science shows it is this unconscious mind that controls behavior and perception. This literally brainwashes listeners even though they may be consciously and/or critically aware that this is "just a song." the many kids listening to this song are not aware of the social implications or consequences.

    Rihanas sentiment that this song is an artful song representing real life is true...but it doesn't make it any less of a dangerous mechanism for the acceptance of violence in relationships.

    This song literally brainwashes young girls to stay in abusive relationships, granted it is a realistic representation of how people feel when they are in one...does more to validate and relate to it rather than make a positive move to change.

    Kids hear this on the radio and hum a long unaware of the message burned into their minds...it's okay for guys to hit the dry wall "next time" so they can be cool like Eminem and get hot girls like Rihana/Megan Fox.

    Next time Im bringing my ipod.

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  2. Wow, thanks for the VERY thoughtful comment Steven. I think your comment about the song influencing girls to stay in abusive relationships really hits home when the video ends, picturing the couple still laying together in bed. Sad.

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  3. To be honest, although I've listened to this song quite a few times on the radio, not once did I ever understand what Eminem was singing. It was just a garbled noise to me. When I heard Rihanna's lyrics, I got what was apparently a completely incorrect impression.

    You see, I thought that it was a song about about a girl whose heart was being broken, and I thought that all of the "I love the way you lie" and "I like the way it hurts" lines were intended to be lies themselves, lies she was telling herself.

    Well, I like listening to Rihanna's vocals, but we always switch stations nowadays when Eminem's voice comes in. My family doesn't like rap.

    (For demographic purposes, I'm twenty-one, female, a college student, and have been in an emotionally abusive relationship before, when I was fifteen. Goodness, was it really six years ago?)

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  4. i believe that this video (more so than the song because of the visuals) teaches society that it's ok to stay in a violent relationship.

    Now whether or not Eminem and Rihanna meant it to be interpreted that way or not, i believe if i were in a relationship as volatile as this i would look at this sensationalized depiction and think, "hmm this must be ok because maybe i'm not the only one who's going through this." I know i've seen images in the media and felt that way before about other things.

    Maybe if the video had a resolution or some kind of positive message at the end there wouldn't be so much controversy, and possibly no discussion though...

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  5. Wow, Castillo?!?!?! Thanks for the comment & thoughts. It's hard to say what the effects are for different groups of people, but I think you shed more light on possible unintended consequences.

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  6. Well, I think the song is not just beautiful, but powerful....in the opposite way you all have posted. Because of the past violent relationships of both Eminem and Rihanna, they are in a position to talk about the cycle of violence - they recognize it. I love the irony of the song. It opens up the door for someone to discuss abusive relationships and to seek help.

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  7. http://www.sociologysource.com/home/2010/9/12/teaching-gender-with-itunes.html

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  8. This song gives me chills I think the intentions when writing this were positive period point blank.

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  9. Great article! I was looking for an analysis because I also felt that the message is ambiguous and can be read either way. It definitely glorifies IPV and some people will buy into that no matter what we say.

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