Doreen St Felix’s amazing piece on Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Get My Money” hones in on Rih’s black feminist approach to the flows of (artistic, financial) credit, and to Rih’s method of accounting. “To be a black woman and genius, is to be perpetually owed,” she writes. Rih and St Felix suggest that black women geniuses are owed in a specifically gendered economy of Love & Theft. The term usually describes the appropriation, by white men, of black (men’s) cultural and artistic work, that ultimately results in the expropriation of wealth and intellectual property. Thing is, when rock dudes idolize black bluesmen, they always give the bluesmen artistic credit: Robert Johnson didn’t get any money from Clapton’s cover of “Crossroads,” nor did Leadbelly see much benefit from Nirvana’s admiration, but both Johnson and Leadbelly are explicitly cited as artistic influences–they got credit for their work. (In fact, the gesture of giving credit to a black man is what establishes the white dude’s status as elite among other white dude artists.) But black women artists? They don’t even get credit for their work. As Adrian Piper (who is both an artist–Sol Le Wit’s student–and the first black woman tenured in a philosophy department in the US) points out, “the Euroethnic artworld negat[es] CWAs [Colored Women Artists] along three dimensions: as coloreds, as women, and as artists” (276). Black women, because of their intersecting racial and gender identities, are treated as though their artistic innovations are the result of their gendered racial difference/marginality, not their work as artists:
the normative category of originality against which art within the Euroethnic tradition was judged is replaced by the purportedly descriptive categories of anomaly, marginality, and otherness. These aesthetically noncommittal categories can be deployed to acknowledge the existence of such innovations without having to credit them normatively as innovations at all (“The Triple Negation of Colored Women Artists” 277).
When black women artists make work that is original, innovative, that newness and insight is attributed to their exclusion from the mainstream (white, patriarchal) art tradition, not their work within and/or alongside it. “Innovations that occur outside of that progression, or by those who are not accepted into it, cannot be acknowledged to exist as innovations at all” (Piper, ibid). In other words, they are thought to contribute only gendered racial difference to art, not artistic insight or ingeneuity. They exist in artistic discourse only as bearers of gendered racial difference, not as bearers of artistic insight, i.e., as artists. Being seen as black women prevents them from being credited as artists for their artistic work. As St Felix puts it, “The interlocking machines of mainstream pop, rap music, and America are very much contingent on their devaluation.”
These interlocking machines are programmed with what Piper calls a “zero-sum” calculus of value, work, and contribution. It’s a game in which success is a “scarce resource” (280) and so somebody has “to lose in order for someone else to win” (280). It’s also a game in which one can be either an artist, or a woman of color–in which artistic success must be fully reducible to white masculinity with no remainder. It’s a zero-sum that prevents “art” from intersecting with black feminininty. Black femininity and black women must lose in order for “art” to win. (St Felix points to a current example of this: “the struggle critics and listeners alike have strangely wholly ascribed to Kendrick’s mode of self-reflexivity” (emphasis mine). We’re falling over ourselves to ascribe artistic agency and respectability to Kendrick and D’Angelo, but Bey, Nicki, Rih, Azeila, Solange, Janelle, even Missy isn’t talked about in such reverent terms….)
Thus, Piper ends her article emphasizing the importance of a non-zero sum economy. BBGMM is about this non-zero sum economy. St Felix talks about this in terms of the liquidity of cash, which, in the Rihconomy, appears in many forms: circulating money, flows of water, vaporized particles we smell:
Bad Gal, unmoored and uninspired by American dichotomies of cleanliness and defilement as she is, prefers her payment liquid and solid to the touch. Liquid like a stack, but also liquid like a perfume. “My fragrance on and they love my smell,” she teased on “Pour It Up”, and we thought she might knowingly dot her nape and her inner wrists with money smell before the video even came out. And when it did, the dollar bills that hit the gleaming linoleum in the underwater strip club, that collected on her and the sea women, were stamped with her face.
This is a non-zero-sum flow because the flow of money, water, and vapor coexist–cash isn’t exchanged for or transubstantiated into water or smell. One doesn’t have to stop existing to bring another into existence. Because that’s what white patriarchy does: sorta like what happened with the Chicago River (whose flow was reversed), white patriarchy remakes the world so that everything flows into its coffers: it’s white patriarchy, or it’s nothing. Thats the zero sum. This zero sum is what the equations of, say, traditional concepts of art, artistry, and aesthetic value are designed to do: to prevent the intersection of “black women” and “artist.” Rihanna’s aesthetic is non-zero-sum because it accounts for this intersection. In other words, in a context where white supremacist patriarchy is THE zero sum, Rihanna’s black feminist aesthetic is necessarily non-zero-sum.Both as a pop star and a black woman, she can’t escape or avoid the white patriarchal mainstream; however, she can make work that works on multiple registers. For those of us accustomed to hearing, seeing, feeling, and smelling in zero-sum aesthetics, Rihanna’s non-zero-sum aesthetic sounds, looks, feels, and smells like proliferation.
Rihanna’s isn’t a proliferation without loss, though–bad girls get to deal with a fair amount of shit for being bad, after all. It is, however, a non-zero-sum proliferation, a kind of circulation that doesn’t require Rihanna to translate herself into money with somebody else’s, some white dude’s face. As “Pour It Up” reminds us, it’s her money that Rih’s always got more and more of. Credit in HER terms, not the white patriarchal terms of value dictated by the mainstream economy (and it’s here where Rihanna differs starkly from BBHMM’s co-producer, Kanye, who is always seeking recognition from/as the Canon of Art). In fact, because it’s a non-zero-sum game, Rihanna’s work can swim and flow in that mainstream, and get devalued and co-opted, and she’s STILL got her money.
When you try to capture Rihconomic activity in zero-sum equations, it oozes out, just as all bad girls ooze out of the trappings of respectable femininity. (We might understand the line “Turn up to Rihanna” as establishing Rihanna as the excessive, already in-the-red noise we hear when we get turnt up?) When black women artists have prolific flows of influence, when they’ve got lots of liquid that just oozes out with no concern for moderation, this meets Plato’s definition of sickness (see Eryximachus’s speech in The Symposium)–things (wealth, credit) being in places they shouldn’t be, like abundant cash in the hands of black women unconcerned with performing respectability. In fact, prolifically oozy liquidity has long been associated with feminine toxicity, especially the toxicity and disruptiveness of their voices. But, as St Felix notes, Rihanna’s economy doesn’t parse things into zero-sum equations, the kind of equations in which oozes read as dirty, as abject.
In Resilience & Melancholy I talk a bit about that non-zero-sum circulation manifests in “Pour it Up”:
The femininity Rihanna performs in this video is thus not the resilient MRWaSP good girl, but a melancholic bad girl who makes bad investments and is a poor conductor of MRWaSP power. For example, Rihanna invests in herself in a way that changes the currency: is it her (not some dead white guy’s) image on the money in the video, suggesting that she’s transformed the very logic of neoliberal capitalism from M-M1 to M-R (“R” for “Rihanna”). In “Pour It Up,” money is everywhere: as the refrain emphasizes, Rihanna’s character, like every good neoliberal, sees everything in terms of an economic rationality—the fungiblity of “dolla” signs. Unlike any good neoliberal, everything Rihanna does, even throwing money away, always intensifies her money (rather than abstract, infinitely fungible money). Though every verse couplet begins with an activity that’s expensive or wasteful, it concludes with Rihanna’s statement that it hasn’t cost her any of her money. Rihanna uses mere money to intensify and augment her money: this is the M-R hustle. She uses M to invest in R, and not to make more M (i.e., “M1”) for MRWaSP capitalism. From this latter perspective, Rihanna appears to waste money on bad investments. Investing in exceptional black masculinity would be one such “bad” investment. When Rihanna makes it rain by throwing a wad of cash into the air so it flutters down to the floor (which she does both in the lyrics, and in the video), she uses money in a way that identifies her with precisely the kind of black masculinity that she’s supposed to overcome. This gesture doesn’t increase her MRWaSP capital, but diminishes it. The waste of cash could be forgiven if we thought it was a good investment (like Luda’s women, weed, and alcohol). But, from the perspective of MRWaSP, it doesn’t come off that way. As Roberts’s Los Angeles Times review puts it: “The opening line — ‘Throw it up, watch it all fall out’ — seems like an ode to getting sick, in fact, until it becomes clear that Rihanna is singing about money, strip clubs, doing shots of tequila and ‘making it rain’ with bills.” Whereas “Rest of My Life” treats Luda’s investments in “women, weed, and alcohol” as an ideal to celebrate, Roberts perceives a very similar gesture, Rihanna’s investments in women and alcohol, as a waste. Given the similarity between the narrators’ behavior in “Pour It Up” and “Rest of My Life”, why is Rihanna’s performance received so differently than Luda’s? As was the case with “Diamonds,” the difference between Rihanna and Luda can be read in the water. As I argued earlier, “Rest of My Life” uses water to represent resilience. In Unapologetic’s videos, water is a common element: it’s in “Diamonds,” in “Stay” (which features Rihanna crying in the bathtub), and in “Pour It Up.” Here, the floor is a shallow layer of water, which occasionally ripples, and thus echoes the rippling waves in “Diamonds,” where water symbolizes melancholy. Water serves the same metaphoric purpose on “Pour It Up.” Here, the lyrics allude to the trope of “making it rain,” and Rihanna’s character performs this gesture several times in the video. In contemporary hip hop, “make it rain” is a metaphor that uses water to represent money. If, in Rihanna’s Unapologetic universe, water represents melancholy, “making it rain” indicates melancholic use of money, bad investment practices, investing in the wrong things. Making it rain doesn’t intensify the flow of MRWaSP capitalism to its peak; rather, rain diverts the current entirely, embezzling M into R. This investment strategy is melancholic because it invests in and amplifies the exception to MRWaSP resilience.
Rih’s liquidity queers the flow of power, cash, and desire by instituting an economy of abundance rather than zero-sum scarcity.
According to St Felix Rihanna’s vocal flow composes the song so that its economy of pleasure follows this zero-sum game in which black girls can also be geniuses. St. Felix writes: “Like brrap! brrap! brrap! She pulses out of the half-humorous, half-deadly threat over and over again, that the bitch restores the natural balance of indebtedness that must always tip towards genius.”
The first part of the song, the part that contains the line St Felix mentions here, it feels and sounds woozily unbalanced. In the intro/chorus, the music-box like treble synth is a two-bar loop that emphasizes the fourth beat of the first bar, drops out on the downbeat of the second bar, and then comes back in on the second beat. This makes it seem like every other fourth and second beat are emphasized, sorta xxxXoXxxx. The vocal phrases (including the brrap!s) begin on the third beat of every measure, and emphasize the downbeat, sorta ooxxXoXxx. So, to be clear, the diagram looks like:
So we have the music box synth on a 2/4 pattern and the vocals on a ⅓ pattern–which is totally common (Uptown Funk, for example, does something similar, with the handclaps on 2/4 and the ‘do-do’s accenting 1 and 3). What’s uncommon about BBHMM is that it’s really 4/2 and a 3/1 patterns. It’s the reverse of the conventional pattern of rhythmic emphasis, and it sounds off-kilter to ears accustomed to the conventional pattern–it may even sound somewhat off meter. The bass synth in the choruses comes in on the downbeat, and then on two offbeats spread over the two-bar loop; their synchopation contributes to the woozy off-kilter feel. This metric wooziness could feel like floating on water, bouncing around on the waves. It could also be the sonic expression of Rihanna’s re-balancing the flow of credit–it’s off-kilter with respect to mainstream aesthetics, which channel credit to white supremacist patriarchy, but perhaps perfectly balanced to tip and chahnel credit to a black woman genius.
The second part of the song, the coda with the down-pitched vocal refrain, this part is one huge Yeezus reference (Kanye was one of the producers on this track). First, there’s the industrial-sounding synths. But above all there’s the bass drum that comes in right after the first down-pitched “bitch better have my money”–this sounds like it’s the same synth used, for example, on “I Am A God,” which also down-pitches the titular vocal hook. (Knowing his work as Gessafelstein, I’m gonna guess this synth was Yeezus producer Mark Levy’s contribution…but that’s complete speculation.) So, there’s two clear sonic connections between “BBHMM” and “I Am A God”–which makes it easy to hear the former song as Rihanna’s take on the theme of Kanye’s song, that is, her claim for recognition as an artistic genius. Unlike Kanye, who wants recognition in the most traditional Western terms (seriously, Ye, what’s more patriarchal than claiming to be a god?), Rihanna wants credit in and on her terms, her money, which has her face on it.
But what about “American Oxygen”? I’m still working this one through. I think it’s important to remmeber that air and oxygen aren’t the same thing: like, 21% of the air is oxygen. The stuff we “breathe out, breathe in” is 79% other stuff. So, if you wanna think of AO as a song about how the “American Dream” is available only to a small fraction (less than ¼) of the population, then, there you go, there’s your metaphor.
Other things to consider:
- Rih can traffic across all phases of matter: air, water, ice (Diamonds, right?)…but perhaps the phases have different functions? Like, water is melancholic flow-bending, but maybe air, maybe air seems like nothing (seems nationalist, for example) but actually is something (a critique of that nationalism)? Air flows differently than water, it transfers energy at a different rate, etc….
- So, we’re used to getting our music for free. Like, in the US we are SOOOO used to free access to black women’s labor, their bodies, all of it. Perhaps her ooziness here is in the…viscosity of a release limited to Tidal. By limiting the release of the AO video to Tidal, a pricey subscription service (that she’s a shareholder in), she’s disrupting the flow of music/data that we’ve become accustomed to. (Is this different than TS? Well, TS’s videos are still on YouTube for free…). She’s taken AO out of free circulation and put it behind a paywall. So, the flow here enriches her as a shareholder in a corporation…it gets her money.
So there’s obviously a lot more thinking I need to do about AO, but that’s the direction I’m headed…