BBHMM, Gender, Property, & Sound: part 1, the video
So, here it is, my extra-freezing-cold-take on Rihanna’s BBHMM. I’ve broken it down into three parts, which I’ll publish over the next three days. It’s long and unedited — one of those ‘ima barf out my ideas here for refining in other venues’ pieces. Really it’s my attempt to do both some close listening and some critical theorizing. Here is part 2. Here is part 3.
The video for Rihanna’s BBHMM gave the feminist thinkpiece mill some continuingly tough grist to grind. Most of the criticism echoes (perhaps unintentionally) the criticism leveled against her previous album, Unapologetic. Back then, interpreting an album that wasn’t clearly about her abuse by former boyfriend Chris Brown as though it was obviously, or at least should obviously, be about Brown, critics accused her of being “pre-feminist and post-ethics.” Similarly, white feminist critics of BBHMM argue that the sexualized abuse of a white woman portrayed in the video is misogynist, even and especially because it’s perpetrated by Rihanna’s character. Rihanna has, throughout her ouevre, consistently rejected post-feminist narratives common in 2014-5 pop (e.g., about overcoming, Leaning In, Feminism(™), objectification, etc.). This rejection of post-feminist narratives is, as I argued in my last book, central to Unapologetic. It’s also the context in which we need to think about the BBHMM video.
This context includes Gaga’s “Paparazzi” video and the Beyonce/Gaga collabs “Telephone” and “Video Phone.” In all three videos, the lead women characters execute men who have harmed them. Rihanna was chided for failing to do this (to Brown or his representation) on Unapologetic, and she’s chided for succeeding at it in BBHMM. She’s chided for this because her methods make it difficult to wrap BBHMM into a neat post-feminist tale of girl power overcoming: before killing the white man who stole her hard-earned money, Rih’s character kidnaps his white wife (WW) and holds her for ransom. To these critics, the kidnapping is misogynist, and involves sexualizd violence against the WW (she’s held bound and naked, for example). Though this was not so much the case with Unapologetic, with BBHMM there has been a swift response to these critics from black feminist writers. The consensus is less that BBHMM is misogynist and more that it’s racist to think that BBHMM is anti-feminist. The distance between the reactions to Unapologetic & BBHMM tracks the evolution of popular post-feminism.
I worry that this consensus is a bit too fast to make Rih’s character, and Rih herself, into a hero, to show that her actions are ultimately “good” ethically/morally/politically uncomplicated. I also worry that this consensus, and the analysis that leads to it, never takes the music part of the music video into consideration. The whole discussion focuses on what we see in the video, not the interaction of sound and visuals. It focuses on the part of the video that accompanies the part of the song that gets played on the radio, the verse-chorus part, not the instrumental second half, the part that never gets played on the radio but which accompanies the most climactic action in the video (the murder of the Accountant). It overlooks the video’s use of sounds not in the song (diagetic sound) to structure and organize the visual narrative. This focus on visual content (nearly exclusively) over sound is (ironically) characteristic of white feminist aesthetics (and liberalism); black women’s pop music performance traditions generally use sound to complicate visual and lyrical content.
I want to re-focus the discussion of BBHMM away from the “is it feminist?” question–mainly because it’s pretty clear, both from the work and from the context of Rih’s oeuvre that this is not a relevant question to be asked of it–and toward a more basic interpretive question: what’s going on with the sounds? Paying attention to the sounds will also help clarify BBHMM’s race/gender politics, both because those politics are not aesthetically limited to the visual narrative, but also because the “is it feminist?” question, as it plays in the contemporary thinkpiece economy, limits the analysis of these politics to the terms and priorities of white bourgeois Feminism™. 
Because it connects race, sexuality, gender, property, and the sonic all together, Hortense Spillers’ and Alexander Weheliye’s discussion of pornotroping is particularly helpful for thinking through racialized, sexualized violence in BBHMM. BBHMM isn’t so much an instance of pornotroping as it is in conversation with it. The concept of pornotroping helps unpack how racialized/sexualized violence establishes private property as a thing, and distributes personhood as property/property in person. Rih’s accountant stole from her in a superficially literal sense (her actual money), but also in a more deeply literal sense (property-in-person, personhood). Black women’s non-ownership of the property in their person is foundational to liberalism (this is what Mills & Pateman show in Contract & Domination). In the end, what I want to suggest is that BBHMM is about “liberal ideas of personhood as property” (Weheliye 81), and that sound plays a central role in the video’s commentary on and reworking of racialized, gendered, sexualized relationships that guarantee a white supremacist patriarchal distribution of property and personhood. BBHMM uses racialized/sexualized violence to rearrange the distribution of property/personhood that classical pornotroping narratives guarantee.
More simply: We’re used to seeing cinematic images (and representations in other media, like literature) of black women’s sexualized, brutalized bodies (that’s the pornotrope as a trope); this image, both formally and as a source of aesthetic pleasure, articulates the political status (i.e., social identity: race, gender) of both the characters in the image and the audience. However, Rihanna’s bloody, naked body isn’t that (controlling) image. Both formally and as a source of aesthetic pleasure, BBHMM doesn’t follow pornotroping’s script in its ascription of political status to characters and audience. And because pornotroping (like contractarian liberalism in general) treats gendered, racialized political status as a matter of property relations, BBHMM’s remix of the pornotrope is one way it aesthetically depicts the song’s lyrical content–it’s how the video, as an artwork, shows rather than tells us that Rihanna gets her money.
1.What Happens In The Video
The video has five sections, each defined sonically as much as visually. There’s the (1) birdsong-filled shot of Rihanna’s legs leaning out of the trunk, (2) the schmaltzy classic Hollywood string-accompanied shots of the Accountant’s Wife (AW) and their home, cut in with cricket-filled shots of Rihanna carrying the trunk with a bound and gagged AW inside back into this home, (3) BBHMM’s verse/chorus/verse body, which shows Rih and her crew on the run with a kidnapped AW, and (4) BBHMM’s coda, which shows Rih butchering the Accountant. We then return to an extended version of (1), which fades out into (5) a second coda of shrieking synths punctuated at the end with a piano chord; here we see “BBHMM” in white letters on a red background, and then cut to a blood-soaked close-up of Rihanna’s steely-eyed face.
a. 1 and 2
These two sections are themselves juxtaposed, and 2 contains an internal juxtaposition; in both cases the juxtaposition is between Rih and AW. In 1, Rih appears in what resembles a state of nature: as the camera pans out from the trunk, we see a sun-drenched, grassy, tree-filled space that’s also full of bird sounds. In 2, Rih is also outside, accompanied by chirping; this time it’s crickets, not birds. It’s night, and she drives up to what we later learn is the Accountant’s house. She pulls a trunk out of the car’s trunk, and drags it up the sidewalk into the house. Though Rih is outside, 2 begins with an interior shot of AW walking through a swank apartment, getting dressed, sipping morning tea or coffee, and kissing her husband as she walks out the door. Her part of the scene is accompanied by schmaltzy classic-Hollywood-style symphonic soundtrack. Luxury accommodations, a symphony orchestra, even the legal institution of marriage: this scene is the sort of “civilization” social contract theorists liked to contrast to Rih’s “state of nature.” Not only is Rih actually outside accompanied by animal sounds rather than music, but she represents a sort of lawlessness, a war of all against all quasi-Hobbesean state of nature, whereas the white AW scenes represent civilization and the lawful respect of private property (wealth, homeownership, marriage). Juxtaposing black-woman-as-state-of-nature with white-woman-as-civilized, the video depicts the ideological conditions that have philosophically grounded the concept of private property, and materially facilitated the capitalist distribution of wealth and resources. This exposition sets up the video’s main action sequence; instead of having a cliched-movie-trailer-guy voice narrate “In a world where black women’s dehumanization is the fulcrum of capitalist accumulation and political enfranchisement…”, the video just showed us.
This nature/culture logic traditionally positions non-white people as the past of which present-day whites are the future (the “state of nature” from which civilization arose–like, read the 18th c philosophy, many of the OG contractarians describe Native Americans as actually existing in the state of nature that Europeans only conjecturally inhabited). The editing of BBHMM’s exposition flips this, presenting Rihanna as the future of both the AW’s situation and the audience’s. Rihanna’s two ‘natural’ scenes, the bird-chirp scene and the cricket-chirp scene, these are both shots from the end of the video, spliced in at the beginning. There’s blood on Rih’s legs in the bird-chirp scene, so we know this shot depicts her after she’s killed the Accountant. Then, when she’s driving the car up to the house and lugging the crate up the walkway, she’s wearing the fur stole that she wears at the end of the video. Though it is edited differently each time, the footage at 0:35 and 1:08 is, as far as I can tell, identical to the footage at 4:50-4:54. In the exposition, Rih is the future of our (the audience’s, and the AW’s) present moment. Time doesn’t flow in a linear, teleological narrative–it’s almost like a circular argument that assumes its conclusion as a premise. The premise/conclusion here is, as Rihanna says in “Pour It Up,” that she’s “still got my money.”
The flow of time in the video echoes the circulation of time and credit/property/money in the song. As I argue here, the song sets the meter off-kilter, and the woozy metric flow echoes the song’s M-R (Money-to-Rihanna) economy of abundance (as opposed to the M-M1 economy of austerity). As in “Pour It Up,” BBHMM fucks the flow of water, money, and time, and in so doing tips the balance away from white patriarchal austerity and to her non-zero-sum, leaky, proliferating liquidity. And this proliferating liquidity, which I discuss in that piece I linked to, and which Doreen St Felix also mentions in her piece on BBHMM, this proliferating liquidity touches on the video’s main story: upsetting the established flow of private property and personhood. Rihanna can “still get her money” if and only if the zero-sum econometrics get recalibrated.
Water and fluid are always visually important elements in Rihanna’s videos: from her floating adrift at the end of “Diamonds,” to her sitting in the bath during “Stay,” to “Pour It Up’s” staging on a set full of water, to the constant presence of pools, popped champagne, and spurting/spurted blood in BBHMM, liquid is everywhere. For Locke, who argued that anything one improves with one’s labor becomes his private property, water could not be turned into private property. Oceans were exempt from terra nullius (the doctrine that said unimproved land was thus unowned land) and thus from being claimed as private property. For Locke, the oceans were necessarily commons because the common free use of the oceans was necessary to the capitalist flow of wealth and property to white patriarchy. Rihanna’s use of water and liquid appeals to this sense that their materiality, their viscosity, exempts them from the logics of private property. But the key thing is that she bends their circulatory patterns; water no longer supports the traditional capitalist flow of wealth and property–it circulates on an M-R circuit.
In BBHMM, it’s blood that flows. Bloodletting is what gets money, affect, and credit to flow in Richonomic ways. Think about Rih’s set of torture implements: each is labeled, identified as a remedy to a specific harm or wrong (“cheater,” “ruined my credit,” “BBHMM,” etc.). Blood needs to flow to right the wrongs done to Rihanna. And flow it does. We see shots of blood spatter cut in as the trappy percussion stutters, and of course the last two scenes show naked Rihanna dripping in what is presumably her accountant’s blood.
Perhaps blood needs to flow to channel the economics and aesthetics of Love & Theft (the white appropriation of black culture and neutralization of anxieties about cross-racial desires that began with 19th c minstrelsy and continues into the 20th c) into Rihonomic flows because violence is fundamental to traditional means of creating and distributing private property in the first place. BBHMM suggests that tweaking the racialized sexual violence at the heart of the domination contract is one way to alter the circulatory patterns that distribute (liberal democratic) “private property” as such.
With its focus on violence and viscosity, Alexander Weheliye’s account of pornotroping and habeas viscus helps me unpack what’s going on, both narratively and aesthetically, in parts 3, 4, and 5. But before I get into the theory theory, let me talk about the video and its sounds.
b.3 and 4
Though most of section 3 involves shots of Rih and crew driving down the backroads in a convertable, the instrumental loop, the woozy carousel synth loop, it’s too woozy and ateleological to have the affect of racing along in a getaway car (that would be a more four-on-the-floor that build tension up to a climax style like Motley Cru’s “Kickstart My Heart”). Rhythmically, the song has more affective resonance with the AW swinging upside-down from the rafters. In fact, the first few times we see her post-abduction she’s nauseatingly disoriented–first, swinging from the rafters, then, seasick and puking into a bucket. Later, there’s the druggy party scene during the bridge. In terms of large-scale form, the contrast between the main body’s rhythmic/metric wooziness and the coda’s solid 4/4 is the song’s main organizing device. I’ll get to the coda (part 4) shortly. First, I want to discuss the way part 3 of the video alters the composition of the song’s main body in a way to make the coda work and feel more like a coda.
In part 3, there are two times the video introduces sounds that aren’t in the song. First, on the tugboat, the music drops out and Rih’s character fires a flare on beat 3, in place of the snare hit that’s occupied that beat in the preceding measures. There’s a 8.25 beat pause, counted out by quarter-note rim shots and a sustained note that descends in pitch, mimicking the arc of the flare. She shoots the flare on beat 3, and then the flare goes off two measures later on on the “e”–the second sixteenth note–in third beat. Coming in after a long pause, the sound of the explosion stands in for the bass wobble in a dubstep drop. Usually, these drops happen at the end of a bridge-style section and lead into the final returns of the chorus. Here, however, it happens in the middle of a verse. This both strengthens and undercuts its tension/release effect: the tension is stronger because its unusual placement makes it feel like an interruption in our regularly scheduled programming; the release is weaker because it’s not returning on the beginning of a formal section, just the antecedent phrases in a verse. So, here’s a tension-release moment in the video that wasn’t in the song. A similar thing happens in the next scene, the one in the hotel room. As soon as they pull the AW-containing trunk out of the car, the song goes into a break that’s not in the radio or album mix. This break is a fairly conventional break–the verse/chorus lyrics drop out and one of the instrumental hooks (here, the woozy carousel synth loop) develops a bit. Though it doesn’t reproduce the material in the coda, the break’s timbres and textures allude to it. Then, right as the vocals come back in with the “Bitch better have my…” pickup phrase, we get some more intense trap snares that, with the vocal pickpus, build up to a more emphatic and harder-hitting “money” on the downbeat of the next chorus. This perhaps expands on the song’s main tension/release device: the “bitch betta have my MONEY” phrase, which is a series of pickups that land on the, erm, moneybeat, the downbeat of the chorus. All this tension-release in the main body of the song (the verse/chorus part that constitutes the radio edit) makes the coda feel and sound even more like a coda, like an add-on after the climax and (erstwhile) resolution.
Traditionally codas reinforce the harmonic resolution of a piece–they usually rearticulate a main theme in the tonic, kind of hitting us over the ears with “YES THIS IS THE KEY NO REALLY IT IS.” The coda in BBHMM produces a sense of closure by reinforcing the song’s rhythmic, metric, and phrasing. The main body of the song shifts emphasized beats among the various voices so that it’s sometimes hard to figure out which beat is the song’s actual downbeat. In contrast, the coda is an extremely clear 4/4. So, the coda emphasizes the song’s rhythmic and metric organization, the 4/4 in which “Money” always lands on the downbeat.
BBHMM’s coda shares a lot of sonic features with “I Been On,” the second half of Beyonce’s “Flawless” predecessor “Bow Down/I Been On.” There’s similar percussion and synth sounds: the synth that enters at around 1:22 in IBO there’s stuttering of previously un-stuttered material (~1:10 in IBO), and, most noticeably, Rih’s vocals are lowered Baddie Bey style. Also, like BBHMM, “Bow Down/I Been On” was criticized as anti-feminist for its use of “bitch.” But, as Regina Bradley argues, the track uses sound to destabilize the binary gender norms by which “bitch” is a misogynist slur:
BaddieBey gestures towards what I suggest is a type of sonic drag – using sound to bend markers of gender performance in order to blur characteristics of black masculinity and womanhood…BaddieBey signifies Beyoncé’s awareness of hip hop as a space of (exaggerated) gender performance….BaddieBey is most demonstrative of Beyoncé’s ability to navigate “Bow Down” as her rendition of a hip hop ‘diss track,’ dismissing her haters and those overly criticizing her position as a pop singer. Beyoncé’s performance of hip hop female masculinity allots her room to present herself not as a braggart but as a dominant force.
Like “Bow Down,” BBHMM is a diss track of sorts. And both use sonic drag to king on hip hop masculinity, which is itself already an exaggerated gender performance (like, we can think of Rozay as masculine drag in the same way that Dolly Parton performs a kind of feminine drag). As Halberstam argues in In A Queer Time & Place, kinging destabilizes masculinity’s relationship to (cis-)men’s bodies. According to Bradley, Baddie Bey destabilizes the relationship between hip hop mascuilinity and the performance of a (cis)male identity and embodiment.
BBHMM uses sonic drag to destabilize racialized gender norms–the very racialized gender norms that ensure the white supremacist patriarchal distribution of private property and property-in-the-person that make Love & Theft possible. This sonic drag isn’t just in the coda’s vocals, though. It’s also in the coda’s music, which has Kanye’s Yeezus (talk about exaggerated performances of masculinity in hip hop…) written all over it. For example, the timbre of the bass drum synth and the down-pitched vocals recall the timbre of the bass drum synth and the downpitched vocals in Kanye’s (very Gesaffelstein-y) “I Am A God” (tho there he just demands croissants, not money, lol) recall Rihanna’s downpitched vocals. So, there are a number of ways RIhanna’s character in BBHMM uses sound to destabilize cisbinary gender.
 “Is it feminist?” has always been a disciplining and normalizing question, one that centers particular kinds of women (privileged women) as the proper subject of feminism, and so on. This is what academic feminist theory learned in the 1900s, right? Anyway, “Is it feminist?” might be a productive question when feminism is itself a minority discourse, but in the era of Branded Post-Feminism(™), “Is it feminist?” it’s more normalizing than not. To be a lot theoretical about it: “Is it feminist?” used to serve as an instance of Rancierian disagreement. The question used to disrupt and at least give a little pause to hegemonic modes of thought and practice. But it’s not disruptive anymore; its disruption has itself been normalized. (Think, for example, of how “disruption” is fetishized as a term for innovation.) But “Is it feminist?” is not the only way to start a feminist analysis or to think critically about gender politics. “What is it?” or “Is X a Y?” is like the oldest question in philosophy; “ti esti…?” (“what is…?”) is Socrates’ whole M.O. Philosophers have developed a lot more types of inquiry since then. We could, for example, ask “What is gendered and how?” or “What are the gendered components of this and how do they interact?” or, as Cynthia Enloe puts it, we can ask “Where are the women?” or “Where are the gender minorities?” or “Where are the nonbinary people?” Beauvoir begins the introduction to The Second Sex with a critique of the “What is…?” or “Is it…?” style of questions. Modeling the first part of the introduction after a Platonic dialogue, Beauvoir repeatedly asks “What is a woman?”: Biology? Nope. Metaphysical essence? Nope. Something made up, a false belief we should just get rid of? Nope. “Woman” is, Beauvoir argues, a situation in patriarchal power relations: “She is determined and differentiated in relation to man, while he is not in relation to her; she is the inessential in front of the essential. He is the Subject; he is the Absolute. She is the Other” (26). The “What is/Is it…?” questions get the ontology wrong (see the “scope of the verb ‘to be’” discussion on p.33 of TSS). Woman/feminist isn’t a definite thing or feature or set of features; it’s a status in a particular type of gendered social and epistemological structure. So, as Beauvoir concludes:
But what singularly defines the situation of woman is that being, like all humans, an autonomous
freedom, she discovers and chooses herself in a world where men force her to assume herself as Other: an attempt is made to freeze her as an object and doom her to immanence, since her transcendence will be forever transcended by another essential and sovereign consciousness. Woman’s drama lies in this conflict between the fundamental claim of every subject, which always posits itself as essential, and the demands of a situation that constitutes her as inessential. How, in the feminine condition, can a human being accomplish herself? What paths are open to her? Which ones lead to dead ends? How can she find independence within dependence? What circumstances limit women’s freedom and can she overcome them? These are the fundamental questions we would like to elucidate. (37).