BBHMM, Gender, Property, & Sound: part 3, who cares?
This is the final part in a too-longread piece on Rihanna’s BBHMM.
In order to redirect the typical flow of property, Rihanna’s character has to turn and deviate the practices of racialized sexual violence that produce post-feminist subjects and bare life/the flesh. She does this in a few ways. First, she flips the script on the standard pornotroping narrative. There’s some racialized sexual violence directed at the AW: she’s stripped and kidnapped, pistol whipped, and somewhat of an object of the camera’s/audience’s scopophilic pleasure (though, to be strictly Mulveyan about it, we always see AW’s face–her body isn’t ever fragmented by the camera in the way LM discusses in VPANC). There’s definitely racialized gendered violence addressed to the Accountant: Rihanna butchers him. But that violence is never represented directly on screen, only implied. The visual representation of that violence is the blood dripping off of Rihanna’s character’s naked, femme, dark-skinned body. Her character’s black, femme body is the medium that depicts racialized sexual violence that she did not experience, at least as its target. Her blood soaked body is still a source of racialized, gendered libidinal charge. This libidinal charge visually stands in for an evisceration of white supremacy, a violence that the current contours of white supremacist domination cannot imagine. Classically, pornotroping depcits antiblack violence so extreme that it shifts representational registers, from violence to sexuaity. BBHMM’s commentary on pornotroping depicts, as sexuality, as a libidinally charged body, a counterhegemonic violence, a violence that, because it steals back from white supremacy, is, within white supremacy’s terms, unthinkable and unrepresentable as such, as violence. That violence appears as an aspect of Rihanna’s excessive, “in the red” gender performance, as a feature of her lethal, fatal, monstrous femininity. Visually represented as red blood on Rihanna’s body, as the red background against which “BBHMM” is plastered at the end of the video, this libidinal charge is “in the red.” Rihanna’s character is the bearer or carrier of that libidinal charge, but that charge is NOT the same charge as the one the flesh emits. The flesh’s queer libidinal charge comes from the tension produced by the simultaneous sexualization and de-gendering of black women. BBHMM’s eccentric libidinal charge is generated by the indecidability between abnormal gender performance and abnormal property relations.
And sometimes the video presents that indecidability sonically: as the tension between rhythmic instability (in the main body, where Rih’s voice is not downpitched) and gender instability (in the coda, where the 4/4 is solid), as the “sonic drag,” and finally as the coda’s coda. This meta-coda isn’t in the song, just in the video. It has two images, each accompanied by related sounds. The first image is “BBHMM” in white on a red background, and the second image is a closeup of Rih’s bloody face and hair. In the first scene, there’s a very dissonant, treble-synth heavy sustained chord, and then a percussion hit right before we switch to the second scene, which takes that dissonant chord and slowly raises the pitch of some the higher notes; this builds tension that then should be resolved by the piano chord at the very end. The tension isn’t resolved fully, both because that’s not a root-position tonic chord (which is the gold standard for harmonic resolution), and because harmony isn’t/wasn’t how BBHMM sonically and musically organized itself in the first place. As I showed above, the main tools it uses to demarcate formal sections, to build and release tension–those are rhythmic and timbral, not harmonic. In the meta-coda, rhythm and timbre get pushed in the red, and are thus audibe as harmony. That’s how the meta-coda depicts the eccentric libidinal charge generated by the tension between abnormal gender performance and abnormal property relations.
Second, the pornotrope uses racialized sexual violence to un- and thus queerly gender black women. Rihanna’s performance in BBHMM riffs on that violence precisely to bend it in another direction, to bend the circuits that distribute property and desire and gender. Her character is both sexualized (e.g., in the underwater scene we see AW’s face in the middleground but Rihanna’s ass in the foreground) and abnormally gendered, but not abnormally gendered as flesh (per se, as Weheliye understands it). In neoliberal MRWaSP, the most normal, outwardly respectable black women are conditionally and instrumentally accepted into the realms of “normal” femininity, white supremacy, capitalism, and so on. MRWaSP can’t produce all black women as flesh, because it needs to demonstrate its “inclusive” post-racial post-feminism. Similarly, MRWaSP neoliberalism includes non-white, generally non-Western women and girls by treating them as “financializable” human capital: human capital that, with sufficient development and reform, can either successfully embody homo economicus/the Young Girl, or, morel likely, can remain the medium by which more privileged women build their human capital (e.g., through NGO work). In BBHMM, the tactics Rih’s character she uses to “get her money” are precisely the opposite tactics one is required to perform as part of a “normal” feminine gender identity. As I argued in Resilience & Melancholy, resilience is a component of neoliberal, post-identity femininity. Leaning In to corporate life, women both get money (they get more prestige, authority, and a higher salary) and produce more surplus value for their employers, who profit (from brand image, for example) from appearing ‘diverse’ and ‘progressive.’ Typically–especially in Top 40 pop music–women demonstrate resilience by personally overcoming gendered damage in a way that also scapegoats black men for any remaining misogyny and quarantines their threat to harmonious post-identity society. Resilience narratives usually feature post-feminist women defeating or killing black men (in this way, they might be a new variation on the pornotrope–I need to think more about that); BBHMM has the opposite of this–Rih’s character kills a white dude. Moreover, Rihanna’s feminist overcoming of her thieving, misogynist accountant can’t be celebrated as a ‘feminist’ victory because the kidnapping narrative complicates any read of Rih’s character as a virtuous post-feminist subject. This isn’t Gaga’s and Bey’s cross-racial ‘feminist’ alliance in “Telephone.”
White supremacist patriarchy has always been about distributing property and personhood-as-property/property-in-person. Gender identities and gender roles distribute property: gender relations are property relations. So, tinkering with gender performance also affect property relations.
To get her money, Rih intercedes in pornotroping’s calculus of property, personhood, and racialized gender. Remixing the elements of the pornotrope, BBHMM situates Rih’s character as both property (object of Love & Theft, all the money and the thinkpieces and communicative capital generated by this video) and something more or other than property (M-R, her money, money with Rihanna’s face on it). This parallels the way pornotroping produces black women as both not women and something more or other than feminine (i.e. queerly gendered), but is not identical to it.
So where does this incredibly longwinded interpretation of a Rihanna video get us, theoretically? Well, it tells us a little something about black feminist aesthetics in the era of post-feminist pop. BBHMM pushes gender into the red, and, with the coda’s vocal drag and the metacoda’s shift from rhythm to harmony, does so predominantly with the sonic and musical aspects of pop music performance. It shows us that resilience narratives are significantly racialized, and that Leaning In and demanding reparation are two very different things. It suggests that traditional pornotroping narratives may work differently in MRWaSP, when white supremacy expects to be able to fold elite black women into resilience narratives and ‘normal’ neoliberal femininity. Nevertheless, it suggests that pornotroping’s central technical device–this ‘oblique pivot’ that pushes one thing into the red, into another register–that still works. And in a media environment that privileges image and text–gifs, text + visual memes, tumblr, instagram, snapchat, etc–sound, because it’s not the focus of our attention, might have the most room to make that pivot. (Like, “Hotline Bling” was pretty much entirely focused on creating gif- and meme-able visuals.) Similarly, for all the recent theoretical and academic attention to sound, popular feminist analyses of media tend to focus exclusively on image and text. This means that sound gives pop musicans the breathing room to EITHER (and lemme emphasize either) subtly bend and reimagine post-feminist gender and racial scripts, OR naturalize them.