I was so surprised, last December, to read Sasha Frere-Jones’s scathing dismissal of Rihanna’s singing voice. “Rihanna’s voice isn’t big or compelling,” he wrote, “and it works mostly by sounding relaxed and drooping, with a hint of a West Indian accent, a descending twang that sounds a bit like moaning. Her voice has a distancing effect, and it conveys not emotion but, rather, a position of powerful detachment.”
To my ears, Rihanna’s voice is leaded with emotion. When she’s lazy, her stillness reads boredom, but when she’s working, and she was at the Grammy’s last night, all I hear is pain, her voice big and moving but its brilliance dulled by hurt, as though she can’t breathe deep enough or smile wide enough to let her vocals glimmer. She sounds contained, clipped.
Like millions of Americans, I find Rihanna incredibly compelling. In her performance of “Stay,” at the Grammy’s last night, she sings like a woman who means it: she really does want him to stay. We know who she means: Chris Brown. The Grammys producers help us out in this interpretation by cutting to him, clench-jawed in the audience, whenever Ri performs.
Anne Helen Petersen explains that “[a] star is formed when audiences combine information about the star’s onscreen performances (the type of person she plays on screen…with information about the star’s off-screen life (her romances, her children, and other gossip)…. Each star’s “image” is the result of this alchemy.” Petersen offers examples like Reese Witherspoon and Julia Roberts to illuminate the creation of a star. Rihanna is a severe contrast to those to fun, wholesome white women, because Rihanna is creating an image of herself as a domestic abuse victim. This has been reinscribed most recently by “Stay,” but also very explicitly in her guest vocals on Emimen’s “Love the Way You Lie” and Drake’s “Take Care.” Suddenly, what Frere-Jones sees as “detached” suddenly reads “disassociated.”
The chorus of “Stay” tells of ambivalence trumped by physical desire.
Not really sure how to feel about it
Something in the way you move
Makes me feel like I can’t live without you
It takes me all the way
I want you to stay.
As on Eminem’s track, Rihanna is performing the role of a woman stuck in acycle of a violent love. These lines are all about physicality trumping, and ultimately melding with, emotional truth. A man who can “take me all the way” colors what she wants, not needs: “I want you to stay,” whether or not that’s good for her. “Stay” doesn’t have to allude to violence for us to fill in the blanks. A quick mention of “dare” and “around we go” and we know this is about her addiction to Chris. She loves him even though he’s bad for her.
On “Take Care,” Drake promises to “take care” of a girl with some baggage. No one mentions domestic abuse, but again, we read it in. Eminem’s “Love the Way You Lie” is more explicit, with talk of burning and hurting. Again and again, Rihanna reifies our image of her as a woman pulled into abusive relationships, needing to be saved. And we keep watching, because the Rihanna in pain is increasingly the Rihanna we know and love.
In her performance of “Stay” on SNL, emotions move across Rihanna’s mannequin face in suggestions: the suggestion of fear, of anger, of lust. Her vowels are closed off and her lips are full and red. As a viewer invested in Rihanna’s image, I get the sense that summoning this genuine pain from inside herself, which I do hear playing across the timber of her voice, takes whatever energy another performer might devote to reaching the audience. But instead of complaining that she doesn’t dance enough, we should shut up and feel lucky to get to watch this sexy, masochistic performance. We’re perverts, voyeurs, watching this beautiful woman squirm.
By comparison, Rihanna’s Grammys performance last night was more emotional. She seemed to have a hard time looking at the audience, where Chris Brown sat waiting to be shown on camera. When she sang, “All along it was a fever,” she looked sick, in pain, and we knew it was for him. “I put my hands in the air, and said, ‘Show me something.'” This is a woman dying for the thrill of experience, and we’re living vicariously, buying into every flinch. We want her to want it. We want her to fall. We are the sadists to Rihanna’s masochist. When she mimes her lover’s words, scrunching her perfect nose in pain, “If you dare, come a little closer,” she could be speaking to us.
Someone behind Rihanna, maybe herself, is very smart, and very sick. Who keeps picking these autobiographical songs for her to sing? Who keeps her recording with and appearing with Chris Brown? Is this really love, or a brilliant publicist who understands how stars work, and that as consumers of Rihanna we want to see her struggle and lose?
At the end of his article, Frere-Jones wonders whether “appreciating Rihanna’s work may demand that we accept the idea that her disregard of herself is a source of freedom, or of power.” Frere-Jones’s “power,” I think, refers to some kind of feminine self-assurance, that is, empowerment. He is wondering whether Rihanna’s blasé, as a kind of self-expression of her own boredom, represents empowerment in the same way that Beyonce’s self-objectification as Stripper Queen of the Superbowl does. I don’t know whether Rihanna’s ennui means she’s empowered to not give a shit or whether, as her handlers might have us believe, she’s seriously hurting. But her inaccesibility is certainly central to her star power, because her stillness leaves blanks we color in with pain. Someone is inventing Rihanna as a tragic woman, the kind of sad sex kitten Marilyn Monroe turned into when the light was wrong. Rihanna’s songs are for us, and about us, about this fucked up relationship we’ve found ourselves in with her. “Just gonna stand there and watch me burn?” she asks us, then answers herself, “That’s all right, because I like the way it hurts.” Rihanna’s not the only one who loves her pain: we do, too. We’re watching every moan. Rihanna wants us to stay, and we will.
Before I can attend to my complicated and important feelings about the future birth of little Kimye, Jr., I must first offer a long-overdue defense of the deep and indefensible love I feel for the pop culture coupling that is Kim and Kanye. If you are like some people (my boyfriend), what needs defending is that I would profess to love two celebrities–any people, really, who are personally unknown to me. If you are like some other people (most people; certain friends) the question is: why love Kimye at all, when there are Knowleses and -Z’s about?
First, my beau’s pained question: wherefore the love for a celebrity? In her introductory article, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Brangelina,” the excellent star studies scholar Anne Helen Petersen explains star formation (hint: when we’re talking about stars, we’re really talking about ourselves). She writes:
Celebrity is a particularly modern phenomenon, symptomatic of a culture that attempts to “know” a person through mediated forms (the magazine, the newspaper, the newscast). Stardom is a particularly potent form of celebrity. … [a] star is formed when audiences combine information about the star’s onscreen performances (the type of person she plays on screen; Reese Witherspoon, for example, is “America’s Sweetheart”) with information about the star’s off-screen life (her romances, her children, and other gossip). Put differently, a Star = Textual Information + Extra-textual Information. Each star’s “image” is the result of this alchemy.
…[Certain] actors become superstars because their images—what they seem to represent, on- and off-screen—embody something vital to contemporary American identity. It’s no accident that Tom Cruise’s brand of white, working class-turned-suave masculinity resonated in the 1980s, or that Julia Roberts’s postfeminist approach to sex and relationships gained traction in the early 1990s. As Richard Dyer suggests, “stars matter because they act out aspects of life that matter to us; and performers get to be stars when what they act out matters to enough people” (Dyer, 17, 1984).
Petersen’s formulations above present challenges for Kimye because neither is a traditional screen actor. As an artist and a reality TV star, both Kanye and Kim traffic in representations of their real lives, not representations of fictional lives. (In Kanye’s case, despite the fact that rap is so often fictional, we can see this potential conflation for listeners in the strong presence of the first person “I” in all Yeezy’s raps.) But perhaps this makes their “alchemy” all the more potent. Even though I know both rap and reality TV are fiction, I am allowed to operate under an even more profound delusion of “knowing” these two characters because of their extreme availability. So the questions become, what do Kim and Kanye mean to me, and what does their union mean to me? Why are they so resonant? Why do I want to celebrate their mitzvot with parties of my own? And be their friends?
(Ok, I’ll admit: Kim I don’t want to be friends with so much as I feel a kind of kinship with her: watching her show reminds me of my sister, both because my sister used to watch it and also because Keeping Up With the Kardashians is really a celebration of a goofy, nosy, PG-13 version of sisterhood.
Of course, I do want Kanye to be my friend. Not a romantic friend with benefits, but that friend you flirt with sometimes because he’s your boy and he really has your back, and who at senior prom you dance one dance to, to “Step in the Name of Love” by Kels and you know there are real feelings there but you’re just not right for each other romantically and that’s okay because the bond is strong.
But enuf of that.)
From the perspective of star studies, then, Kanye and Kim’s relationship is meaningful to Americans like me because it symbolizes or represents something that is important to us in today’s moment: “what they act out matters to enough people.” Petersen goes on to explain what happens when stars collide in a romantic relationship:
When the couple has nothing to do with making us feel better about our relationships with fictional characters [i.e., two stars of a romantic movie dating each other for real], then it’s all about how we feel about two images and their fit. As for their actual interactions, the way they challenge each other, or the fact that love doesn’t always make sense to people outside of the relationship, none of that matters. Again, it’s not about a relationship between two people, but a relationship between two images — and the way we feel about the resultant image, the “relationship” image as it were. Just like a star image is the sum of its signifying parts — the way the star appears at premieres, in actual films, in sweats at the supermarket, in advertisements, in interviews — so too is the relationship the sum of the couple’s appearances (or lack thereof) in public, the way they speak of each other in interviews, the way they produce (or don’t produce) children.
So the puzzle pieces here are Kanye and Kim’s “two images and their fit,” working together in a way that is somehow appealing to me. So what are these stars representing for the public? In many pieces, Petersen breaks down how she reads a given star’s image. So, aping her methodology, I’ll give it the ol’ grad school try:
Kanye reads: south side Chicagoan, from the streets but not of the streets (even if his mom is a prof, but whatever), aspirational, talented, kind of like an outsider dork black kid who is so successful he becomes black royalty, best friends with the coolest kid in school (Jay); passionate, out-of-control emotions, an artist but also a buffoon, tempestuous, occasional drunkard loves his mom, loves himself. mama’s boy. Likes curvy women.
Kim reads: Armenian Valley girl, rich parents on the margins of LA celebrity, a comfortable – even commodifiable – sexuality, real white women have curves, making bank by exploiting her own privacy and emotional life, fame whore, family gal, boob jokes with the sisters. Likes black guys.
For both of these two, it occurs to me that for folks who don’t consume their media and just hear about them, Kanye largely reads “jackass” (a la President Obama, who broke my heart that day, but I understand) and Kim reads “nouveau riche ethnic white trash.” As an avowed consumer and even teacher of Kanye’s music, and an occasional watcher of KUWTK and always admirer of Kim’s curvaceous form, I am inclined to see the good in them.
But, in any case, these two images combine really cleanly. Both are aspirational, folks who even on top seem jealous to get higher; both are hard workers; Kanye was a mama’s boy and Kim has family aplenty (and they’re for sale); both urbanites; both have shown their vulnerabilities in public; have been friends for years; both have an established interest in the looks/body type of the other one. So what might I admire or connect to in this relationship? Well, I think it’s the fantasy, first of all, of that special friendship turning into something more after all those years of failed relationships with other people. It also seems to be a fantasy about making choices–good choices and bad ones, artistic choices and capitalist ones–and not having our mistakes ruin our chance at love. And it’s also a fantasy about fame, because all these two wanted was to be famous, and now they are, and their conjunction makes each more famous than they could have been alone. And it’s a fantasy about genuine love, because these two may want each other for the fame, but definitely not for the money.
Now, let’s consider the second question: why love Kimye when there are Carters around?
Jay and Bey’s images are quite different than Kim and Kanye’s. The Carters manage their privacy. They got married secretly, then waited a long time to have a kid. Jay’s raps, like Bey’s tumblr, are personal, yet the real person is still hidden beneath a sheeny veil of artistry and marketing. They are black Americana: hiphop and R&B’s greatest contemporary successes.
The Carters read untouchable, effortless success. They work hard but they don’t have to try hard to work hard. As far as their alchemical stardom is concerned, their fame is based on 99% talent and 1% (all Bey’s) crazy gorgeous face-beauty. Compare this to Kim and Ye, whose hustles get down and dirty. Kim’s reality show success is leveraged from a sextape and her dad having defended OJ Simpson. Kanye is more infamous than famous, his awesome music dwarfed by his awesomely bad self-control.
So, depending on your fantasies and dreams–if you dream of pop stardom, if you dream of untouchability–Jay and Bey may be the star couple for you. But my life has been too messy and my fiction is too personal for me to hope for all that.
Now, grant me a detour. (Or skip the next section and meet me at the bottom.)
Buddhist cosmology holds that all sentient beings live and die and are reborn within a cycle of Samsara: imperfect existence. Of the cycle’s six realms, three are unfortunate–demons, hungry ghosts, and animals–and three are fortunate–humans, demigods, and gods. Rebirth in the fortunate groups is a result of good karma, and in the unfortunate groups is a result of bad (read more). Even though being a god or demigod is exceedingly pleasant, however, only humans can achieve nirvana – because it takes that most human mixture of pain and joy to fully practice the dharma, the good, noble way–gods and demigods are too distracted by their bounty to fully understand the nature of existence and behave accordingly.
Bear with me here.
Certain interpretations of Buddhism hold that “cosmology is equivalent to psychology.” That is, the so-called realm a being is in is psychological, not metaphysical. If you are miserable and desperate, you are a hungry ghost; if you are happy and at leisure, you are a god. Etc. Under this interpretation it is possible to say that human beings exist across all six realms of being. (For example, think of someone you know who is an animal.)
Mythologically, it is said that the Asuras [demigods] and the gods share a celestial tree. While the gods enjoy the fruits of this celestial tree, the Asuras are custodians of the roots of the tree. The Asuras are envious of the gods and constantly attempt to take the fruits of the tree from the gods. As a result of this, they fight with the gods, and are defeated by the gods and suffer greatly as a consequence. Because of this constant jealousy, envy and conflict, existence amongst the Asuras is unhappy and unfortunate.
The demigods guard the roots of the celestial tree and are jealous of the gods, who enjoy the fruits. The demigods are still demigods, jet they are plagued by jealousy, unhappy with their lot. The gods, on the other hand, are straight chillin’. They will always win.
I invoke these myths because they help me understand how I view what Rembert Browne calls the “Knowles-Thronedashians” and why Kanye and Kim are so much more appealing to me than Jay-Z and Beyonce. Gods and demigods, they’re all too distracted by their leisure to know much of the nature of things. But Kim and Kanye know–and show–their pain. Even jealousy is a real emotion I can understand. It makes them more human, or at least appear so. And the irony for us humans is that the most beneficial state in which to be born is to be born a human, because humans, with their pain and suffering as well as their joy and love, live in the only realm from which one can achieve nirvana, release from the cycle of death and rebirth.
Just listen, for a minute.
We gonna take it to the moon, take it to the stars,
How many people you know could take it this far?
So many stars [scars].
Bout to take this whole thing to Mars.
I know Kanye knows longing by the painful desire he exhibits on this track for his autotuned vocals to keep up with the wide warm vibrating velvet of Beyonce’s voice. He wants to sing like a man might want to run like Bolt or dance like Baryshikov or sing like Beyonce but only the gods can do that, and longing is attachment and pain.
Kanye is a man, is a human being. I adore him for his failures as much as for his success. I want him to find love.
So, what do we talk about when we talk about Kimye? We congratulate folks getting the body they’ve dreamed about in a sexual partner (more on this in part II). We dream that we get the one who got away. We hope a man who’s lost his family finds another. We celebrate the power of love despite the messiness of our lives and the mistakes we’ve made. We pray love works. We’re pinning our hopes on Kimye.