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Rihanna, “Russian Roulette,” and distortions of dating violence

November 10, 2009

Ever since the infamous break-up of Rihanna and her abusive partner, Chris Brown, fans have been waiting for Rihanna to release a song about Brown’s violence. Her new single, “Russian Roulette,” is Rihanna’s first attempt to make marketable pop out of her experience. The single’s release comes as Rihanna has begun speaking openly about her relationship with Brown in interviews with ABC and Glamour magazine.

The lyrics compare dating violence to a game of Russian roulette, in which an unnamed “him” forces “her” to play the deadly game. Russian roulette — a game in which the players alternate pulling the trigger of a gun containing only one bullet while the gun is pressed to each of their heads in turn — appears to be a metaphor for the feeling of helplessness that can come with abuse: the feeling that violence or death could strike at any moment. The chorus expresses a sense of the entrapment and self-blame that often characterize abuse: “I’m terrified, but I’m not leaving. I know that I can pass this test. So just pull the trigger.”

Critics have compared the song these-boots-were-made-for-walking-esque breakup songs (a la Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats”), and have called “Russian Roulette” disappointing because it fails to send such a cut-and-dry message about picking up and moving on. It’s likely that many fans wanted to see Rihanna stamping out such a straight-up revenge ballad — something more along the lines of her earlier hit, “Take a Bow,” where she warns her cheating partner to get off her lawn before the sprinklers come on. 

But “Russian Roulette” is a more complicated song, and one that, in the end, does more to further popular understandings of abuse than songs like “Take a Bow.” As Rihanna noted in a recent interview on ABC, women in abusive relationships attempt to break up with their partners an average of seven, eight, or even nine times (depending on different estimates) before they actually leave for good. The song’s categorization of conflicting emotions (“I’m terrified, but I’m not leaving”) speaks more honestly to the complexities of abuse.

But let’s not get too optimistic. As with any pop music creation, it’s important to remember all the layers of money-centered manufacturing behind the song. Rihanna herself is both a person and a carefully crafted, marketable image. “Russian Roulette” was apparently written by her (male) collaborator Ne-Yo. In images advertising the song and album, Rihanna appears wrapped in barbed wire with an eye patch supposedly intended to symbolize her bruised face. It’s hard to tell if her artistic choices are meant to express her true pain or to try to capitalize on it. Or both. 

The song’s violent imagery echoes the fixation on guns and violence that permeates much pop music these days. Plus, the song ends with a gunshot: a disturbing image that might urge acceptance or glorification of violence, rather than discouraging it. Still, the violent language in this song seems to be used in the service of understanding the violent phenomenon of abuse. I’m more convinced that it’s justifiable in this case than in Keri Hilson’s “Knock You Down,” for example. 

The greatest lesson in the Chris Brown/Rihanna abuse case is the way that popular culture sensationalizes and fails to understand dating violence. Unfortunately but inevitably, Rihanna contributes to some of the sensationalizing; she is after all making an album that will sell millions of copies, so “Russian Roulette” is not exactly an unequivocal feminist triumph. Still, Rihanna (and the pop empire behind her) deserve props for creating a somewhat nuanced song that goes beyond the typical two-option pop depiction — staying or going — and expresses the entrapment and the difficulty of leaving. Beyond that, Rihanna (the person) deserves credit for surviving, for ultimately leaving Brown, and for speaking frankly about her experiences.

 “I am strong,” she told ABC. “This happened to me. I didn’t cause it. I didn’t do it. This happened to me and it can happen to anybody.”

3 Comments
  1. Layman's Terms permalink
    November 12, 2009 11:16 am

    “Critics … have called “Russian Roulette” disappointing because it fails to send such a cut-and-dry message about picking up and moving on.”
    This is the laziest opinion by a critic I have ever heard…lol. Who are these critics? They have to think a little bit about the song’s meaning and all the sudden it’s too complicated…This song wasn’t made for 5 year olds that need “cut and dry” messages. We are adults and this song was perfect for the intended audience. Further, how do you make a cut and dry -I’m leaving someone because they beat me- song? People would be much more disturbed by “He bit me, he hit me” than what Russian Roulette’s metaphoric melody brings to the table.

    And to make some upbeat “Revenge ballad” would be the tackiest response to her situation in the world. She isn’t Eminem. This song is heart felt and real. It perfectly relates the honest emotions and feelings that she had during her relationship. You hit the nail on the head when you said “(This song)speaks more honestly to the complexities of abuse.”

    Finally, I disagree with the comment “It’s hard to tell if her artistic choices are meant to express her true pain or to try to capitalize on it. Or both.” She isn’t making her situation into a new business plan. That would be distasteful and obvious. However, if she didn’t address her situation see would be seen as fake.

    Self Expression…Does not mean acceptance or approval by the audience. Rihanna did her part as an artist. She encoded her thoughts and emotions…masterfully. If the audience can not decode the message accurately, the miscommunication is not her fault.

  2. Stephanie permalink
    November 22, 2009 6:38 pm

    I completely agree with the comment “Layman’s Terms”. If you are to lazy to decode the message, or if you cant understand the meaning of the song period then maybe you are not old enough or mature enough to be listening to it. Therefore, you cannot pass judgement on what you are not capable of understanding.

    Hate it or love it, she was professional, we must give her the credit she deserves!

  3. Layman's Terms permalink
    November 23, 2009 6:50 pm

    Thank you Stephanie
    …lol
    go to google and check out “russian roulette the week”
    and you’ll understand why I’m thanking you.

    P.S.- I commented under the name “Pay Attention” and I used my last paragraph from my 1st comment.

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