Despite recent events to the contrary, Rihanna’s YouTube life hasn’t changed a bit. In videos such as Live Your Life, Rehab, and Hate That I Love You So, Rihanna is the long-lashed, pouty-lipped, omniscient heresayer. She is the Greek chorus of Hollywood excess, singing an alto psalm to those for whom things have gotten a bit out of control.
Except that things got a bit out of control for her.
How did all this happen to a Barbadian beauty queen? By living her life? By being, as she says in her thick Caribbean accent, a papah chasah?
In too many ways, Rihanna’s story is too old to be new. The young starlet sets foot on Industry floors and all goes wrong. In many of her videos, they have given Rihanna’s beautiful features a vintage look a la Dorothy Dandrige or Marilyn Monroe. When Rihanna sings, she sings with the sense of authority - and eternity - that only stars have. But stars like Dorothy Dandrige and Marilyn Monroe were both deeply anguished and emotionally tortured by fame and film. Is psychological (and physical) abuse really the legacy of stardom?
And is tragedy really timeless?
Tragedy, in all of its perceived inevitability and chaos, is glamorous. Almost as glamorous as small waists. Real tragedy, like real beauty, is seen as special because it is rare. And because they are rare, and because they are sexy, they are both immanently photograph-able.
But voyeurism, for as much as it drives sales of new web applications and catalog purchases of cheap satin clothing, is not a good thing. And in Rihanna’s case, it is disastrous.
All over the Internet, Rihanna is caught on tape singing about the very things that led the main character of Live Your Life to ruin: the quest for stardom and an addiction to being seen, being rich, and being needed. Many of her other videos are about dependence on men.
These hyper-syncopated lullabies to her own ruin now serve as some sort of weird Mulholland Drive, out-of-body moment for the American entertainment empire. While her own life is evolving off-tape, Google will forever cache Rihanna as yet another media hit job of a glamorous sweetheart abused by either her boyfriend, her ego, or fame itself.
The idea of women being unable to reckon with themselves – to be “hysterical”, as psychoanalysts used to call them – is unfortunately almost as old as domestic violence is. And while the public’s vague fascination with the psychic downfall of female entertainment stars is not new, the way in which this tragedy is constantly and absolutely public is new.
And it is creepy.
The catharsis of listening to Live Your Life, however oddly fascinating it might be, is a dangerous one. Both the Industry and consumers need a different set of goals and standards with which they make women – and men – into media phenomena.