Academic journal article Music Theory Online

Finding Love in Hopeless Places: Complex Relationality and Impossible Heterosexuality in Popular Music Videos by Pink and Rihanna

Academic journal article Music Theory Online

Finding Love in Hopeless Places: Complex Relationality and Impossible Heterosexuality in Popular Music Videos by Pink and Rihanna

Article excerpt

[1.1] This paper presents and applies an analytic model for interpreting representations of gender, sexuality, and relationality in the words, music, and images of popular music videos. To illustrate the relevance of our approach, we have selected two songs by mainstream female artists who offer compelling reflections on the nature of heterosexual love and the challenges it poses for both men and women. Unlike many love songs in the pop genre, Rihanna’s “We Found Love” (2011) and Pink’s “Try” (2012) do not romanticize relationships by perpetuating gender stereotypes and reinforcing clichés of heterosexual intimacy. Instead, the songs explore the struggle faced by both partners as they come to grips with the implications of intense emotional connection. In fact, we argue that each of the songs, and their accompanying videos, can be seen as powerful commentaries on love in late modernity—that is, at a time when conventions of gender and sexuality are in flux due to the rapidly changing nature of economic structures and social roles (Rosin 2012). Through a multi-layered integration of lyrics, music, and images, these commentaries defy dominant ideologies of gendered subjectivities and sexual normativities in the context of romantic love.

[1.2] The two videos share a number of common elements on the levels of form and content. With respect to form, both videos unfold in bleak and transient settings, both use color to express elevated states of feeling, and both show the vicissitudes of love to be intensely embodied experiences. With respect to content, both videos represent the male and female partners as engaged in a quest for sustainable relationships, both link sexual passion with physical aggression, both connect ecstasy and euphoria to conflict and destruction, and finally, both eschew a narrative of male domination and female subordination in favour of one of equal partnership—one in which men and women bear equal responsibility for a relationship’s successes and failures as well as its pleasures and pains. Of course, we are not suggesting that power relations privileging men and marginalizing women no longer exist. What we are suggesting, however, is that stories of male privilege and female marginalization are not the ones being told in these videos. They will, therefore, not be our focus here. Instead, our focus will be on making sense of how complex relationalities are bound up in the lived experience of heterosexual love as it is represented in these music videos by Pink and Rihanna.

Context: Love Songs in Late Modernity

[2.1] Popular musicologist Simon Frith declares emotions to be significant for popular music scholarship. More specifically, he claims that music is—first and foremost—“a way of managing the relationship between our public and private emotional lives” (Frith 2004, 39). Turning shortly thereafter to the subject of love songs, he explains:

It is often noted but rarely discussed that the bulk of popular songs are love songs. This is certainly true of twentieth-century popular music in the West; but most non-Western popular musics also feature romantic, usually heterosexual love lyrics. This is more than an interesting statistic; it is a centrally important aspect of how pop music is used. Why are love songs so important? Because people need them to give shape and voice to emotions that otherwise cannot be expressed without embarrassment or incoherence. Love songs are a way of giving emotional intensity to the sorts of intimate things we say to each other (and to ourselves) in words that are, in themselves, quite flat (39).

[2.2] Despite Frith’s claim that love is an important part of what propels popular music, representations of it have received relatively scarce attention in the academic literature. With the exception of Martin Stokes’s (2010) study of love as a form of cultural expression and B. Lee Cooper’s (2015) study of romance recordings, there has been very little work done on how love is represented in popular music, and even less on how these representations are bound up with issues of gender and sexuality. …

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