The New Yorker Turns A Whiter Shade Of Pale: Sasha Frere-Jones on Rihanna
Happy New Year, everyone! I had a great night. I hope you did.
In deference to those of you who’ve been reading this blog for a while, I’m going to be completely honest. My dream is to compel The New Yorker to call me up and offer me the pop culture desk. My strategy for doing this is to mercilessly critique the work of their current staff writers. This may seem hopeless, and perhaps it is. It may seem biased, as well, but it’s not. I’m perfectly willing to like anything in the magazine, and if I choose to tackle one of these (oddly frequent) disasters, it’s because something real is at stake. As I’ve said before, The New Yorker has become practically the only culture magazine worth reading in the United States. If it’s dropping the ball, then unfortunately there’s nobody to pick it up except bloggers.
Sasha Frere-Jones is every bit as lazy and useless as Louis Menand, and the proof is his recent article about Rihanna. Since I just wrote about Rihanna’s new album, I was curious. Here’s what I got: a white guy trying to tell a black woman the correct way to respond to being abused. It was, to use one of Frere-Jones’s favorite words, “sickening.” The article is a strange brew of condescension, bad aesthetic judgements, and plain old factual errors. Only a magazine completely insulated from the real events of our culture could have published it. This is especially depressing since Frere-Jones has the pop culture “desk” to himself, and seems to have been granted tenure.
Let’s begin at the beginning!
If you want a physical copy of…Unapologetic…you can buy a deluxe version.
Yes. What a great point. Also, Sasha, if you want a digital copy of the album, you can buy a deluxe version of that.
(Frere-Jones then goes into a long, overwrought summary of the Chris Brown incident.) There seemed to be no doubt that Rihanna was shaken by her hideous treatment and was concerned for other victims of domestic violence. Then things got weird. Through her Twitter account (which now has 27 million followers), Rihanna made it clear that she and Brown were not estranged.
This is the worst moment in a terrible article. Think about what Frere-Jones is really saying here. He’s saying that Rihanna has a responsibility to other victims of abuse. She may have been indifferent to their plight before, but now she has no excuse. This is completely wrong. First of all, abuse does not impose a moral obligation on its victims. Victims don’t need lectures; they need support and assistance. Second, whether or not we approve of Rihanna’s relationship with Brown is meaningless. She has the right to forgive him and to believe that he’s changed, even if we don’t. Again, to take any other position means imposing our ideas about victimhood and “recovery” on her. Finally, as written, Frere-Jones comes very close to saying A) that Rihanna’s experience could have been positive (if she’d only acted more responsibly), and/or B) that she must not have been traumatized, after all, considering what she’s done since the night she was beaten. Such vile attitudes demonstrate Frere-Jones’s total indifference to the actual fact of Rihanna’s having been abused, and his incomprehension of trauma’s extremely variable prognoses. He doesn’t sympathize with Rihanna — he’s frustrated with her.
Brown is an agile dancer, a better-than-average rapper, and a passable singer.
He is not a better-than-average rapper. He’s not even average. He sucks, which Frere-Jones would know if he took hip-hop seriously.
With all this drama, it is difficult to think of Rihanna simply as a pop singer, and to honor her as a person with agency.
Difficult for whom? I have no trouble at all thinking of Rihanna as a pop singer. I don’t think about any pop singer “simply,” though, because when has pop culture (rightly considered) ever been simple? As for honoring her as a person with agency, it’s clear that Frere-Jones never thought of her that way. He’s only interested in types of agency that conform to his grand, vicarious ideas about the role models that pop stars could (and should) be. If Rihanna decides to record a song with Chris Brown, that doesn’t count as her decision.
Rihanna’s stated version of independence…is being the object of badness, being subjugated. In one tweet she wrote, “Beautiful is great, submissive is even better.” What makes this attitude even more disturbing is that it seems to have served only to make Rihanna more popular.
Frere-Jones is reading the album title Good Girl Gone Bad totally wrong. Just because she’s “gone bad” doesn’t mean she’s passively “bad.” The slang is flexible; it can mean that she’s chosen to be bad. (Certainly, on Rated R, that decision is the major theme of the whole album. Same goes for “S&M,” where she sings, “I may be bad / but I’m perfectly good at it.”) Frere-Jones is cherry-picking here. He ignores Rihanna’s songs about confidence and choice, hopping from a shallow take on an album title to a single, carefully selected tweet. Why Frere-Jones finds her tweet so disturbing is hard to figure. It’s 2012. 50 Shades of Grey has taken up permanent residence on every bestseller list. He may not buy submission as a form of agency, but that argument is made over and over, in countless venues. Frere-Jones can’t credibly treat it like a virus that Rihanna has loosed on our world.
…scoring her first mainstream hit with “S.O.S.”
Nope. “Pon de Replay” was a mainstream hit.
Rihanna’s voice isn’t big or particularly compelling…
Says who? Rihanna was sought out by the biggest names in rap and pop music — Kanye West, Eminem, Jay-Z, Coldplay — just so she’d sing a chorus or two for them.
…the dubstep bass of “Phresh Out The Runway”…
This sentence gave me the idea for a great new game show entitled “Sorry, That’s Not Dubstep!”
This remoteness is manifest in her very public body, which is as attractive as the gig demands. She handles it, whether in fatigues or beaded bikinis, if it held a dull sexual power, as if she could have anyone she wanted but has forgotten why she might want to.
That first sentence-and-a-half is a masterpiece of middle-aged white dude creepiness. She, um, “handles” her body? As for her apathetic sexuality, Frere-Jones should at least admit that a vast number of pop stars, from David Bowie and Annie Lennox to Julian Casablancas and Alex Kapranos, have been both alluring and cold. Once again, Frere-Jones tries to make Rihanna seem more innovative than she really is in order to make her a better symbol of our debased, vapid culture.
The video for the hit doesn’t necessarily help to elucidate Rihanna. While the song’s lyrics are vaguely positive, especially for a woman who revels in celebrating dangerous love…
That first sentence doesn’t necessarily help to elucidate anything. Why is it even there? What’s more, anyone who thinks “Diamonds” is vaguely positive is missing the whole point of the song. It’s not all that deep of a song. Regardless, when Rihanna says “I choose to be happy,” she’s making a very desperate choice. It’s a maudlin song about candles that burn twice as bright and half as long.
She looks vaguely miserable and poorly rested.
Guess what, everybody? It turns out that Sasha Frere-Jones is Rihanna’s mother!
With that shocking revelation, I must leave you. “No more gas, in the red, can’t even get it started.” Until next time, this is Joseph Kugelmass, saying…