Rihanna’s hidden message: Never hit a woman

It’s interesting to examine Rihanna’s musical trajectory since she was beaten up by her boyfriend Chris Brown in 2009. You have to wonder if things might be different if it had never happened. She performs tonight (Wednesday, June 22) at Rexall Place (buy).

Maybe S&M wouldn’t have become such a massive hit, its sexy video banned in 11 countries, its provocative lyrics – “sticks and stones may break my bones, but chains and whips excite me” – causing such awkward questions from impressionable children whose ears are glued to the Bounce 91.7 on the car radio. Not to mention drawing uncomfortable parallels with the real abuse Rihanna suffered. As she said on Good Morning America in 2009, “I was battered, I was bleeding, I was swollen in my face.”

Chris Brown went on Good Morning America about two months ago. He said he didn’t want to talk about “stuff that happened two years ago,” shortly before going off and trashing the ABC green room. Anger management classes continue.

The two are apparently making up. The restraining order against Brown has been lifted, and there are rumours the exes have been exchanging sexy texts, known as “sexts.” Could’ve been an errant tweet in there, too.

Now lest any man imagine that a woman who expresses her sexuality gives him the right to have his way with her, Rihanna’s new single Man Down sets him straight. It’s a murder song – very much along the lines of Goodbye Earl by the Dixie Chicks, except it’s Caribbean-flavoured R&B instead of cornball country and it’s a .22 calibre handgun instead of poisoned peas. The murder song is a time-honoured tradition in popular music. Simple premise here: Bastard (or bitch, depending) does you wrong, you kill him. Or her. There’s a certain equality among murder songs.

It’s actually Rihanna’s video for Man Down that makes clear what the actual lyrics only hint at. The video contains both a murder scene and a rape scene, with the protagonist expressing regret not only for the murder, but for going to jail because of it.

No wonder Chris Brown has been acting so nice lately.

It may seem clear who came out on top here, tempting to compare Rihanna to Tina Turner and say that neither would’ve been so huge were it not for the negative catalyst of well-publicized physical abuse. But it’s more complicated than that. Also, there are key differences. Tina was green when she met Ike. By the time she fled, battered and bruised, he’d taught her how to exploit her gifts in show business. Rihanna, on the other hand, was already well-established when she hooked up with Chris Brown. If anything, she boosted his career.

Ike died with his legacy tainted. He’s not the guy who helped invent rock ‘n’ roll. He’s the guy who beat up Tina Turner. Chris Brown may go down the same path in pop history, reconciliation or not – but so far there’s been very little commercial backlash. Brown’s new album F.A.M.E. is a hit. He did not go away or fade to obscurity. The record debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Top-200. Rihanna’s recent album Loud, containing both the aforementioned S&M and Man Down, debuted at No. 3.

Coincidence? Of course it is. But if you’re looking for an easy way to illustrate sexual equality – or lack thereof – in pop music, you don’t have to look very far.