The following is a guest post. The author, Kevin S. Jobe, received his PhD in Philosophy from Stony Brook University in March 2015 and is developing his dissertation into a book tentatively titled, “Biopoliteia: Critical Social Theory and the Militarization of Life.”
If you haven’t seen Rihanna’s new music video “American Oxygen”, you should. Much has been said about the video, but perhaps the harshest review has come from a column by Robert Loss over at PopMatters who has called the video “(A) spectacle of empty gestures” that exhibits “…a desire to offend no one, an obsession with celebrity and consumerism, and inarticulate political speech.”
The gist of Loss’ argument can be summed up as follows: American Oxygen fails to achieve the “universal” status of true political art because the singer remains disingenuously abstracted from the anxiety and suffering of the people it attempts to acknowledge and speak about. Throughout the course of the argument, Rihanna’s singular “manufactured” performance in the music video is juxtaposed against its opposite: the genuine, political art embodied in Bruce Springsteen’s live performances of Born in the USA. Loss writes,
Reaching for the universal, Harris and the other co-writers of “American Oxygen” forget the Writing 101 commandment that the particulars lead us to the universal. Springsteen knows this. “Born in the U.S.A.” is a soliloquy, one man’s experience offered as the testimony of thousands. It’s as grounded in place and time as the images coming out of Baltimore today. “American Oxygen” floats above all that, dealing in concepts and ideals without ever giving voice to the people it seems to want to acknowledge or even speak for, or speak to.
Now one might think that someone who positions himself as a “pop culture critic” would do some preliminary background research on (for example) the history and motivations behind the development of the object of critique in question. One might, for example, want to know that the entire political theme and lyrical content for American Oxygen was developed by Rihanna herself in collaboration with one of the co-writers of the song. As one co-writer of the original song clarified,
…I wrote one thing and then Alex and Rihanna had the idea to turn it into this song about an immigrant story, coming to this country as an outsider. … That was her idea, really, hers and Alex’s, to turn it into that kind of song…I really was just trying to write something that I thought was cool and that I thought I could sing, even after I knew that it was going to her…She just really made magic with that song and she made it her own. She really did. And the fact that her and Alex both helped craft the song and turned it into something that’s bigger than me, it just means way more. The perspective that they gave to it, having it be this immigrant story, is something so cool and unique that I probably wouldn’t have thought of had it not been for them.
Or, one might also want to know that Rihanna actually debuted the song for the first time at the March Madness Music Fest in Indiana, where she loudly denounced the Religious Freedom Restoration Act during her set with an expletive-filled tirade that was immediately censored from public record. As Rolling Stone recently reported,
Rihanna also used her headlining performance to slam Indiana’s controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Although the bill was amended to make it less discriminatory toward the LGBT community, Rihanna still unloaded on the RFRA in an expletive-laden tirade (via ONTD) prior to performing T.I.’s “Live Your Life.”
“Who’s feeling these new bullshit laws that they’re trying to pass over here? I say fuck that shit,” Rihanna told the crowd, inciting chants of “Fuck that shit.” “We’re just living our motherfucking lives. Indiana!” Although Rihanna’s March Madness performance was live-streamed, her Indiana comments were heavily censored upon broadcast.
So while praising Springsteen for performing his songs live and acknowledging the anxiety and suffering of people in a singular time and place, Loss completely ignores both the original artistic and political contribution and live performances of Rihanna. Indeed, one gets the impression from reading the column that Rihanna has never done a live show before. Furthermore, by completely eliding Rihanna’s own original contribution to the political theme and content of the song whatsoever, and failing to mention her censored debut of the song calling out the RFRA, Loss’s column ironically ascends itself into the realm of ungrounded abstraction.
For Loss, then, Bruce’s live performances allow suffering to speak, in other words. And, even though Loss admits that Springsteen’s live shows never gave a real sense of historical or global context to the narrative of Born in the USA, nor gave a more comprehensive critique of the contradictions of American Empire, police brutality and racial injustice, Loss concludes that
Springsteen also never observes the history in the montage, but his onstage passion is enough to create the illusion of that interaction, even if his vocals are terribly lip-synched. In other words, it matters that he’s performing the song live: a singular event at a certain moment in time inherently filled with the desperation to say what needs to be said right now.
So for Loss, even when Springsteen fails to weave together the historical and social context of his song, his onstage presence magically “creates the illusion” of that context for his audience. Even though Born in the USA never goes nearly as far as American Oxygen either in its depth of analysis connecting economics and global structures of domination (“We sweat for a nickel and a dime, turn it into an Empire”) nor in its breadth of coverage in connecting disparate social struggles against the Empire of global capitalism (“Black Lives Matter”, Occupy Wall Street, The War on Terror, immigrant rights, Black Power, The Civil Rights Movement, the anti-war movement, environmental justice, nuclear disarmament, etc), somehow Born in the USA turns out to be for Loss the true universal expression of political art that is so lacking in Rihanna. Talk about giving the Boss the benefit of the doubt.
If Loss had taken a closer look – both at the development and debut of the song and the actual video itself – he might have noticed that the song in itself is in fact a quite coherent and powerful story of collective social struggle in America tied together by the central theme found in the chorus: “We sweat for a nickel and a dime, turn it into an Empire.” Furthermore, the imagery throughout the song is dominated by a central trope: movement, flows, circulation, and how these are controlled and restricted by a larger force that drives them all: Empire. The movement of immigrants on trains, refugees on boats, the flow of military arms and weapons of war, the physical violence of police brutality, the flow of oxygen (“I Can’t Breathe”), the circulation of financial capital on Wall Street, and the false upward mobility of “the American Dream” promised to the oppressed the world over who are “just trying to get the wheels going.” All this controlled and restricted movement, symbolized in the video by the parachute preventing people from moving forward, points back to the central theme of the chorus: “We sweat for a nickel and a dime, turn it into an Empire.”
Loss very briefly mentions the potential significance that American Oxygen might have in its recognition of so many struggles of oppressed peoples and minorities, before dismissing these “gestures” as merely opportunistic spectacles to make a quick buck on contemporary trends. Of course one looming question remains for Loss: if Rihanna is motivated simply by the economic interests to make a quick buck on contemporary trends in pop culture, why choose the topic of American Empire as the object of critique? There are plenty of other popular trends to sing about that would entail far less risk on behalf of those who call attention to things like racial injustice, economic inequality, and global structures of domination. Loss would likely answer that American Empire increasingly produces popular dissent as pop culture. But if that’s the case, it seems to follow that American Empire increasingly produces the conditions of its own widespread dissatisfaction and, one hopes, ultimate demise. And if that’s the case, then American Oxygen is precisely the kind of popular critique that is needed today.