Guest Post: A Defense of Rihanna’s “American Oxygen”

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.

3 Responses to “Guest Post: A Defense of Rihanna’s “American Oxygen””

  1. Robert Loss

    I don’t normally respond to criticism of my work in this manner, but Mr. Jobe’s article seriously misreads and misrepresents my writing and argument. If someone were to read it without reading my piece, they would have an extremely distorted view of what I wrote.

    Firstly: this overwhelming focus on my comparison b/w “American Oxygen” and Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” Jobe says I do this “[t]hroughout the course of the argument,” which isn’t true. I just checked my original document; that comparison makes up about 550 words out of the 2800-word article. He also leaves out that I compare the song/video to numerous others, from Pussy Riot to Michael Jackson.

    Jobe also says I compare Rihanna’s performance to Springsteen’s “live performances,” plural, when I’m only comparing it to one: the performance used in the BitUSA video. He also writes “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”–I have to admit, I’m baffled by this; I never talk about Springsteen’s shows, and never say this even about the performance in the BitUSA video. (In fact, I think BitUSA does give a comprehensive critique of American Empire as it pertains to the Viet Nam War. I have no idea why we should expect it to comment on police brutality. The problem with constantly saying “shows” is that Springsteen has in fact spoken and played music critiquing that brutality and racial injustice–see “American Skin (41 Shots)” for one example.)

    I think there’s a conflation here between this song/video and, somehow, all Springsteen shows, which is meant to support Jobe’s argument that I should have acknowledged Rihanna’s live performance of “American Oxygen”. But in this article I’m focusing on the artifact of each song and its video, that’s it. I don’t discuss Springsteen’s many offstage and onstage political comments and actions, and that’s why I don’t discuss Rihanna’s March Madness performance and her speech. If you want to argue that I should have considered the broader picture of both artists, fine, but that was the limitation I chose for this piece.

    Also misleading is the notion that I’ve chosen “Born in the USA” out of thin air as the emblem of all good political pop music. I make the reason for this comparison very, very clear by citing the same interview with Sam Harris in Billboard that Jobe cites, in which Harris says he was inspired by Springsteen’s song. That was my sole concession to the question of intention, which I think is invariably a tricky thing. Generally I try to take the work of art on its own terms in these columns. Again, if the argument is that intentions should be included, fine. But Rihanna’s involvement in the songwriting process and presumably the video doesn’t change my critique of either.

    Most egregious to me, personally, is the notion that I dismiss Rihanna’s work as pure opportunism to “make a quick buck,” particularly at the end of my column when I note how it might inspire some. This inference is all Jobe’s; I never once say this is Rihanna’s motive, nor would I. It is a pet peeve of mine that critics assume purely economic motivations in pop music but not, for instance, rock music, punk, etc.; unless there’s evidence for me to believe otherwise, I assume in all of my writing that the artist is genuine. I make the point numerous times that Rihanna and her team tried to achieve a political point and came up short. What I wrote at the end of my column was this: “Sometimes gestures are the best any of us are going to get on any given day. But they’re not enough. They’re never enough. Recognition can amount to nothing more than condescension, and aspirational messages can obscure institutionalized racism and end up blaming the victim. What we need is real change.” Perhaps Mr. Jobe is interpreting “gesture” and “condescension” and “aspirational messages” as somehow the evidence of purely economic motives; I do not define them that way.

    As a critic, I can take criticism; Jobe’s reading of the movement in the song’s video is sharp, and something I missed. But I can’t let such a profound misreadings go without comment, and I appreciate the opportunity to make that comment.

    Reply
  2. Kevin Jobe

    Hi Robert – thanks for the reply. I appreciate the discussion.

    First of all, given that this is a feminist blog, and my piece is a guest post, I want to preface by noting the ironic nature of two white American men discussing, *on a feminist blog*, whether a complex work of art, *developed by a woman of color*, is a “truly political song”/achieves the “universal” status of political art. So let’s begin by observing the dynamics of power and representation in an all-too-familiar exchange in which men, universal arbiters of cultural value and political art, debate each other about whether work developed by women, especially women of color, deserve our praise, appreciation and stamp of approval. With that, to your reply:

    i) You criticize my “overwhelming focus” on your comparison b/t the American Oxygen video and the BitUSA video, yet every example in your piece is meant as a comparison/contrast against exactly these two “artifacts” as you call them. My reply even began by quoting at length your comparison of AO to BitUSA, a comparison without which the rest of the piece would be unintelligible. So this cannot possibly be a misrepresentation of the main point of comparison that informs your argument.

    ii) You claim that “…if the argument is that intentions should be included, fine. But Rihanna’s involvement in the songwriting process and presumably the video doesn’t change my critique of either.” This strikes me as particularly ironic, since you take into consideration the intentions of Sam Harris, but not Rihanna herself. Indeed, you have no problem discussing the intentional content of AO when it comes to the inspiration and contributions of Bruce Springsteen, but fail to even *acknowledge* the role of Rihanna and Alex da Kid, the very ones who gave the song the political content it has. Therefore, it is only by failing to acknowledge the very artists who gave the song its political content (Rihanna/Alex da Kid) that you are able to conclude that the song has no true political content. Thus your piece ends up not only ignoring Rihanna’s intentions altogether, but removing her own autonomy in the creative process of developing the song and video.

    And that’s really the point of my reply, I think. When you say, “Rihanna’s involvement in the songwriting process and presumably the video doesn’t change my critique of either”, I’m not sure how to interpret that other than “Rihanna’s intentions and beliefs do not matter, even though they were central to the entire political content of the song.” How does one judge the political value of a song without taking into account how the political content was developed and rationalized?

    iii) Finally: again, you claim that you only focus on the “artifact” of the Rihanna’s AO video, and not her broader work. This is disingenuous. For example, you write, “Even the way Springsteen sings “I was born in the U.S.A.” mixes pessimism, pride, and total shellshock. A singer can take the most blasé lyric down an existential rabbit hole, but Rihanna has yet to show she’s capable of that.” Here you are clearly making a statement about Rihanna’s collective performances *up to the present*, and making a judgment about those performances. So in fact you are making judgments not just about the AO video, but judgments about how Rihanna herself “has yet to show” a certain x, y and z in all of her performances to date.

    Which brings me back to the preface: here we are, two white, American men discussing whether or not a work of art developed by a woman of color (born in Barbados w/Sub-Saharan African roots), is or is not worthy of the status of “universal” political art/whatnot. It’s not particularly surprising, from a feminist philosophical standpoint, that a white male born in America steeped in Western Marxist analysis and critique might often fail to acknowledge the autonomy, role and influence of women of color in politics and history.

    As a postscript: we just learned that Baltimore police prevented Rihanna from giving a free underground benefit show for protestors in the wake of Freddie Gray:

    http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/jul/29/rihanna-freddie-gray-concert-reportedly-blocked-baltimore-police

    Reply
  3. Kevin Jobe

    Robert: Also, I just realized I didn’t respond fully to your last criticism regarding the role and interpretation of economic motives in the political references of AO. I had claimed that your piece seemed to dismiss the political references in AO as “opportunistic spectacles” to make a quick buck on contemporary trends. You object to this, but my reasons for making this inference are sound. Let me explain.

    Let’s first recall your own characterization of 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.” Now, when one is having an academic conversation about the “spectacles” of consumerism, capitalism and ideology, one surely cannot speak of “spectacle” without some reference to Debord’s classic text The Society of the Spectacle. (right?) Let me quote Ch.3 Sec. 59-60, where Debord argues that the spectacular function of the “celebrity” within consumer capitalism is to banalize political rebellion as economic opportunities for accumulation:

    “Under the shimmering diversions of the spectacle, banalization dominates modern society the world over and at every point where the developed consumption of commodities has seemingly multiplied the roles and objects to choose from. The remains of religion and of the family (the principal relic of the heritage of class power) and the moral repression they assure, merge whenever the enjoyment of this world is affirmed–this world being nothing other than repressive pseudo-enjoyment. The smug acceptance of what exists can also merge with purely spectacular rebellion; this reflects the simple fact that dissatisfaction itself became a commodity as soon as economic abundance could extend production to the processing of such raw materials….The celebrity, the spectacular representation of a living human being, embodies this banality by embodying the image of a possible role. Being a star means specializing in the seemingly lived; the star is the object of identification with the shallow seeming life that has to compensate for the fragmented productive specializations which are actually lived. Celebrities exist to act out various styles of living and viewing society unfettered, free to express themselves globally. They embody the inaccessible result of social labor by dramatizing its by-products magically projected above it as its goal: power and vacations, decision and consumption, which are the beginning and end of an undiscussed process.”

    Therefore, when you say that Rihanna’s AO video is “a spectacle of empty gestures” that exhibits an obsession with celebrity and consumerism, I read this in line with Debord’s observation that a “spectacle” of consumer society uses and banalizes the images of political movements/rebellions for the purpose of endless accumulation and profit. (“The spectacle is capital to such a degree of accumulation that it becomes an image.” Sec 34)

    For Debord, from the vantage point of commodification and spectacle, political movements (like those in the AO video), are always economic opportunities. This is what I mean when I equate your characterization of AO as “spectacle” with “opportunistic spectacles to make a quick buck on contemporary trends.” Indeed, your characterization of AO’s “obsession with celebrity and consumerism” is perfectly consistent with Debord’s analysis of the economic motives that drive spectacle. This is why I equate, justifiable so I think, your charge of AO being a “spectacle” with the charge of having economic motives to use political movements as opportunities for profit and accumulation. I don’t think this is a controversial reading of your piece, much less an “egregious” misreading. But in any case, I welcome criticism. Best,

    Reply

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