Rihanna’s nipples. The endless coitus of capitalism
Jon E. Illescas *
A part of a frame of Rihanna’s music video “Kiss It Better” (2016).
Rihanna is the absolute queen of mainstream music video. If we analyze the most watched music videos on YouTube in its first decade of existence, in no less than 26 videos the singer celebrity appears.1 The world’s most famous Barbadian backed by ex-pusher, rapper and millionaire mogul, Jay-Z, beats other pop stars such as Justin Bieber, Katy Perry or Shakira. However, the singer has another milestone. In 2015 she appeared topless in her video “Bitch Better Have My Money”. It was the very first time a pop queen made a topless in a mainstream music video. The black Madonna of 21st century surpassed the outdated white Madonna.2 Since that “groundbreaking moment”, Rihanna hasn’t stopped in her willingness to show us her nipples in each and every new video. So far, we have four.3
That is because after the quoted music video she went on with her seduction strategy. She did it again in “Work”, “Kiss It Better” and “Needed Me”. In all of them, the celebrity decided to show her formerly private areolas to young people around the world.4 Exaggerated? These four music videos have had more than 1.170 million views in less than two years. This audience is approximately the same as nine times the combined young population in the European Union and the United States of America or, put another way, the whole population of EU, USA and Russia.5 This isn’t nonsense, is it? But anyway, what’s the reason for Rihanna’s apparent obsession with her breasts?
Actually, it isn´t about the singer’s will, although at the end she has to give her consent (of course!). It’s about the mode of production that sets the logic which in turn determines the form and the content of mainstream music videos: capitalism. In this system, the majority of the products and services [commodities] are made by the “interaction” of two classes:1) employers/capitalists, who own the means of production (corporations, business, plants, raw materials and so on) and 2) salaried workers, aseptically known as “employees” (this nomenclature sounds cooler to the capitalists, sorry… the employers). Employees have to work for others in return for a salary which has lower value than the work done. Otherwise, where else do the profits come from? Wages are valued less than the benefits that the employer receives from the labour of these workers.6
There’s an extra activity of the workers which isn’t paid for the capitalists. For that reason, once the goods are sold, the businessmen transform that difference (the surplus) into juicy profits. This “magical” social process make possible with each passing day the inequity between capitalist and workers are higher and according to Oxfam (who are not suspects of being a Communist organization), the richest 62 people on the planet are as wealthy as half of world’s population nowadays.7
But, what’s this boring Marxist stuff all about? Wasn’t it more appropriate to explain the exploitation of workers of Manchester cotton factories in the 19th Century than to analyze the provocative music video of the Caribbean Muse in the 21st Century? Actually it’s not, because the capitalist exploitation works in all sector where the quoted two social classe - that still nowdays split the humanity in two opposing parts - interact. It doesn’t matter if they produce cars, ice-creams, missiles, music videos, condoms or Pope Fancisco’s rosaries. Therefore, music video is an audiovisual product which adopts the social form of “merchandise” in our system. In other words, it is made by the investment of capital which is owned by employers who hire workers to produce a video of their property to sell it in the market for the best possible price.
And when do Rihanna’s breasts come into the picture? In the war against the competition. In that sense, we have to pay attention to the fact that the human eye (no matter if it’s male or female one) watches an image with sexual content 20% faster than any other.8 For that reason, another pop celebrity, Miley Cyrus, quoted “wisely”: “You are more famous the more you show your tits”.9 Because of that, in an audiovisual market (like YouTube) full of music videos competing fiercely for viewers, it’s functional for businessmen and women who invested in them to employ this visual lure to catch audience attention.10 Once the audience is collected it will be sold to the advertisers who paid for music videos as merchandise. In other words, when millions of young people are trapped watching Rihanna’s artistically enhanced beauty or Justin Bieber’s pectorals, the advertisers have to pay YouTube and other owners of music videos (like Vevo, Warner, etc.) for creating such a good bait to convert attention into commodities. In that way, advertising companies will be able to bomb the Rihanna and Bieber’s followers with that well-developed way of brainwashing called advertising. And everyone will be happy, won’t they?
Actually, there are a lot of people who are losing out these days. Not only workers, who are increasingly poorer in relation to businessmen in everywhere,11 but the music, musicians and music video lovers. Due to capitalist factors, which restrict mainstream music, popular music is poorer musically and semantically with each passing day. In parallel, music videos which illustrate pop music have an increasing homogeneous form and content. The media oligarchy who personifies capitalist and class logic of the cultural industry impedes the possibility of making mass music more diverse and to posses more quality than it has.12
What’s more, within music videos happens something I’ve called the “endless coitus strategy”.13 This strategy bases its attraction power in sexual arousal. In that way music videos retain audience`s gaze in an endless jumpiness which contains the promise of the orgasm reward that the same communicational flow have to deny it in order that this attention will be merchandised and it could be deflected to that offer within audiovisual content. In the dominant music video, the endless coitus curse achieves its higher expression and its exhausted voyeurs make up its punished and loyal audience.
Moreover, because the media oligarchy who rules/censors mass music form summit of the industry blocks the ability of this kind of music to deal with matters other than sex, wealth, competitiveness, aggressiveness or love; there are a lot of important matters that disappear or are silenced in the mainstream music video flow. Among others, those that are related to system, social inequity, wars, hunger or climate change critics. Neither do we even find others placed far away from politics like friendship, solidarity, spirituality or love (understood as something beyond unidimensional sex-appeal). For that reason, more and more, we’ll watch Rihanna’s videos in which she shows her carnal “secrets” and less and less the politically Michael Jackson’s committed and partially censored “They Don´t Care About Us”.14 Nowadays, artistic freedom for singer celebrities is one of the more restricted in living memory. As a consequence of the concentration and centralization of the capital which fund mainstream music videos, the ideological and cultural content depends on the will of fewer and fewer people every day.
The existence of some few critic groups like Calle 13 or Rise Against within the audiovisual flow provided by the “big money” (ruled by only three major labels which control 92% of the distribution of the most popular videos) doesn’t change the fact that the flow is overwhelmingly in the majority in favour of ideologies and values which are useful for business people.15 A well-known couple of friends said this a long time ago: “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas (…) the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.”16
Maybe in the endless escape that capitalism is doomed (economically, politically and culturally), we arrive at a situation which nowadays can still seem surprising for us. Yes, that’s it. Maybe in a few years, mainstream music videos will show pop singer celebrities having explicit sex scenes to attract the attention of the future audience.17 Not in vain, they can’t seduce it in a different way except with sexuality. And if pop celebrities like Rihanna are showing their nipples, it will be impossible to reduce the temperature. Not show them, from now on, it will be a high-level corporation risk. At least for Rihanna and similar artist. This (which seems like a practical joke) illustrates us about the nonsense of our socioeconomic system.
At the end of this article, four questions come to mind. Firstly, how many music videos will Rihanna star from now on without showing her nipples? Secondly, when will the first celebrity penetrative sex or fellatio occur? Thirdly, when will the majority of people realize there is no another possible cultural present under capitalism? And lastly, when will those who desire a better world realize with that “cultural fast-food” there won’t be a possible alternative future without creating a contrahegemonic culture which will be able to seduce the majorities?
Time passes inexorably, it accelerates and in the hand of others oppresses us without any significant resistance. At least let’s ask ourselves to shout out what we can do, otherwise the same powerful people as usual, from their huge speakers, will dictate us the rhythm and the melody of our lives. And meanwhile, from the altar of the secular power of the bourgeois, Rihanna’s nipples or whoever’s nipples will replace them, they will be the opium of a future full of cadavers. Yes, because our cadavers will be slaughtered by excruciating work rhythms, continuous political mockery and the complete extermination of every culture that has some humanism.
It has nothing to do with censoring sexual content of any cultural product at all, but understanding that we, as human beings, are much more than excited phallus and breasts looking forward to be consumed. But this is something which contradicts the function that capitalism wants from us. For that reason, Rihanna is a slave of her own nipples. They have become the spearheads of the international capitalism’s udders.
Will we breastfeed from them?
* The author has a PhD in Sociology and a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts. His last book was published recently in Spanish: La Dictadura del Videoclip. Industria musical y sueños prefabricados (El Viejo Topo, 2015).
** This article is shared under a Creative Commons License 4.0 (Attribution/Non Commercial/No derivatives).
1. ILLESCAS, Jon E. (2015), The Music Video Dictatorship. Musical Industry and Prefabricated Dreams. Barcelona: El Viejo Topo, p. 65 / La dictadura del videoclip. Industria musical y sueños prefabricados. Barcelona: El Viejo Topo, p. 65
2. Madonna showed her nipple during less than one second (almost imperceptible) in a long shot of Papa Don’t Preach (1986), when she was already a star. It happened in some fast shots between 1:36 and 1:39 of running time.
3. The Rihanna’s last music video “Sleedghammer” is from the motion picture “Star Trek Beyond” and its artistic police depends on the people in charge with Star Trek (not only the Rihanna’s staff and her bosses). For that reason nipples weren’t allowed and for the same reason this video has reached a lower number of views (“only” 37 million in 6 months).
4. Sometimes without covering it by any garment (Bitche Better Have My Money) and other times with some transparent clothes (Work and Needed Me).
5. EUROPEAN COMISSION (2015), Situation of Young People in the UE, Bruselas: European Comission, p. 7. Data for United States: Indexmundi [19/04/2016]. EU, USA and Russia: World Bank.
6. MARX, Karl (2010), El Capital (3 tomos). Madrid: Siglo XXI.
7. ELLIOT, Larry (2016), «Richest 62 people as wealthy as half of world’s population, says Oxfam». In The Guardian, [online], 18 January.
8. ANOKHIN, Andrey P. and others (2008), « Rapid discrimination of visual scene content in the human brain ». In National Institute of Health, [online], 4th of Juny.
9. GÓMEZ, Lourdes (2014), «Miley Cyrus: ‘Eres más famosa cuanto más enseñas las tetas’». In El Mundo, [online], 6 May.
10. The first person who discovered the commercialization of the audience was communication theorist Dallas W. Smythe. Afterward, the one who specified it wasn’t the audience but its attention actually was Tanner Mirrless.
11. FARIZA, Ignacio (2015), «El 1% más rico tiene tanto patrimonio como todo el resto del mundo juntos» . In El País, [online], 13 October.
12. ILLESCAS, Jon E. (2015), La dictadura del videoclip. Industria musical y sueños prefabricados. Barcelona: El Viejo Topo, chapter 10.
13. Ibíd., p. 283.
14. We mean the censored version of “Prision”, but we do also with the one which had less censorship and almost of his fans know it (the one which was recorded in Brazil by Spike Lee).. Ibíd., pp. 400-402.
15. Ibíd., p. 138.
16. MARX, Karl y ENGELS, Friedrich (1846), La ideología alemana. Barcelona: Grijalbo , p.50.
17. In some concerts, several singer celebrities already simulate having sex with their fans and followers. ILLESCAS, Jon E. (2015), La dictadura del videoclip. Industria musical y sueños prefabricados. Barcelona: El Viejo Topo, p. 287.
The original Spanish article was finished on the 19th of April 2016 and it was published on Topo Express and the English Version (with updated data) was finished on the 13th of January 2017.