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08.12.10

What Is Rihanna Thinking?

By singing in notoriously misogynistic Eminem’s song about domestic violence, the inscrutable Rihanna has caused a controversy. But this might be as cathartic as Rihanna gets.

There are a few things that puzzle the casual observer watching the video for "I Love the Way You Lie," Eminem's song about domestic violence featuring Rihanna—which, rather absurdly, stars Dominic Monaghan and Megan Fox as troubled lovers.

How does former hobbit Dominic Monaghan get so much hot lady action in his real and fictional life?

How can one A) achieve Megan Fox hotness or B) become a nerdy, yet strangely sexy actor, so one can make out with her repeatedly in a video?

Why did they bother hiring actors at all?

Why is Eminem standing in a field?

WTF is Rihanna thinking?

The Rihanna question is, of course, the heaviest to contemplate. She has certainly chosen a rather strange meta-bedfellow in Eminem, a rapper who has been known as a misogynistic homophobe for the better part of his career.

The singer—who made national headlines in February 2009 when photos surfaced of her bruised face, courtesy of Chris Brown— told MTV News why she decided to take part in the song, a depiction of Eminem's relationship with his ex, Kim, in which he cops to being abusive.

"It just was authentic. [Eminem] pretty much just broke down the cycle of domestic violence and it's something that a lot people don't have a lot of insight on."

It's probably not the first choice most would have imagined for the singer.

Danyel Smith, author and journalist, and former editor in chief of Vibe, who now writes at http://thesmithian.tumblr.com, says of Rihanna's post-Chris Brown career: "I had a romantic notion of her having waited a while longer before returning to her public life: I see her living somewhere quiet, chilling with no makeup, reading deep books, thinking healing thoughts and staring into sunsets. But then I say: Why should she have to go into semi-seclusion, why does she have to stretch out her victimhood?"


"Love The Way You Lie" - Eminem feat. Rihanna

Video screenshot

The song and video is a comeback of sorts for both artists. Says Billboard Editor in Chief Bill Werde, “When her latest album didn’t explode out of the gate, there were a lot of people whispering that she couldn’t come back. Which was really screwy if you think about it,” he says. “She couldn’t come back from what? Being a victim of domestic violence? But as with so many artists overcoming anything, whether it’s right or wrong that she should have to overcome it, a great song goes a long way.”

After Brown beat her, the public’s relationship with Rihanna shifted. From her futuristic clothing and asymmetrical hairstyle to her futuristic beats, she is an enigmatic artist, with a distant persona. She doesn’t exactly traffic in confessionals. She is not Earth Mother Erykah Badu. So when something so intimate happened to Rihanna, the general public seemed to want something more cathartic from singer. “I Love the Way You Lie” might be as close as they get.

And with the casting of Fox and Monaghan as stand-ins, even that is arm’s length revelation.

Says Smith: "To see Em and Rihanna in those situations would be darn close to reality TV.”

Besides, says Werde: “If Em and Rihanna were actually making out on screen, I think the world would have collapsed in a celebrity supernova."

The video utilizes a series of ridiculous bad video tropes: Rihanna stands in front of a burning house, wearing underwear and a giant cross around her neck (no, you’ve not wandered onto the set of Madonna’s “Like a Prayer”), Eminem raps in the aforementioned field for no reason at all, famous actors fight and make up, before they and the house catch fire—which seems to imply to people not paying close attention that dysfunctional relationships are sort of hot (in both a literal and metaphorical way), and, also, very, very deep.

With Fox and Monaghan acting out the Eminem-Rihanna parts, says Smith, "They both stand back from the cruelty and the melodrama. They both, I imagine, want the song to be about someone else. Eminem is even on a field of dreams, as he raps, isn’t he?" (Well, that at least explains why he's standing in a field.)

After Chris Brown beat her, the public’s relationship with Rihanna shifted.

“The video feels credible and artistic, if a bit upsetting,” says Werde. “These are two artists that have both very publically struggled with their relationships. When you look at the lives these two have lead, does it feel credible? Hard to say it doesn’t.”

In the blogosphere, the reaction to the video—which already has 29 million views (and counting)—has been mixed.

While Entertainment Weekly asks, "Is This Depiction of Domestic Violence Too Much?" Perez Hilton is creeped out, but sorta likes it: "We still hate its message and the lyrics, but we love the song and we love the video too!"

Other blogs thought the song is "honest in its exploration of domestic violence,” while Randy Susan Meyers at The Huffington Post sniffed: "This is not the authentic gift to give our girls. Not when you read the grim statistics in Domestic Violence Fatalities and Homicides/Fatality Review."

And then there’s Eminem. The master of shock and awe in his baby-faced heyday, now in his thirties and out of rehab, this new video and record are a return to form—which not everyone thinks is a good thing. Jon Caramanica wrote in The New York Times, "given all his life changes in the last few years, it’s notable how few new shades of personality he shows on Recovery."

Still, Eminem’s portrayal of his volatile relationship with the mother of his children is classic Em, a masterful Eminem earworm, which recalls one of his most famous and most controversial songs, “Stan,” which was about a psycho fan who drowned his pregnant girlfriend. And “Stan,” like “I Love the Way You Lie,” also features a female vocalist on the chorus set against the rapper’s frenetic rhymes.

Indeed Gawker.tv called it, "Stan 2.0."

“I Love the Way You Lie’s” insightful and razor-sharp lyrics depict the passive-aggressive and downright aggressive-aggressive push-pull of a violent and emotional abusive and dysfunctional relationship. Eminem writes: "Wait, where you going? I'm leaving you, No, you ain't, come back/ We running right back/ Here we go again/ It's insane, 'cause when it's going good, it's going great/ I'm Superman, with the wind to his back/ She's Lois Lane/ But when it's bad, it's awful/ I feel so ashamed/ I snap, 'Who's that dude? I don't even know his name'/ I laid hands on her/ I'll never stoop so low again/ I guess I don't know my own strength."

Rihanna's clear, hooky verse ("Just gonna stand there/ And watch me burn/ But that's all right/ Because I like/ The way it hurts/ Just gonna stand there/ And hear me cry/ But that's all right/ Because I love/ The way you lie/ I love the way you lie"), could be cynically read as a form of stunt casting in and of itself—though Eminem denies it. He told Paris' Skyrock Radio "I felt like only she could pull it off, only she could do it."

While the stunt casting still feels a little suspicious, Werde says it’s just what the doctor ordered: "I love the video and love the song. It’s been fun to see Eminem really take his career right back to top form with this album. He needed it, but really, hip-hop and music in general needed it.”

Besides, he jokes: “It’s impossible to lower the impact of anything by adding Megan Fox without pants.”

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Tricia Romano is an award-winning writer who has written about pop culture, style, and celebrity for the New York Times, the Village Voice, Spin, and Radar magazine. She won Best Feature at the Newswomen’s Club of New York Front Page Award for her Village Voice cover story, about sober DJs and promoters in the nightlife industry, " The Sober Bunch."