Spectacle of Empty Gestures: Rihanna's "American Oxygen"

The problem isn't that Rihanna's "American Oxygen" fails as political art, it's that we might consider it a success instead of a mere gesture.

If it had accomplished what it set out to do, Rihanna's new song, "American Oxygen", would have made more sense as I watched the images and heard the voices from Baltimore on the night of April 27. The cable news networks found the spectacles they always seek, the looting, the lined-up police in their turtle gear, burning cars, and the official statements from city and state leaders. On the internet, more positive stories emerged, like the hundred or so pastors marching peacefully with linked arms, a man in a wheelchair leading them.

A track from Rihanna's forthcoming album R8, "American Oxygen" is not directly about the prejudices of mainstream news media, but the song and especially its video do attempt to portray the contradictions of American culture. Obscene wealth versus poverty that's obscene in a different way (kept offstage, ignored). Technological progress and leisure in contrast with war. Social justice juxtaposed with violence and racial inequality.

Ultimately, though, "American Oxygen" in both iterations is simply a vague, aspirational gesture. Truly political music isn't impossible in the American pop music industry, but maybe it's nearly extinct and not likely to make a comeback for the reasons you hear and see in "American Oxygen": a desire to offend no one, an obsession with celebrity and consumerism, and inarticulate political speech.

The latter sticks with me the most as I listen to the song. Unable to find the words, or maybe the courage, to say what it wants to say, the song deals out generalizations. There are no people in the song, not really. Barely does it mention the "young girl hustlin'/on the other side of the ocean"—a clear nod to Rihanna, who was born in Barbados—or the "young boy hustlin'/tryin' to get the wheels in motion" before backing away from them into the platitudes of how they can be anything they want to be in America, et cetera. Who are "they" and who's talking about them?

A clue to the song's approach is in a Billboard interview with the song's co-writer, Sam Harris. "I looked at songs like 'Born in the U.S.A. and that record," Harris told the magazine, adding:

I listened to a lot of Bruce Springsteen when I was writing this, and he really gets it. He gets that there's pride to living here in this country. This country is great and has the potential to be something really, really incredible, but there are a lot of problems that we don't acknowledge and it's important to shed light on both those things. And if you can do that in a song, that's the best.

He's right: that is the best, and the combination of optimism, potential, disappointment, and hard truths pretty much describes half of Springsteen's songs. But it doesn't describe "Born in the U.S.A."—that's an angry song, all disappointment and hard truths, a song in which the only shred of optimism is that the narrator still has, to steal a line from another Springsteen song, the faith to stand his ground. But you don't know how long he'll last.

That anger, desperation, and blunt edge of reality are missing from "American Oxygen". Even if we imagine, with good reason, that the song tries to be ironic about the American Dream and the American reality, it lacks the knife's edge needed for that irony. In "Born in the U.S.A.", the acerbic irony between the anthemic chorus and the story told in the verses couldn't be sharper. 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. Like so many other pop singers, she specializes in a satellite-feed voice, a direct beam of vocal strength that lacks flexibility or imagination or nuance. (She's not helped by the production. All those "America"s!) Every word sounds the same, and sounds like it was made for a video-game trailer.

The other difference between "American Oxygen" and "Born in the U.S.A." returns us to that young girl and boy hustlin'. 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.

Why does any of that matter? It's a bad recipe for the political. As any speechwriter or campaign manager can tell you, all the lofty rhetoric in the world isn't worth a damn if you don't connect the ideals to the people trying to live up to them. That's why Reagan tried to co-opt "Born in the U.S.A." in the first place.

The video for "American Oxygen" attempts to solidify—maybe clarify—the song's socially relevant message. It's the most hackneyed approach to making a "social commentary" video on the cheap there is: splice together a bunch of historical footage and call it a wrap, dude, you can take the rest of the day off. So in "American Oxygen" we witness a visual roll call of historical images. In the first 30 seconds alone we see Barack Obama being sworn in, the American flag being raised on Iwo Jima (I think), war protestors in the early '70s (I think… the images hardly last), a quintessential white American family (two kids, one dog), and Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists marching. By the time the video's over, we've seen the smoking Twin Towers, cops pepper-spraying peaceful student demonstrators, baseball, fireworks, soldiers, a nuclear explosion, pro-immigration protestors, migrant workers riding on a train, astronauts, the stock market, pollution, and more flags than I have time to count.

That description reveals the kitschy quality created by the video, which I don't take lightly, considering how important many of these images are, the famous and not-so-famous. But that's the problem: this montage approach, while it has a thread of social justice and equality running through it, is ultimately as generic and jumbled as the song's lyrics. Nothing shocks you, except perhaps the image of Martin Luther King Jr. dead in a coffin—and it should. But the image hardly lasts a second. What if it had lasted five seconds? What if you had been forced to look at that image, or any other difficult image, for more than a fleeting moment?

That's the contradiction of the video, and why its usage of all this tragedy can seem exploitative: despite the song telling you to look, you never have to look at anything troubling for very long.

And then there's Rihanna. The video cuts between the historical montage and two other primary settings: the singer twirling around at night on the steps of a city hall and dragging a parachute across a tarmac. (There's also a number of shots of a diverse, lovely cast of children, and a few people who keep drawing their hands over their faces.) The parachute business might have been interesting if it was developed, as, just to take one example, FKA twigs develops visual motifs in her video for "Glass and Patron". But combined with the montage images, it just gets lost.

So mainly you see Rihanna posing and swaying in a leather jacket, white cut-off t-shirt, and jeans, fluffing her hair, waving her hand over her eyes, finding any number of gestures to make with that jacket, and glancing now and then at the camera. Just as the song hugs itself with gestures of solemnity and profoundness, congratulating itself for being socially relevant, Rihanna wraps herself in her arms. Her stylish but classic look, the prominence of her erect nipples through the t-shirt, and the windblown, perfect mess of her hair are all designed to make Rihanna look free, natural, and "real" as she gives it to you straight, but she just can't help striking those glamorous pop idol poses.

This is what political commentary looks like in the American Wow of pop music, where that obsession with celebrity and consumerism—the singer as idol and product—overwhelms the political, even the dissenting political, like a Tidal wave. (Sorry, I couldn't help it, but the tone-deaf online music platform Tidal, which could have been a radical shift in the musical industry, just proves the point anyway: money over politics, every time.) And yet, when numerous websites tweaked and rebroadcasted the press release for the video, they fell over themselves to proclaim its edginess. In the American Wow, a mere nod to social commentary can seem innovative, but this is usually nothing more than the reliably facile tactic of being contemporary—art keeping up with and reflecting the times, not changing the times.

Partly because of the refrain in "American Oxygen", I can't help but think of the terrifying video for Pussy Riot's "I Can't Breathe". Some have wondered if Rihanna is referring to Eric Garner's heinous murder at the hands of the NYPD with her lyrics, "Breathe out, breathe in", but like everything else with the song, it's an ambiguous puzzle the solving of which gains you very little. Pussy Riot makes the reference explicit, and in the video, members Masha and Nadya are slowly buried alive. Nothing else happens. You watch them spit out dirt, helpless, until their faces are entirely covered. Their executioner throws a cigarette onto their grave, shovels drop, and as Richard Hell reads Eric Garner's last words, the camera swoops up and the music drones like a dull siren. By the end, you're high above this unmarked grave and the shovels look like matchsticks through in a meaningless, chaotic pattern.

"I Can't Breathe" is hard to watch and listen to; it's supposed to be. It tries to rupture normalcy, to make a change happen, aware of itself as an action.

"American Oxygen" is, of course, operating in an entirely different spectrum of popular culture, but only because we think it's different. There is no rule that pop music has to work in a certain way. You might wonder what would have happened if Rihanna had imagined herself at risk, if she had shown herself being buried alive. What a powerful statement that would have been, to say that for all of her popularity and wealth, she's no different than the young black men and women who are so often the targets of racialized, institutionalized violence.

That's what Toni Morrison meant when she said in 1998 to Ed Bradley on 60 Minutes, despite being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, that she still believed whites could betray her: "If the trucks pass and they have to make a choice, they'll put me on that truck." Pressed about those comments in a subsequent interview, she explained it again: "I meant that in the final analysis, that if they had to choose to be white or to be human, and I was the key, they might choose to be white. Being human is hard" ("Toni Morrison: Uncensored", Australian Broadcasting Corp., 1998).

Art that seeks to make a political statement works best when it implicates the singer and her art, putting both in danger. During the height of MTV actually showing music videos, this tactic even worked with the use of historical montages. There's Axl Rose, a fresh rube just off the bus watching televised violence in 1987's "Welcome to the Jungle". Any political message is swallowed up by celebrity as bumpkin Axl transforms into Guns 'n' Roses Axl, but the video still creates a palpable sense of mediated anxiety.

In "Rockin' in the Free World" (1989), Neil Young viciously undercuts the "Born in the U.S.A."-like title and refrain by dressing as a vagrant and immersing himself in the streets of Los Angeles. In both videos, we watch Rose and Young watching the flashing images on the screens. Despite being outsiders, both are connected to the world around them; Rose is initiated by it and Young disappears into it.

In "American Oxygen", Rihanna stands aloof from the anxiety and suffering. We never watch her watching; she never seems to take in the images we see, and so it seems like she's already figured everything out. The same could be said of Michael Jackson in the "Man in the Mirror" video, but he hardly even appears in it. In the video for "Born in the U.S.A.", a mashup of montage and concert footage, 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.

There is no desperation in Rihanna's performance; she never seems disturbed by the paradox she's singing about, never seems threatened by it. And that's why it feels false. For the song's optimism to feel earned, the reality of suffering has to be genuinely acknowledged. But all of Rihanna's emotion seems manufactured, which makes it one of the few things still manufactured in the United States.

As such, the images expose the song—the montage of images in its video, and the real-time montage of images from Baltimore. In the final analysis, "American Oxygen" is not a political song except in the sense that every American song exists in a political culture. The song and the video come off as reactions that are either afraid to be explicitly political or simply can't find the language, verbal or visual, to do so. The problem isn't that "American Oxygen" fails as political art. It's that we might consider it a success, when instead it's a mere gesture.

If someone who desperately needs it finds inspiration in "American Oxygen", good. As a white American male with a decent job, and thus someone far less likely to be choked by the police for illegally selling cigarettes, I should be able to recognize that even a gesture toward the suffering experienced by the oppressed can be a powerful recognition in their eyes. 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.

As I finished this column, I learned that the six Baltimore police officers who took Freddie Gray into custody and refused him the emergency medical care he needed will indeed face criminal charges. But no matter what happens in the trial, racism, economic disparity, and a legitimate distrust of the police will still be the poisoned oxygen that too many breathe, and that too many gasp for as they die.





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