Rihanna murdered her first man in 2011’s Man Down. The politics were pretty clear: perpetrator (Rihanna), motive (sexual violence), target (sexual violator), result (feels). If ever a music video murder was justified, it was this one. Her second victim didn’t come until 2015’s Bitch Better Have My Money. Here the politics are stickier, but very much present. Rihanna’s murder is materially excessive, but theoretically all-too-justified with regard to the the history of violence that manifests itself in the simple act of one white man fucking up one black woman’s credit.
If Man Down‘s politics were a little simplistic, BBHMM was the perfect embodiment of the 4th-wave post-Gone Girl politics of its moment, and Rihanna was crowned Queen-In-Chief of the anti-White Feminist internet. This sat well for our inner radical-poptimist tendencies, but Rihanna, whose ethos revolves around Not Giving A Fuck, wouldn’t have it. The album and videos that followed were almost actively disinterested in social justice. Like her peers Kanye and Drake, her principle subject is herself, and she’s more than thrilled to let that self disappoint your expectations.
That makes her and Harmony Korine more or less a match made in heaven. What I see in Harmony Korine’s work is the celebration of humanity in all the places that we have no interest in seeing it. That’s teenage sexual psychopathy in Kids, Middle American degeneration in Gummo, the perverse desires of the elderly in Trash Humpers. What Korine scorns, I think, is any commodifiable narrative of liberation. What he celebrates, unceasingly, is the raw human spirit that gets dragged into the narrative. That celebration is hard to see when the outcome is so often hideous, and it’s easy to write of his works as nihilistic. But Korine consistently demonstrates so much love for his characters, no matter how fucked up they are or how fucked up the things they do. Drowning cats in rural Ohio is a despicable way to inject meaning into one’s life, but that doesn’t undercut the fact that the kid who does it is still a real human being searching for self-worth. To put it in light of a relatively unpalatable Christian platitude: hate the sin, not the sinner.
Needed Me views like the spiritual follow-up to 2012’s Spring Breakers. Spring Breakers seems out of line with Korine’s work, but in light of his almost agape-level directorial love I think it fits right in. Korine takes two of postmodernity’s most easily deconstructed visions of liberation –teen idolatry and Spring Break– reduces them to the absolute inanity that we all know they are, and then bows down to the irrepressible humanity that drives them. Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson, and Vanessa Hudgens play pathetic parodies of themselves, and they each give the performances of their lives. Faith, Candy, and Brit are some of the most believable characters of the 21st century. The Britney Spears sunset piano scene is three of the most pathos-saturated minutes of film that postmodernity has ever seen.
Korine’s treatment of Needed Me follows in the Spring Breakers mold. It’s almost devastatingly typical. Strippers, guns, tattoos, Rihanna’s ass – we’ve all been shocked by this before. If Man Down is the opening scene of Game of Thrones, BBHMM is The Rains of Castamere and Needed Me is the inane wasteland that is Season Six. Of course Rihanna is going to kill the dude with the tattoos. Of course he’s going to throw a wad of hundreds in her face. Of course neither of them are going to show any remorse. There’s no motive, no narrative, no politics. It’s just a cold empty murder in a strip club.
What’s present in overflowing abundance though is Needed Me‘s humanity. Korine’s cinematography is, as always, palpable. Werner Herzog was moved to tears by the piece of bacon taped to the wall in Gummo – I’m moved by the matching tattoos on Rihanna’s henchman’s and her victim’s faces. I don’t think that’s makeup, which probably means that these two music video extras have the same face tattoo, probably for IRL reasons that aren’t too far from the fictional reason that they’re holding guns in the video. All of it seems too viscerally real: the sweat, the tiger stripes, the way our weird security-obsessed money glows in the blacklight. The strippers, ostensibly reduced to background objects, feel like painfully real humans. The target seems like any scummy guy who made you uncomfortable on the bus once. And Rihanna, the one person who we almost actually know, feels very much like the woman I read as the real Rihanna.
I don’t know if I can justify that reading of Needed Me – It’s hard to argue for the triumph of the human spirit when all you have are ostensive signs connoting emptiness. Our critical thinking tends toward structures. We seek out the political worth of a depiction of murder, or a depiction of rape, or a depiction of the naked female body – and when we can’t we tend to write it off as despicable. Needed Me presents us with a series of despicable images and offers us no political redemption. But it does offer us another portrait of a woman who refuses the clickbait politics that she helped to create. It feels empty and frustratingly apolitical, but in the end so do the thinkpieces that it’s always-already inspired. Korine scoops out the political meat of a political Rihanna video, but it leaves behind the raw material that inspired those politics in the first place. It might not be good politics, but it’s a reminder that good politics demand so much more of us than a neat narrative of liberation.