Senseless violence is a depressingly common part of mainstream news—and with the advent of newsfeeds, of our every waking moment. Just this week, I’ve seen headlines proliferate about the victims of the awful onscreen shooting in Virginia, where a news reporter and cameraman lost their lives. I’ve seen Twitter rush to pull down the shooter’s film of his own act, while I’ve heard CNN promise to “only” show the footage of the shooting once an hour. We live with this desensitization to murder and tragedy every day.
This reality makes it difficult to swallow that the emerging trend of 2015 music videos seems to be firearms and other representations of violence. At this year’s VMAs—taking place this Sunday August 30—the front-runner is currently Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood.” The action movie homage, directed by Joseph Kahn and starring a slew of Swift’s famous friends including Kendrick Lamar, is arguably the most impactful of the past year, with its eight VMA nominations and its VEVO 24 hour viewing record (for receiving 20.1 million views in its first day of release). It’s also unlike anything Swift has done before: taking its cues from the likes of Kill Bill, The Hunger Games, and The Matrix, it’s essentially a long training montage set to a diss track, showing Swift and a slew of her female pals wielding nunchucks, shooting gnarly looking guns and punching their way through elaborately choreographed fight sequences.
“Bad Blood” might be a new look for Swift, who’s better known for playing the harmless dork in her visuals, but it’s nothing new in the wider realm of pop music videos, where female stars including Nicki Minaj, Lana Del Rey and Rihanna have been getting gradually more violent and bloodthirsty. In 2014, Minaj gunned down the male gaze with AK47s in her ferocious “Lookin Ass” clip. Rihanna had the internet clutching its collective pearls with her kidnapping and torturing of a rich white supermodel in “Bitch Better Have My Money”; and this month, Lana Del Rey shot a paparazzi helicopter out of the sky in her otherwise totally serene video for her super chill single, “High By The Beach.”
The trend hasn’t developed without controversy. Most recently, Miley Cyrus spoke out about Swift’s “Bad Blood” video with some astute words in her Marie Claire cover story, saying: “I don't get the violence revenge thing. That's supposed to be a good example? And I'm a bad role model because I'm running around with my titties out? I'm not sure how titties are worse than guns." (Cyrus is an avid #FreeTheNipple supporter, in case you haven’t been on Instagram ever.)
But for “Bad Blood” director Joseph Kahn, showing women enacting violence in their videos is a way of empowering them; as with his previous action movie-honoring videos for Britney Spears. In “Toxic” (below) and “Womanizer,” Spears played a superhuman action figure who enacted her sexual revenge on men, and also looked sick while riding a motorbike. In 2013’s Kahn-directed “Perfume,” there’s no violence to speak of in the official version, but the unreleased Director’s Cut was very different. Leaked paparazzi set photos, stills and treatments reveal a video that would have shown Spears as an assassin who chooses to let her target live because she has fallen in love with him, and later suffers bloody consequences for her decision. In an interview with Videostatic about the scrapped film last year, Kahn emphasised that his work with Spears was “about empowerment,” adding: “Perfume was going to be an evolution of that, but this time instead of revenge it was exploring sacrifice. Everyone understands revenge. Sacrifice is a much more mature concept of empowerment but that obviously got thrown out.”
“Perfume” might have been a step too far for Spears’ label, but the idea of a woman presenting herself as armed and dangerous being “empowering” has endured, if the current landscape of pop videos is anything to go by. Generally, these videos represent a stylized, metaphorical violence that suggests more than it shows. Lana Del Rey, in “High by the Beach,” is the picture of softness and vulnerability; lounging around her house with curled hair in a silk robe, everything about her is feminine and softened, and the moment she pulls a startlingly huge bazooka from a guitar case and shoots down a helicopter is in sharp contrast with the rest of the clip. It suggests power being pulled from unexpected places; it feels similar in some ways to a famous early scene in AMC drama Mad Men, in which housewife Betty vents her feelings by shooting at birds in her front yard. The swift act of violence slices through the otherwise domestic, quiet scene, unleashing a sudden burst that makes you feel the full force of the woman’s inner frustration.
Rihanna, meanwhile, in “BBHMM,” rails against music video stereotypes by playing a sadistic kidnapper. Supermodel Rachel Roberts, who starred in the video as Rihanna’s victim, told The Guardian that the clip was about a “strong woman...fighting back.” Feminist artist Rachel Libeskind spoke on The FADER about how she found the video empowering: “What we expect to see and are okay seeing [today in music videos] has widened and with that comes seeing women as perpetrators of a kind of violence—power. It's about pushing the portrayals of women even further.” Meanwhile, Mia McKenzie at Black Girl Dangerous was more explicit, breaking down the racial power dynamics of the violence in the video. “Let me tell you what I see when I watch this video: I see a black woman putting her own well-being above the well-being of a white woman,” she wrote. “White women put their own needs and well-being above those of black women every day and call it ‘feminism.’” McKenzie also highlighted the important “revenge fantasy” aspect of the video, echoing Roberts’ sentiment that really, it wasn’t meant to be “taken too seriously"—it's figurative, not literal.
This fantasy aspect to the violence is crucial: like Lana Del Rey wafting out of her beach house to gun down a helicopter, “BBHMM” is cartoonish, exaggerated and unrealistic violence. It’s violence that is meant to be an externalization of an inner turmoil or dream. In a dismissal of Rihanna’s video, Guardian commenter Barbara Ellen compared “BBHMM” to Eminem’s depictions of violence against women, which she believes to be “urban cartoons, within which he made valid points about the fragile nature of uncontrolled male rage.” Ellen makes the racist and sexist assumption that Rihanna is not also capable of also using violent imagery to make a metaphorical point. She also writes that the star, as a “well-known victim of domestic violence,” should know better than to proliferate violent imagery. Perhaps another way of looking at the issue would be that if violent revenge fantasies enacted by victims—while harmful—could be empowering for anyone, it is for those victims. Not to mention, the video is believed by many to be a takedown of a real life accountant who Rihanna accused of bankrupting her with bad financial decisions when she was a newly famous teenager; in this context, the video takes on even more power. For Rihanna to write and act out her own revenge fantasies (as she also did in the video for 2013’s “Man Down,” in which her character shot and killed her rapist) in the face of columnists who should know better than portraying her as a “victim,” and professional men who try to wrong her, shows a determination to not be silenced or swayed.
I encountered a similar attitude during a panel discussion on female sexuality in music videos at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts earlier this year, at which I selected “Lookin Ass” to be played and discussed. An audience member told me—to paraphrase—that watching Minaj’s video, she “didn’t feel like we were fighting a battle, but that we’d already lost.” Riled up by Minaj’s sexualized appearance in the video and the fact it was directed by a man, she found the sentiment of Minaj’s misandrist words—and bullets—hollow. But like Ellen’s take on “BBHMM,” this reading robs the female performer of her agency in deciding how she wants to be presented.
Director Nabil, who says the guns were his idea but of course signed off by Minaj, wrote in an email to The FADER that the intent behind the video was to “shoot down the male gaze/catcalling,” adding, “the aim is never for me to objectify, so hopefully that results in empowerment.” Though Minaj is obviously sexualized in the clip, that isn’t mutually exclusive with empowerment. Rather, the contrast is deliberate: she seems to be saying that she can be the sexual object and be the powerful one, too. It’s a shocking statement, much like Lana the domestic goddess or Rihanna the “well-known victim of domestic violence” claiming the same.
The quickest way to make this statement in an onscreen visual is by exerting physical, deadly force. But the message doesn’t necessarily excuse the means. Cyrus’s words ring true: there’s a jarring disconnect between cheering on images of women empowering themselves with violent imagery while videos of actual shootings populate our timelines. It feels wrong that major news outlets have, in the past 24 hours, shared footage of a person’s real death while menstrual blood is still censored by the same outlets; it’s strange that Cyrus (among others) attracts criticism for getting naked in her videos while Taylor Swift attracts little to none for glamorizing fight sequences in hers.
Nabil is not unaware of the double standard in using literal gun imagery to convey a figurative point about empowerment—”I think I will steer away in the future from using guns in videos to be perfectly honest,” he writes. “I am very much against the right to bear arms so [‘Lookin Ass’] could easily penn me a bit of a hypocrite.”
While the motifs of violence are cheap, superficial emblems of a society that’s too enamored with it, there's a pertinent message behind their sudden explosion in music videos. Women in pop seem to be mobilizing and rallying like never before; moving away from the typical templates laid out for them by the music video industry, they’re quite literally fighting back. This first wave is visceral, but hopefully it’s laying the groundwork for a second wave in which the statement won’t need to be so explicit. Perhaps an emerging trend in 2016's major videos will be women who are able to command power and respect without literally pointing a gun.