Rihanna’s S+M: Whipped and Chained by Censorship on the Radio

Using the archetypal Daily Mail-reading nuclear family for hypothetical reasons*.


                Freedom of speech and expression! What a wonderful thing. Constrained by only the necessity of the law and some political correctness, we’re pretty much taboo-free. No more Mary Whitehouse lurking over our shoulders to censor everything in sight, and – aside from the Daily Mail and Martin Amis – no one is shouting “O tempora! O mores!” in disgust at this. This all means that the music industry is booming with stunts that would have sparked riots a few decades before. Lady Gaga can parade around in a meat dress, Katy Perry can have fireworks exploding out of her chest on music television every day and Rihanna can proudly declare her bondage fetish to the world. Except… oh, wait. The latter didn’t happen. ‘The Man’ censored her song ‘S&M’ for radio listeners.

                If it were swear words he’d censored, fair enough. Whilst swearing is, in theory, one of the easiest taboos to shunt into history – if everyone (BBC newsreaders and all) swears like a trooper, the words lose shock value completely and become as engrained into everyday language as ‘the’; ergo, swearing as rebellion becomes obsolete – it’s fair enough that, until this viewpoint is widely accepted by everyone, ‘The Man’ doesn’t want to receive telephone calls from Mr and Mrs Daily Mail in complaint that little Joanna or Michael sang along to Cee-Lo Green’s ‘Fuck You’ during Show and Tell. But it wasn’t swear words. The offending words were ‘whips’, ‘chains’, and (most ludicrously of all) ‘sex’. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but whips and chains excite me” may not be Shakespeare or Swift, but it’s an amusing enough play on the old cliché, and certainly not raunchy enough to be worthy of two awkward pauses in singing. As for ‘sex’…

               ‘Sex On The Beach’, T-Spoon, 1998 – a party favourite. ‘Sexual Healing’, Marvin Gaye, 1982 – a soul classic. A more contemporary example is that of the song ‘Post Break-Up Sex’ by the Vaccines, released this year and with neither hide nor hair of a ‘bleep’ in sight. None of these songs I believe were censored thus, and there are hundreds more sex-referencing pop songs that were deemed radio-friendly at the time. So why should Rihanna’s sex be purged from public hearing?

                In a day and age where inclusivism is encouraged to include previously ostracised genders, sexualities and ethnic minorities, sometimes by law (Minister for Women and Equalities, anyone?), the media still hasn’t embraced fetishism. It’s still seen as the reserve of MPs secretly engaging in orgies, as something sordid, a sexual deviance – ‘deviance’ by definition meaning something differing ‘from what is considered normal behaviour’. ‘The Man’, presumably, doesn’t want Mr and Mrs Daily Mail’s angry phone call about how little Joanna chained up little Michael because Rihanna said it was ok, or that she asked what ‘sex’ was. Even though it’s how she came into being (presumably). And it’s not enough to just say that they shouldn’t expose her to the song if they don’t want her to know about such things, because the radio is everywhere. Even if you actively avoid it (as I do), it’s blared out in restaurants, shops, at football grounds, from other peoples’ cars. Modern tunes get played in the background of television shows and films all the time. You can’t escape it unless you’re deaf or ignoring it, and you can’t control whether the child pays attention to it or not…

                But herein lies the problem. Children don’t pay attention to the lyrics unless they’re easy to remember (“Reach for the stars!”, in my childhood) or inane repetition (“La la la, la la lalala”, etc.) that they can sing along to. So they’re more likely to sing along to the ‘S S S S and M M’ chorus than the bridge beforehand. They’re not analysing or thinking “What does this mean?” about the verses – if they are, they’re probably incredibly precocious and deserve to know what sex is anyway. Few children will consider the whips and chains Rihanna sings about, and far fewer will know that there are sexual connotations therein. A song isn’t going to turn a generation of six-year-olds into bondage fetishists, and if they pick up on the word ‘sex’ – well, they’re living in a heavily sexualised world in any case. Advertising, television and magazines present sexualised images every day which are just as relatively ‘harmful’ to their innocence as a harmless song. But the visual is more of a threat than the verbal. Children can’t ascertain what ‘sex’ is from the word alone; they’d need an explanation. So hearing the word ‘sex’ isn’t an issue in itself, unless they decide to Google Images it without the Safe Search on. Besides, most European countries begin sex education at the age of five or six, and have much lower teenage pregnancy rates as a result – so knowing what sex is from childhood isn’t such a threat to society after all. So who is ‘The Man’ trying to protect from the existence of sadism and masochism?

                My guess is that it’s Mr and Mrs Daily Mail. Even though they’ve been known to have an awkward fumble in the past, they’d feel terribly embarrassed in the supermarket if they heard the lyrics “Sex in the air/I don’t care, I love the smell of it” blaring over the vegetable aisle, and we couldn’t possibly have them blushing as they buy their aubergines. I admit to cringing a little bit at the sheer bluntness of the lyrics (the ‘smell of sex’ seeming like the sort of thing a particularly rampant edition of Mills and Boon would hide within its pages). But it’s that sort of repressed thinking that Rihanna is possibly trying to counter by being so blunt about it. After all, it is one of the few taboos we have left, along with liking Rebecca Black and queue-jumping. Alternatively, and more likely, she’s using the shock value to her advantage, getting rebellious/liberal (delete where appropriate) teens and twenty-somethings to part with their cash to propel her album to the top of the charts. In the process, though, it’s still desensitising a taboo. And perhaps ‘The Man’ doesn’t like that, because there’ll be less shock value when the next MP is shamed for his late-night soirees with dominatrices (my money’s on George Osborne), and less people will buy his papers. Alternatively, is the censor trying to create new swear words in ‘sex’, ‘whips’ and ‘chains’? Are the censors actually trying to help the NHS out by not promoting S&M, and thus reducing the number of whip-related injuries at A&E at 3am? Or is it just to spare a few repressed blushes? We’ll never know. But the question is, if it’s ok for Lady Gaga to be bluffing with her muffin, why can’t Rihanna be giving pain with chains?

 

*This blog does not harbour any genuine disregard towards readers of the Daily Mail. It’s just banter.

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