Videology is a bi-weekly column by Kyle Turner where we look at music videos, music in film, and the relationship between the two.
We’re a couple weeks away from the MTV Video Music Awards. In the last four months, two revenge epics in music video form have premiered, and one noticeably wasn’t nominated. (If this is a question of eligibility – Swift’s video was released on May 17, and Rihanna’s on July 2 – I’m not sure.) Admittedly, yes, Taylor Swift looks pretty rad rearing her head with the fan blowing her hair back, her cat eye, the look a mix of sly revenge and knowing playfulness etched across her face. The red streaks certainly amplify how cool this is. And yet, judging by the sheer scale and nonsensical nature of her video for “Bad Blood”, she doesn’t actually get it. Whereas, Rihanna, holding a bloodied knife and looking past the camera in her video for “Bitch Better Have My Money”, as if she has no time to demean herself to our level, looks like that she not only gets it, she’s in control of it.
The two videos are rooted in disparate ideas only linked by violence: one cartoonish, the other terrifyingly real. “Bad Blood”, a single off Swift’s 1989, transposes the track’s tale of betrayal into a super fantastical universe of “kickass female heroes”, all preparing for a Captain America: Civil War sized battle. Rihanna’s revenge short film “BBHMM” is slightly more akin to Kill Bill, without the facsimile, or better, Gone Girl, tracking down and kidnapping a woman for, until the end of the video, unknown reasons.
Their similarities primarily end there, but their differences, in both quality and product, are striking. On the one hand, there’s a conflicting nature of authorship to “Bad Blood”. It is, with all due respect to Ms. Swift, Director Joseph Kahn’s mess. Filled with film references incoherently added here and there (admittedly, it was a nice touch to have an allusion to The Apartment to kick off the video), “Bad Blood” gives the impression of wanting to be this grand, magisterial thing, but relegates that to snippets without consequence.
Taylor Swift is betrayed by Selena Gomez on a mission, but Kahn cares less about articulating the actual narrative, what little there is, than assembling a fun cast of cool people with big weapons. As a matter of transition and transformation, it’s like an extended training montage, but strewn across a dozen or so different people. That maturation of Swift’s character ends up being hard to discern. If each actress, from Hailee Steinfeld to Mariska Hargitay, are supposed to represent different skill sets, the developmental arc is sacrificed in favor of Kahn’s ostentation. It is, in the grand scheme of the video, meaningless images.
That Kahn, and Swift, chose to end the video with slaps in the face is rather odd. It’s not merely a suggestion of back to basics in terms of weaponized femininity, thus undercutting the previous four minutes of footage as basically useless (probably not without a hint of irony). It ends up feeling like a disservice to its enclave of ostensibly empowered female stars (who, it should be mentioned, are all white), gendering the fight, and the tactics of that fight, to a conventionality that stings with sexism. If the point was the create an ironic jar between the masculine appeal of the physicality presented in the extended training montage, many of the stars harnessing arms that recall a Freudian phallic nature, sure, whatever, good for them. It’s a bit reductive to assume that women can’t be powerful in their own right and use their femininity as a source of power instead of relying on masculine tropes of violence or weaponry. The slaps at the end just nail in the idea that misunderstanding, stepping back to undermine a supposed grand statement about power and make it a slap fest.
Director Joseph Kahn’s authorial vision seems to be at the forefront if one reads the video as more of a male idea of female empowerment, as opposed to a more “authentic” version of that. It’s ironic, given that his video for Swift’s “Black Space” is a far better articulation of those ideas, but albeit with streaks of irony. Going through his catalogue, it becomes increasingly clear that he’s an aesthete: his narratives are often slim, and there’s a particular focus on the immaculate, at least in form. He likes to aestheticize violence, but in a colder way in comparison to Quentin Tarantino, which is evident in his Power/Rangers short film. Whether it’s the unseemly clean alleyways of Maroon 5’s “Misery” or the marble staircase of “Blank Space”, everything is in its place, and everything has a smirk to it. If these images had a bit more depth without the winking nature, there’d be a kind of Fincher-esque quality to it. But, as far as “Bad Blood” goes, that’s all it really it is.
Conversely, Rihanna is not interested in playing frivolous games with her audience. As far as authorial control goes, “BBHMM”, co-directed by both herself and Megaforce, is hers and hers alone. Its objective is as clear as her onscreen persona’s, and as unforgiving. Rihanna seems less concerned with making seemingly random allusions to films that don’t really make sense in context: the visual nods are adjacent to her own creative aesthetic vision are deliberate and meaningful. The opening shot, a nod to Park Chan-wook’s revenge tragedy Oldboy; pulling up to the house of a wealthy white woman, nodding to Brian De Palma’s Passion, etc. Visual interplay matters less in comparison to the control Rihanna exerts in the video.
The camera, perhaps surprisingly, isn’t fussy with a wealth of tracking shots; instead, the camera takes on an airless feel, sometimes pulling in and away, conflicted about where it’s being taken. The camera is just like the girl gang with Rihanna: along for the ride, but at the behest of the leader. Hence the occasionally frantic nature of the cinematography: swerving in and out, back and forth, as if controlled by remote control by Rihanna.
“BBHMM” is also where Rihanna gets to present herself as a bit of a provocateur: it’s violent, sexual, luridly colored. She walks towards the camera at the end, blood spattered on her face, done with all of this. It’s a revenge fantasy of the highest order, intentionally exploitative, with undertones of class and race discourse. Kovie Biakolo writes, “That Rihanna has White women in her posse showcases that it’s perhaps a certain kind of White woman that she is fulfilling a revenge fantasy against – the most privileged kind: White, straight, in the higher economic class, and who manifests a certain European ‘standard beauty.” It makes sense, therefore, that there’s this juxtaposition between certain lines of class indication and wealth in the video: Rihanna’s clothing, car, and the look of her gang is decidedly less polished than that of this white woman’s and her husband, a banker. They torture this woman in a large barn, playing with her like a pendulum, literally stripped of her wealth. In an attempt to co-opt the status that the banker’s wife has, they torture her on a yacht. They bring her to a cheap motel. And then they bring her back home. It’s a back and forth rhythm, attempting to utilize different indications of class as weapons as much as Rihanna uses her femininity and sexuality.
The finale almost puts the grand in Grand Guignol, bringing down Mads Mikkelsen’s banker and serving him with citrus stained retribution. Certainly, it’s fair to mention that the tools Rihanna uses against the white folks are as phallic as anything used in “Bad Blood”, but the critical difference is that Rihanna does not feel the need to create an ironic juxtaposition between masculine and feminine in this way. She’s just a force to be reckoned with, one whose imagery is arguably more powerful politically in comparison to The Bride or Amy Dunne, given that she’s a woman of color exerting revenge on white, straight, rich oppressors.
Besides authorial intent, the biggest discrepancy between “Bad Blood” and “Bitch Better Have My Money” is coherency. Without much hand holding, “BBHMM”’s narrative, themes, and ideas are clear and presented without condescension. The same can’t be said for “Bad Blood”, the alleged subject of the song, Katy Perry, calling Swift out for the relatively regressive gender politics during a Twitter spat between Swift and Nicki Minaj.
Aesthetically, the differences can be reduced to this: “Bad Blood” is the trailer for a film I don’t want to see; “BBHMM” is the cinematic tour de force I’ll remember for the rest of the year.