Here's the truth: This article had been written, deleted, edited, and reread myriad times before we posted it. The reason for this is pretty clear: The video for Rihanna's "Stay" is a really difficult one.
Critics from E!, NY Mag, and LA Times have all commended the video for its raw emotion, Rihanna's decision to show herself without make-up, clothes, or editing, and, to quote the Times, its "bleak allure." And we agree on all of those fronts. But, what's not being said is this: Throughout the course of the four-minute video, we're entirely unable to divorce ourselves, and our viewing experience, from our implicit knowledge of her personal life.
The pop star has released two versions of the video, both featuring her in black and white, staring with broken desperation into the camera, beginning to sing and then trailing off. One version includes her duet partner Mikky Ekko, while the other one is uncut and unflinching. Both are effective, introspective, and emotive. Both of them show a vulnerable, naked (literally and figuratively) Rihanna. The narrative itself is brilliant: a quiet piece of pop art which compels the observer to project her own emotions and experiences onto the star, who, as any other singer, would be an appropriate blank slate for such an exercise. Except, thanks to her much-publicized, off-and-on relationship with an abusive Chris Brown, any audience watching this video comes into the viewing carrying Rihanna's own personal baggage, whether or not that's fair.
Gone is the Rihanna who taunts us with, "Sticks and stones can break my bones / but chains and whips excite me." In her place is a RiRi with downcast eyes, trembling lips...a Rihanna who is not relaxing in repose in her bath, but has retreated into a warm space to heal from an unseen hurt. As such, the visuals and the context are, to us, entirely incongruous. How hurt she is, how desperately sad she seems, how completely devoid of power she appears, begging the "you" in her song to stay with her. She is clearly in a great deal of pain. All of which is appropriate for a song about heartbreak. And yet, that's not what comes to mind upon first viewing.
The sad truth is that if Rihanna had continued to distance herself from her attacker in recent years, we would most likely have approached this video differently. The reflective Rihanna would have a meaningful or empowering message about looking back on hurt of any kind. But unfortunately, that's not the case — especially since this video debuted the night after the Grammys, exactly four years and one day from the date the assault. To be totally honest, as viewers, we may never be able to shake this chill or let go of baggage that's not ours. Whether or not that's right is hard to say, but it is the reality of our experience. And while Rihanna — the one who publicly exists outside of the "Stay" video, anyway — has moved on, we still haven't.
Photo: Courtesy of Vevo