This week, both Rihanna and Britney Spears debuted gritty videos for their latest singles. In Rihanna's "We Found Love", we see the singer exploring sex, drugs, and horrible apartments. In Britney's "Criminal," we see her slapped in the face by a dude, shot at by cops, and naked in a shower with her boyfriend. These girls are going out of their way to prove they're not bubblegum pop stars. But interestingly, both chose a British setting to demonstrate their grit.
Rihanna's video embraces Trainspotting-esque visuals -- she's seen repeatedly in front of a backdrop of council estates (the British version of the projects); she's seen at a pseudo-rave in a field -- something that the British invented; and she has Calvin Harris, one of Britain's biggest DJs, there to legitimize it all. The voiceover at the beginning of the video is inexplicably done by someone from the north of England. Rihanna wears skinhead garb -- the Doc Martens boots, the cropped green jacket. She's seen in front of that most British of institutions -- the fish 'n' chip shop -- while constantly telling us what a "hopeless place" this is.
But she's also depicted repeatedly in front of -- or wearing -- American flags, as if to repeatedly emphasize her otherness to this horrible environment. Like she doesn't really belong there because she's American, and therefore, somehow, better. The video ends with her abandoning all the hedonism and self-destruction that England, and her English boyfriend, has inspired in her, and abandoning it for something we assume must be more positive. It begs the question: is she trying to tell us that she's better than this environment? Is she above being in this very, very British shithole -- the same place that makes Britney turn bad?
That anti-British sentiment continues in Britney's "Criminal." The start of the video features her being verbally and physically abused by the most English man on earth. It is, of course, an American that rescues her. An American criminal -- but in this context, even an American criminal is better than an upper-class Englishman. What's more, she later gets shot at by a whole army of British policemen -- even though only a small portion of the U.K. police force are even permitted to carry guns, and when they do so, they are incredibly cautious about it.
So what does this all mean? Well, it's mostly incredibly ironic. Both Britney and Rihanna have chosen to film their grittiest videos in a country with a lower crime rate than the U.S. -- one that is so aghast at gun use that its politicians feel the need to talk about the exploits of a pop star, in the context of a music video, in the highest echelons of their government. Is this racism of sorts? Or at least xenophobia? Well, pretty much, yes.
America has a tradition of portraying British people as villains, mostly in its movies, and these videos only serve to reproduce a stereotype that Britain is bad -- that it inspires the worst in everyone; that the police are gun-happy; and the people are drug-addicted arse-holes. From Star Wars, through Constantine, to the Silence Of The Lambs and beyond, the English are among the most evil motherfuckers on earth, according to American pop culture. Doesn't this seem strange, what with them being our allies and everything? As stupidly offensive as Dick Van Dyke's cock-er-ney geezer was in Mary Poppins, it was still better than the widespread idea that British people live in the most dangerous place on earth and wish to bring us all down to their level with their pernicious ways.
Both Britney's and Rihanna's videos are accomplished visually, and as mini-movies. But in the future, artists and directors should stop hating on the British so much.
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