Na Na Na, Come On: A Binary Analysis

Sadomasochism.  A word, in itself, that suggests binary meaning.  And a perfectly delicious inspiration for a Barbadian pop singer’s next single.  Rihanna’s “S&M” is dripping with symbolism of the binary sort, however a few terms prominently weave their way through each frame.  The binary “Us vs Them” is representative of her relationship with the media; taking them on and addressing recent issues that have come up in the press.  “Master vs Slave” and “Masculine vs Feminine” cross over in many aspects, mostly when observing the “master” character Rihanna portrays, as many of her actions are “masculine”.  Additionally, the “Pure vs Corrupted” binary is seen from many angles.  They include two opposing characters RIhanna plays, the notes the reporters take, and an overflow into Rihanna’s real life and her personal and professional development.  Rihanna’s “S&M” video reinforces the binaries of “Master vs Slave” and “Us vs Them” through resisting the binary of purity and expressing herself in a corrupt way.  She has taken over her battle against the media and become the master, disallowing herself of reaming a slave to her own image, perpetuated by “them”.

Rihanna hit the music scene in 2004 just after turning 16.  Her first single was a pop-reggae song called “Pon de Replay” (Billboard).  Her first album was marketed as a reggae album with Jay Z’s Def Jam Records and received only mixed reviews (Reid and Paco).  Her second album brought RIhanna her first number 1 single, “SOS” and three subsequent successes.  She left on her first headlining tour in 2006 (Lyons).  After this, she wanted to head in a new direction with her music and style and distinguish herself apart from the person she was most being compared to: Beyonce.  In 2007, she released her third album Good Girl Gone Bad and cut her innocent long locks off to sport a new, edgier bob cut.  After her second album was released, critics heavily compared RIhanna to Beyonce in every aspect from musical style to physical image (Taylor).  After Rihanna cut her hair and rebelled against her music label’s executives, it was as if she had broken through and really began to represent a personality in herself.  Tracey Lomrantz of Glamour magazine commented, “If style risks could be measured in miles, Rihanna would have criss-crossed the globe a thousand times over.”  Fast forward several number 1 singles and a few Grammys later and we have a whole new Rihanna, a whole new set of media-propelled issues and the “S&M” music video.

“Us vs Them” is the first binary that becomes obvious to viewers when watching this video.  The “us” is represented by Rihanna and her leather-clad S&M-accessorized posse in a “fun” room and “them” are the reporters documenting her behaviour.

Rihanna is dragged in and constrained by “them” to be placed in front of more “them”, reporters.  There is deep symbolism in this scene, representing her turmoil relationship with the media.  The words on her dress, the words on the newspaper background, and the words on the reporters’ pads of paper all address her past and how the media has portrayed her.


“Bad Boys” alludes to her relationship with Chris Brown and the domestic violence between them.  “Domestic violence” is a term found on the newspaper wall, again alluding to the Chris Brown incident. “Daddy Issues” is a suggestion as to why she acts the way she does as her father was a crack cocaine addict and most recently sold childhood photos of her to the press.  Needless to say, they do not have a good relationship. Other terms seen in these frames include “Sex Tape?”, “Princess”, “Bitch”, “Slut”, and “Illuminati”.  There have been theories put forth that her music videos contain mind-controlling images that suggest Rihanna is a member of the secret society, Illuminati. This is her response and taking back control of what is said about her.  She does not want to be in the “them” category, but turn the tables and make herself dominant against the media.

“Master vs Slave” is not only a symbolic binary for Rihanna’s career but the epitome of any S&M relationship.  There are several slave and master situations in this video.  There are several slave and master situations in this video.

We see Perez Hilton, celebrity blogger, bound up.  Perez Hilton was a bully to celebrities in his blog as most of his posts were critical of celebrities’ work and behaviour.  He recently saw the error of his ways and now sticks to factual blogging, but he did manage to get in a few pieces of Rhi-Rhi bashing before his epiphany.  Although he said in an interview with MTV that filming the music video was “all fun and he was so flattered” (Hilton q. In Vena), I’m sure Rihanna enjoyed getting back at him a bit by strapping him up in leather and whipping his little tush as he crawled across the lawn. Not only does this blatant master/slave imagery reinforce Rihanna as the dominant character but using such a prominent person from her enemy group of the media makes it that much stronger.  Rihanna is now literally, visually, the master of a blogger who formerly tormented her.  That is turning the tables around!

In terms of her masculinity, the frame pops out of the screen:  In this scene, Rihanna is thrusting her pelvis into the pelvis of the man or woman standing in front of her.  Traditionally, in this sex position, a man would be where Rihanna is standing due to the necessity of having a penis to insert into the person bent over.  More subtly, traditionally, women were intended to be the quieter, more subdued and polite sex, often led by the man and supposed to remain one step behind.  This video busts that theory right out the door, with numerous images of the women, not only Rihanna, being in control.

Additionally, Rihanna is anything but subdued with many frames taking up her whole face right in the camera.  S&M has generally been an outlet for women to take on a masculine persona as it is usually the woman in the dominant position and the male being submissive.

The entirety of the video is resisting the binary of purity and exploiting the want and need to act corrupt, or crude.  The first frame seen in the entire video is just Rihanna’s head, a bright red afro with a little crown tilted to the side.  This could be her addressing the term “princess”, assigned to her by the media, but it also quite resembles Magenta, the maid from The Rocky Horror Picture Show- in itself, counter culture.


Throughout the entire video she is performing corrupt or “crude” acts, which represents her evolution from sweet 16 year old singer to edgy, successful, young adult performer.  She has gagged the reporters with ball gags and later tortures them in her lair of corruption.

She is proving to them this is who she really is and she wants to get back at them for tormenting her- perhaps the reason she has become corrupt? Her payback is to corrupt them in return.

The binaries and images in this video, paired with the background on Rihanna’s growth as a professional lead to the conclusion that the overlying ideology is anti-conformity.  Rihanna did not want to become the next Beyonce when she was first brought on the scene, so she rebelled.  Now, she will not become what the media wants her to become.  She is an adventurous and fearless leader in music and fashion and refuses to conform and follow the trend.  She continuously changes her image, with incredible use of her hair, leaving us only to think: How Cool?!


“Artist Chart History — Rihanna”. Billboard. Nielsen Business Media, Inc.

Lomrantz, Tracey. “Rihanna’s White Suit And Leopard Top Combo: A Do Or A Don’t?”. Glamour: (May 7, 2009)

Lyons, Beverley. “Scots Date For Dolls”. September 8, 2006

Reid, Shaheem and Matt Paco. “Jay-Z’s Picks: Teairra Mari, Rihanna and Ne-Yo”. MTV News.

Taylor, Amina. “Move over, Beyoncé”. The Guardian: November 25, 2005

Vena, Jocelyn. “Rihanna’s ‘S&M’ Video Recalls Madonna”. MTV, retrieved: April 12, 2011


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