Rihanna’s “We Found Love” seemed very repetitive the first time I heard it. Or maybe I was just predisposed to dislike it because of how wretched her earlier “S&M” was. That song was all crass language passing as edgy sexuality; this was not The Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs” or The Stooges’ “I Want to be Your Dog”. Perhaps Rihanna does enjoy the whips and chains she sings about but I doubt it. The attempt to get the listener to think of Rihanna as a sexual libertine is so obvious and superficial that it both embarrassed and angered me. It was a kind of pantomime self-sexualization that made her seem desperate for the wrong kind of attention.
So I was no neutral listener when “We Found Love” came on the radio. I mocked it aloud. But the radio is nothing if not persistent and so I began to hear it often enough that eventually I began to listen to it. My first impression could not have been more wrong. The song is fantastic. The repetition is what ultimately makes the song successful, what gives it the desperate insistence that eventually penetrates the psyche of the listener.
The first verse of the song could have come out of H.D. or Pound, it is straight up imagist poetry: “Yellow diamonds in the light/and we’re standing side by side/as your shadow crosses mine/what it takes to come alive”. The yellow diamonds, which seem to suggest the effect of electric light on the eye, of course evoke the fantasies of wealth and luxury that are so pivotal to the Hip Hop aesthetic. But they only invoke it, nothing more. The image is not attached to any other symbolic, cultural, or narrative meanings; it is simply imagistic. The rest of the verse works the same way: the light casts the shadows of two people standing together across one another. The image generates emotion. The song intensifies from there.
“We found love in a hopeless place,” she sings on and on. It’s a deeply sad affirmation but, because unlike “S&M” it’s not trying to convince you of anything, it strikes the listener as true. When we get to the emotional release of the instrumental section we get the glimpse of why dance music can be so cathartic: we dance not to get away from the sad truths of our lives but in order to transform them through dance itself into something else. Dance might sometimes be an escape but other times it is a coping mechanism that makes movement an expression of a truth that we can’t quite face but from which we cannot turn.
And if we can do it in a drunken delirium, all the better. I can imagine this song setting dance floors on fire as its remorseless rhythm turns all the dancers inward. Dancing not with anyone or for any other reason than to turn the inexpressible and unbearable truths inside them into a movement or a gesture.