The Number Ones: Rihanna’s “S&M” (Feat. Britney Spears)


According to one of our preferred sources:

The arc of pop-music history is long, but it bends toward freakiness. Maybe you think that’s progress, or maybe you don’t; that’s just how it goes. Pop music has always been about sex; sex has been the primary engine behind the music since the advent of recorded sound. For decades, singers and songwriters had to hide sex behind euphemism and implication, but by the ’70s, you could sing about “makin’ love” on the radio without worrying too much. And in 2011, someone could write a song about being into S&M and just call it “S&M.” As long as the song in question came from a big star, and as long as it had a remix with another big star, the “S&M” song could go all the way to #1.


There were plenty of songs about S&M before “S&M.” The Velvet Underground played around with that imagery as far back as the late ’60s. In 1982, the former Number Ones artist then known as John Cougar reached #2 with “Hurts So Good,” and there are only so many ways to interpret that one. (It’s a 7.) Two years later, Depeche Mode had a minor hit with a song that was straight-up called “Master And Servant.” In the early ’80s, Guns N’ Roses and Madonna, two artists that have been in this column, both went heavy on BDSM imagery — GNR on 1991’s “Pretty Tied Up,” Madonna on pretty much every track from her 1992 album Erotica. Rihanna didn’t invent anything.

At different points, Rihanna has told different stories about whether her song “S&M” is actually about S&M. When she was getting ready to release her 2010 album Loud, Rihanna told Spin that the song was metaphorical, not sexual: “It’s more of a thing to say that people are going to talk about you; you can’t stop that. You just have to be that strong person and know who you are so that stuff just bounces off. And I thought it was super badass.” A few months later, though, Rihanna appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone. In the accompanying profile, Rihanna got much more specific about the song and about the kind of stuff that she was into:

Being submissive in the bedroom is really fun. You get to be a little lady, to have somebody be macho and in charge of your shit. That’s fun to me… I like to be spanked. Being tied up is fun. I like to keep it spontaneous. Sometimes, whips and chains can be overly planned — you gotta stop, get the whip from the drawer downstairs. I’d rather have him use his hands.

If those changing interview answers seem a little contrived, it’s because they are. When Rihanna was on that Rolling Stone cover, she’d already reached #1 with “What’s Ny Name” and “Only Girl (In The World),” the first two singles from Loud, and she was getting ready to release “S&M” as a single. Rihanna had a role to play. To sell a song like “S&M,” you have to convince the world that you believe what you’re singing. And I don’t know, maybe Rihanna did believe what she was singing; she was always good at conveying freakiness when the song called for it. But it’s hard to argue that “S&M” is “lightly autobiographical,” as Rolling Stone claimed, when you consider that she didn’t have anything to do with writing it.

“S&M” came from a group of Rihanna’s regular collaborators. The buzzing, hammering Euro-dance track was produced by the Norwegian duo Stargate, Rihanna’s most prolific partners, and by Sandy Vee, the French dance DJ who co-produced “Only Girl (In The World)” and Katy Perry’s “Firework” with Stargate. The person who wrote the lyrics and the vocal melody, who turned that beat into “S&M,” was Ester Dean, the singer and songwriter who worked on many of Rihanna’s biggest hits. Whenever she talks about “S&M,” Ester Dean seems both excited and embarrassed; she knows that she got away with something there. Dean told Billboard, “I wrote it, Father forgive me, on a Sunday.” In a 2019 Songland, video, Dean says that she had Britney Spears in mind for the song, “and then Rihanna was like, ‘Tss, no you didn’t, you wrote it for me.'”

It makes sense that Ester Dean was thinking of Britney Spears. Britney first burst onto American consciousness with “Baby One More Time” in 1999, and plenty of people heard masochism at work in the “hit me, baby” hook. Songwriter Max Martin didn’t mean it that way; English wasn’t his first language. But authorial intent is always the least important thing in this kind of conversation. We hear what we want to hear in pop songs, and the intensity of Britney’s delivery invited people to jump to conclusions.

Based on what Ester Dean says, “S&M” was the second time that one of Rihanna’s #1 hits was originally written for Britney Spears; the first was “Umbrella,” the song that truly pushed Rihanna to superstar status. The idea of Britney recording “Umbrella” is one of the all-time great what-if scenarios in pop history. “S&M” doesn’t raise similar questions, since “S&M” needed Britney involved to reach the top. But we’ll get there.

“S&M” isn’t really a song about alternate forms of sexual expression. It’s a titillation song, one that fits with a lot of the light-bondage stuff that was floating around in the zeitgeist of that moment. (The first Fifty Shades Of Grey book came out a few months after “S&M” hit #1.) The lyrics are both clumsy and winkingly silly: “I may be bad, but I’m perfectly good at it! Sex in the air, I don’t care, I love the smell of it!” Beyond the one line about “chains and whips excite me,” Rihanna never even gets into specifics. It’s more about “meet me in my boudoir, make my body say ah-ah-ah.”

It’s not remotely surprising that Rihanna sells the hell out of “S&M.” She’d been belting out big hooks over clanking, mechanized Stargate dance-pop beats for years, and “S&M” hits the dead-center of her comfort zone. All of those hooks are perfectly formed on Ester Dean’s “S&M” demo, but as always, Rihanna elevates the track with her delivery. The funny thing about “S&M” is that Rihanna sings about submission while radiating total dominance. She puts so much brio into boilerplate riff-blurts — “na na na na na, come on!” — that you can’t even ask whether she’s in control. It’s obvious.

My favorite thing about “S&M” is that it’s pretty convincing in its sleaze. Rihanna doesn’t need to sing about specific X-rated scenarios. She can just make broad gestures at sexual hunger and let your imagination fill in the blanks. The thudding, squelching beat evokes images of dark clubs, and Stargate and Sandy Vee even make a direct connection to a past generation’s goth-club anthem. At the end of the track, when Rihanna is just chanting the letters “S” and “M,” they swipe the synth-riff from the Cure’s 1983 banger “Let’s Go To Bed.” (The Cure were just in the other column for the first time. Their highest-charting Hot 100 hit, 1989’s “Lovesong,” peaked at #2. It’s a 9. The Cure did not get a writing credit on “S&M.”)

Rihanna released “S&M” as a single shortly after the twin chart-topping reigns of “What’s My Name” and “Only Girl (In The World),” and she gave the song a big push. J. Cole, still an up-and-coming rapper who hadn’t yet reached the tortured-star stage, rapped on a remix. (Cole’s highest-charting lead-artist hit, the 2021 21 Savage/Morray collab “My Life,” peaked at #2. It’s a 7.) For the “S&M” video, Rihanna worked with future Queen & Slim auteur Melina Matsoukas, who’d already directed her “Rude Boy” clip, among others. The video is a riot of colorfully horny imagery — Rihanna wrapped in plastic or rocking fetish gear, restraints, ball gags, sex dolls, dumped-over trash cans.

Melina Matsoukas has said that the “S&M” video is really about Rihanna’s relationship with the press, and there’s plenty of evidence for that explanation in there. She wears dresses made of newspaper headlines, or she’s wrapped in plastic while photographers surround her. She’s in an office, reclining a desk, while various prominent drag queens, all playing reporters, cluster around. At one point, Rihanna walks Perez Hilton on a leash, and he pretends to pee on a fire hydrant. (It’s not fun to be reminded of that guy’s existence.) At the same time, you could read all those touches as Rihanna getting off on displaying sexuality on the most public stages she can find.

“S&M” was a huge out-of-the-gate hit, but it spent a few weeks stuck at #2 behind Katy Perry’s “E.T.” (You could make the argument that “E.T.,” the alien-sex song, was even freakier than “S&M. Something was in the air, whether or not you loved the smell of it.) So Rihanna did the obvious thing necessary to push “S&M” all the way to the top. Just as Katy Perry ensured the chart success of “E.T.” by getting Kanye West to rap on a remix, Rihanna brought in a star of equal weight for a new version of “S&M.” She got Britney.

In 2011, everyone who made hit singles was playing the game. A remix would bring more radio spins and more iTunes sales, and it would help with a song’s chart placement. In tabulating the Hot 100, Billboard would count both the remix and the original, as long as they were sufficiently similar. The version with the better numbers would be the one that appeared on the chart. In the case of “S&M,” the Britney remix was the bigger version in the one week that the song sat at #1. That’s too bad, since the Britney version does not make “S&M” a better song.

In theory, it’s cool to have Rihanna and Britney Spears, two dominant pop stars from different micro-generations, on the same track. Britney had just scored her own horny chart-topper with “Hold It Against Me,” and she was plenty comfortable with computerized Euro-club beats. But Britney Spears was also deep into her conservatorship era when she appeared on the “S&M” remix. She’d lost all control over her career, and not in a fun or sexy way. Her appearance on the remix sounds like exactly what it is, which is a cold and calculated business decision.

Britney Spears got a writing credit for the “S&M” remix, so she presumably had a hand in crafting her verse, which gets more directly explicit than anything on Rihanna’s original: “Tough, I don’t scream mercy/ It’s your turn to hurt me/ If I’m bad, tie me down/ Shut me up, gag and bound me.” But Britney sounds totally numb and blank. She’s going through the motions, and it shows. She doesn’t have anything like Rihanna’s command, and the Auto-Tune on her voice is severe enough to be distracting. Britney and Rihanna were clearly never in the same room when they recorded their parts, and the result sounds pasted-together. In the Britney remix, a frisky song become a weirdly depressing one. I think “S&M” is a pretty good song, but the Britney remix drops it two full points in my estimation. (Original-flavor “S&M” endures as the definitive version of the song. “S&M” is now quintuple platinum, while the Britney remix stalled out at gold.)

Before the Britney version of “S&M” came out, Rihanna went on Twitter to ask who should be on the remix — a painfully contrived stunt that was clearly just intended to hype up the Britney version that was already in the works. Calling in to New York’s Z100 after the remix came out, Rihanna said, “Britney never does features. It was really amazing that she really wanted to be part of this song.” Britney never made a video for the “S&M” remix. A few weeks after the track reached #1, though, Britney and Rihanna lip-synced and awkwardly choreographed version of “S&M” at the Billboard Music Awards. It was the only time they’ve performed it together.

As I write this, the “S&M” remix was the last time that Britney Spears appeared on a #1 hit — a shrug of an ending for her historic run. We got into twists and turns of Britney’s later career in the “Hold It Against Me” column. Rihanna, meanwhile, was still in the midst of a monster hit streak. With “S&M,” she became the youngest artist ever to rack up 10 chart-topping singles. Rihanna pulled that feat off through stunt-collaborations and features and remixes, but she was still just 23 years old which she hit that landmark, which is crazy to think about.

Rihanna’s next two singles were not smashes. Instead, they were genre experiments, and they didn’t do very well on the charts. The power ballad “California King Bed” only reached #37, while the snarling dancehall murder-jam “Man Down” topped out at #57. Great songs, though. An even better Loud track did turn out to be a big hit. “Cheers (Drink To That),” an anthemic drinking song built on an Avril Lavigne sample, went all the way to #7, a triumphant conclusion for the the Loud album cycle. (It’s a 10.)

Despite three chart-topping hits and a handful of other great songs, Loud was not a huge album. It went platinum in 2011, and it’s triple platinum now, mostly thanks to streaming. On the album charts, Loud never got past #3. At the time, Rihanna was a dominant singles artist, but she was still a singles artist. She didn’t top the Billboard albums chart until she was almost ready to step away from music entirely. In a way, then, Rihanna was still on the rise in 2011. We’ll see plenty more of her in this column.

GRADE: 5/10 -

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