NEW YORK » It’s hard to forget the haunting photo that leaked out early last year: Pop star Rihanna, her elegant face bruised and battered after a violent assault by her then-boyfriend, R&B singer Chris Brown.
Now she’s appearing in something else shocking, though thankfully fictional: Rapper Eminem’s chart-topping "Love the Way You Lie," a song (and now video) that graphically depicts a physically abusive relationship.
And the debate has begun: Is the song a treatise against (or apology for) domestic violence or an irresponsible glorification of it? Or, is it something uncomfortable in between? And how exactly to explain the role of Rihanna, who has said she aims to help young people learn the lessons of her ordeal?
One thing is not in question: The song is a hit, sitting atop the Billboard Hot 100 chart. And well before the edgy video debuted Thursday evening, the lyrics were enough to get plenty of attention.
"Just gonna stand there and watch me burn," Rihanna sings repeatedly, to an undeniably catchy tune. "But that’s all right because I like the way it hurts."
As for Eminem, who raps the verses, he makes it clear what the fire imagery’s about. "If she ever tries to (expletive) leave me again," he says late in the song, "I’ma tie her to the bed and set this house on fire."
In between, there’s talk of love being wonderful, until it isn’t. Suddenly there’s pushing, pulling hair, scratching, clawing, biting: "Throw ’em down, pin ’em. So lost in the moments when you’re in ’em."
The girl, acted in the video by actress Megan Fox, tries to leave. The guy, played by Dominic Monaghan, promises it won’t happen again. But then he admits he’s lying: "I apologize even though I know it’s lies."
Rihanna, who won a Glamour Woman of the Year award last year, partly for her stand on domestic violence, has been quoted as saying the song "was something that needed to be done, and the way he (Eminem) did it was so clever. He pretty much just broke down the cycle of domestic violence."
As for Eminem, known for his turbulent relationship with ex-wife Kim Mathers — his song, "Kim," graphically fantasized about murdering her — has said he enlisted Rihanna because she was the perfect person to pull the song off.
But can it be a teaching tool? That depends on the context in which young people see and hear it, says Marjorie Gilberg, executive director of Break the Cycle, a group that fights violence among teens.
"The danger is that pop culture defines our social norms," says Gilberg. "We don’t want the message of this song to be that this kind of relationship is acceptable. So this song has to be viewed in the context of real information from adults, like parents and teachers."
Of course, that depends on whether listeners even focus on the lyrics. Allison Churchill, an Eminem fan in Palm Coast, Fla., says she has friends who never really hear the lyrics to songs they like — "they just like a good beat." She herself listened a number of times to "Love the Way You Lie" before she realized what it was saying.
"I thought, ‘I can’t sing along to that,’" says Churchill, 31. But she thinks the song could have a positive impact, "if it can hit a nerve with a teenager and prompt them to go talk to someone about it."
One problem, though, says Gilberg of Break the Cycle, is that the song reflects myths about domestic violence — myths that lead to blaming the victim. One is that women enjoy being hurt.
Another myth, Gilberg says: the concept of mutual violence. Eminem sings, "But your temper’s just as bad as mine is. You’re the same as me."
"That’s a classic line of an abusive man," says Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women. "You’re as bad as me, so it’s OK. The fact is, it’s only 2-year-olds and violent men who use violence to get what they want."