by Sam Rees
The Ancient Greeks had six different words for ‘love’, did you know that?
Agape-A love for everyone, a societal love
Pragma-Patient, longstanding love
Philautia-Love of the self, both unhealthy and healthy kinds
I think it’s very interesting how this linguistic adjustment still resonates profoundly. We simply don’t have enough words to describe romance, or rather, romance itself is an inadequate concept. Despite what our reason tells us, we all know we can love someone for a week, I take that as a given. We also all know we can ‘love’ someone but not want to sleep with them, or want to sleep with them but not ‘love’ them. And are there more romantic relationships to be experienced, more heart-bursting, spine-tingling forms of intimacy than those between true friends? And when I think of agape, I most certainly feel that for anyone who takes politics seriously, a deep feeling of what can only be described as love must be central.
And as for those great artistic testaments to love? Well, they all take those six concepts as optional ingredients for their cocktails, so to speak. Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’ is a rich dance between the spirits of eros and ludus. Dolly Parton’s ‘I Will Always Love You’, made famous by Whitney Houston is obviously a worship at the altar of pragma, but in its deep wish for the other to find peace and happiness also pays homage to philia. ‘Do I Wanna Know?’ by Arctic Monkeys certainly has its fair share of sexual pomp, but one can also detect a wrestling with philautia in its self-aggrandisement and desperation for a reciprocated affection.
I note this only to make it clear that this is a game one can play all day. But there are those works of art which also manage to turn this into a true argumentation, which is to say, they not only express multiple forms of love, but in that expression, make it clear that the way we think about love is, well, fucked up. They get down in the dirt and they pull up from the soil feelings and sensations we are told to ignore, to trivialise, to see as foolish and base, and light them on fire, burn them on the temple altar, and demand that we see them as important, vital to the human experience, spiritual. These visionaries come to us in many forms: Leonard Cohen’s orgasmic cry of ‘hallelujah’ is as sacred as it is profane, barely one chest-thumping anthem to socialism goes past without Billy Bragg also admitting he’d quite like to sleep with one or several of his comrades, ‘will politics get me in the sack?’ being the lyric which perhaps best sums up his position, as it were.
All of these are fundamentally stories, of course, and that’s what we must remember most. What stories do these songs tell us? What do they suggest we have wrong about these matters of the heart, the head, the groin? I believe one song more than any other grabs hold of all these messy ideas, shoves them in a room together and commands they get along, commands it so that life can make sense, so that the animal feelings and the angelic feelings are all seen as part of a greater whole, not to be compartmentalised.
It has been five years to the month since Rihanna released her eighth studio album, ANTI, a record of staggering pop ambition, of sex and darkness and joy. The third track on this record is, for my money, one of the most beautifully sordid, delightfully wretched, and deeply pained pieces of modern love-song-writing. It is both of the city, and exists deep down in the darkness of the Freudian forest, both an alluring siren-song, and an act of self-flagellation.
‘Kiss it Better’ comes to us with the melodramatic howl of an all-American guitar solo, partly a sachet into a high-rise club in New York, partly the sound of a denim-clad trucker spitting onto the dusty mid-west ground. As soon as it arrives, it is gone, heralding the entrance of our protagonist like the overture to a Broadway show. And out of the shadows she steps. ‘Kiss it better’ comes to us as a phrase of comfort and healing, of dependence and support, and yet it becomes clear pretty quickly that’s not all that Rihanna means.
‘Been waiting on that sunshine, boy, I think I need that back.’
Note the lack of ‘I’ve’ at the start of this line-we’re plunged straight in. She has things to tell us and only the standard pop single time limits to get it out. The positioning of the comma with respect to where the vocal lands throws up ambiguity here as well-we may either see her waiting for some sunshine (and boy does she need it back), or she’s waiting on a sunshine boy, one who comes to bring some light to her. What does she need back? Not him? Some object, some ‘that’. Sunshine, potentially. Her coarse and reedy vocal has more bite than the average Rihanna performance; we’re on the 4 Am shift with her, after the lights and the drinks and the music. The sunshine that boy brought seems all but invisible. It’s deeply classical as an opening, the blues and soul standards are nearly all an expression of waiting in some form, to be loved, for the lover to return, or simply for a feeling or situation to pass. There is a potential double-meaning here as well; does she need something back, or does she need that back, his back? The answer may not be clear, but either way it is clear that eros is alive and kicking from the off.
‘Can’t do it like that, No one else gonna get it like that, So I argue, you yell, had to take me back, Who cares when it feels like crack?’
She needs that back, can’t do it like that, no one else gets it like that. Funny how prosaic a word contains multitudes. For sure, this is principally about fucking and we shouldn’t deny it. But the continual lack of pronouns mutualises the whole affair; it’s not about him or her being good in bed, one being obsessed with the other, it’s about a connection, about what they create together, the ludus of their relationship, the interplay of their souls.
In the second half of this section, things get really interesting. We’re introduced to the splintering, to the reason the sunshine boy’s not there; they’ve been fighting, arguing, yelling. But for the protagonist, a decision has been made that this doesn’t matter-the ‘it’ that feels like crack here standing in for ‘that’. Again, the circling around explicit images, the avoidance of clear writing, muddles all these feelings together. After all, it’s not like Rihanna is this euphemistic elsewhere on the record. It’s not just sex, it’s not just love, it’s not just friendship, and more importantly than anything else, it’s good and bad. It’s evil and holy. It’s painful, but it’s the good kind of pain, the kind you’d let swallow you whole, so to speak.
‘Boy you know that you always do it right, Man, fuck your pride, just take it on back, boy, Take it on back boy, take it back all night, Mmm do what you gotta do, keep me up all night, Hurting vibe man, it hurts inside when I look in your eye’
We oscillate now between man and boy as means of address, which says more about the narrator than her object of desire. She is after comfort, simplicity, stability, but also maturity, respect, confidence. ‘Boy’ brings him into the fold, it makes him a point of affection, of familiarity, it’s an embrace, ‘man’ pushes him back by the chest to the other side of the dancefloor, it’s a flirtation, it has a humour to it, a tease, a challenge. We also again turn to the redoubtable combination of pleasure and pain, of a heartbreak worth seeking out. Did the Ancient Greeks have a word for the feeling where it hurts inside when we look them in the eye? Lorca calls it ‘that mysterious power that everyone feels but no philosopher can explain’. You know it, don’t you? It doesn’t sting, that’s not the right word for it, it aches, it throbs, it hums. Rihanna knows it, and what’s more, she knows you know it too.
‘What are you willing to do? Oh, tell me what you’re willing to do? Kiss it, kiss it better, baby’
Back comes that guitar solo, immensely simple but immensely heartfelt. It is also commensurate with the feelings of the chorus. There is something emboldened, heroic, to Rihanna’s demand to know how far this man, this sunshine boy, will go, what psychological monsters he will slay in his return to her. Still, she undermines his claims, unheard by us but undoubtedly full of shit; she just wants him to kiss it better. Again, the song’s force and power comes from its lack of specifics, and its relying on innuendo, and anyone who needs more to be said about the phrase ‘kiss it better’ with this in mind needs to expand their imagination quite considerably.
But if we were just in the realm of sex here then I don’t think we would end up with the kind of spirit that lives inside this song. There is such an edge to it, a grit, from scars which have hardened, hearts perhaps beyond broken. Here we must acknowledge Rihanna’s voice as an instrument which in a simple line such as ‘tell me what you’re willing to do’ can be alluring, sarcastic, confrontational, suspicious, yearning and vulnerable all at once. To bring back that sunshine, things must be dark. To kiss something better, it has to be broken.
‘I’ve been waiting up all night, Baby tell me what’s wrong, Go on and make it right, Make it all night long’
The pronoun now leads the thought where it didn’t before. ‘I’ve been waiting up all night’, the urgency and aggression is now pushing forwards. We are now introduced to the notion of the sunshine boy as being broken himself. Rihanna summons pragma in her voice here, a deep-seated commitment to patience, to repair, to righting the wrongs and taking the time to do so, to see this love as a lasting project.
We are ultimately dealing with a romantic ballad about a booty call here, and I am fully aware of that. But I also feel deeply that this song carries with it many layers, that what it says of love, and interdependence, of fulfilment, and how sex can become a canvas upon which to paint these important colours, is truly profound. It refuses to decide between love and lust, and dismisses these distinctions as foolish. It refuses to trivialise its subject matter, thus rendering it profound. It refuses to believe itself unimportant, and makes a claim for those late-night phone calls to see if someone’s up as being a particular type of magic. If it’s love, it’s love, and who is anyone to deny it? There are six different types, after all.