Even by the raunchy standards of music videos, the clip for Rihanna’s S&M pushes the envelope. The singer is variously shown made-up like a young girl, but bound and gagged; cavorting with a blow-up sex doll; taking a fully grown man for a walk on a leash; and sashaying across a dungeon in a pink dominatrix outfit.

The jaunty chorus: “Sex in the air, I don’t care, I love the smell of it; sticks and stones may break my bones but whips and chains excite me.”

You don’t need to be a wowser to see why Ofcom, the UK communications watchdog, had a problem with it being shown by a cable music channel at 11am.

“Our finding was that this video clip was far too sexual for the time of broadcast,” an Ofcom spokesman says. “It’s so clear-cut. There’s nothing implied about it. In some of these music videos, it’s very obvious.”

The watchdog bites

Rihanna’s video is the second offering to raise the ire of Ofcom recently. A week earlier, the clip for Flo Rida’s Turn Around – a song all about women shaking their rears, illustrated by shots of the rapper gyrating relentlessly alongside wall-to-wall Brazilian booty – warranted censure.

“We make our decision based on what the public think and generally we get it right,” the spokesman says. “If it went out at 11pm, we probably wouldn’t have had a problem with it.”

Racey video clips are nothing new but the shock value threshold is continually rising, prompting Ofcom to act.

“We’re coming to the point that, we’ve had two serious breaches in a short space of time, so we’re bringing all the stations in to give them a serious warning about what we expect from them,” the spokesman says.

“We don’t want kids seeing these sort of unedited videos during the day, and we could get to the point of issuing sanctions if they don’t stick to our rules.”

The politics of pop

Indisputably, the trajectory of music video smut, encompassing Madonna tied to a bed and Britney Spears flouncing about in a school uniform, is trending toward ever more extreme frontiers.

Indeed, Sanna Inthorn, a lecturer in Media and Identity at the University of East Anglia, insists clips like Rihanna’s are significant because they reflect the normalising of a taboo, in this case sado-masochistic sex.

“It’s getting more extreme and we’re seeing images we wouldn’t have 20 years ago,” Inthorn says.

Sex aside, Inthorn also questions the way music videos appropriate certain imagery in an attempt to shock, in doing so trivialising the sub-cultures they reference.

“A lot of academics will go back to Madonna with her pointy bra and how she was flirting with lesbian sub-culture. I think that’s happening with Rihanna as well,” she says.

“You have artists tapping into these politics – but people are fighting to have their sexuality recognised and treated a certain way and popstars just co-opt it for a music video.”


Porn without the shagging

Conceptually, music videos seem to borrow increasingly from the adult entertainment industry. Inthorn argues that, nudity and actual sex aside, there is an unmistakable crossover between the tropes of porn – the ‘porn aesthetic’ – and the way female pop stars are presented as desirable.

“The framing devices are the same,” she says. “The costumes, the fashion, the make-up, the poses – it’s all these elements that are considered desirable in pornography now showing up in music videos. It all looks like porn.”

It is at this point that an almost circular debate reopens. Is this advertisement of female sexuality empowering? Or are these stars merely complicit in their own exploitation, reduced to sex objects via the Trojan Horse of ‘reclaimed sexuality’?

For Inthorn, the profit motive – the need to sell CDs, downloads and concert tickets – tips the scales.

“My problem is that it’s all about money,” she says. “When capitalism is involved, it’s not innocent, and it’s encouraging young women to buy into it, to spend money on an industry that disempowers them.”