Like I'm the only one who's in command: Xiu Xiu/Rihanna, "Daphny," & The Path

by on Jul.08, 2011

I’m still thinking through many of the points raised in recent discussions of violence in art on the blog, especially about complicity and the notion of safe spaces (or the refusal thereof) in art. I’ve been wanting to bring in Xiu Xiu, a band that has frequently or constantly explored violence, particularly sexual violence, as well as self-harm, in their work; so their release of a 7” single this week, “Daphny,” was convenient – particularly because the B-side, a Rihanna song, provides another interesting example of art that denies a safe space, actually pulls that safety rug out from under the original song’s feet. So to speak. Given that there is a “safe” version to compare it with, Xiu Xiu’s cover is a pretty obvious example of the kind of deterritorialization that others were talking about in relation to Twin Peaks – and it also works as critique, given the fact of its pairing with an overtly political song, a pairing that seems strategic.

The 7”’s title track, “Daphny,” responds to the experience of a friend of the band who was raped by a police officer while in custody after being arrested for shoplifting. The other track, mentioned above, is a transformative/deformative cover of Rihanna’s “Only Girl (in the World)” – the official video for which Lucas posted a while back.

You can listen to both tracks here.

Like a lot of Xiu Xiu’s music, “Daphny” borrows its creepy dramatics from horror soundtracks – it’s very orchestral and sound effects-y, heartbeat-like poundings leading up to a frightening swell of sound that’s followed by trembling percussive strumming, over which Jamie Stewart quietly accuses devil devil devil [EDIT: he’s actually chanting “Daphny Daphny Daphny”]. With a strangled voice, he documents And men of power have raped you / for shoplifting an x-box / take a photo of your friend vomiting on your head. The song pushes toward a violent climax, Stewart shrieking with scathing bitterness: Enjoy life / enjoy life / enjoy this life. The song is an accusation, a mourning, a fury, and above all a communication of horror.

Its B-side is Xiu Xiu’s cover of “Only Girl (in the World),” one of Rihanna’s least controversial singles. In Xiu Xiu’s version, Rihanna’s troubling but presumably innocuous expression of her desire to own someone else’s desires and to otherwise feel extremely special is made profoundly uncomfortable. Stewart’s trembly, swollen desire wanders freely between pleasure and danger, or rather refuses a between – here the two states, desire and horror, pleasure and danger, are in unison. The lyrics become menacing, demanding the “you” to: MAKE me feel like I’m only girl in the world / like I’m the only one that you’ll ever love…cause I’m the only one who understands / how to make you feel like a man.

The song is made entirely unsafe in this translation – even more so given its pairing with “Daphny,” as the adjacency makes it difficult to hear these lines without thinking of the sexual assault described in that track. Considering also the few lines from “That’s Not My Name,” the Ting Tings’ screed against catcalling, that are warped and tacked on the front of it, and all the discourse around sexual violence that Rihanna’s name invokes, the song seems to be openly linking itself to ongoing conversations about sexual violence. Meanwhile, pairing this pop-song cover with “Daphny” enlarges the potential audience for “Daphny,” and more widely publicizes the police brutality it’s protesting.


Xiu Xiu’s music has borrowed sound effects from early video game soundtracks as well as horror movies, two genres that deal in violence and death frequently and unapologetically. The game The Path has been talked about quite a lot in the past couple years in discussions of violence against women in art, so I won’t say too much here. You can read this NPR article about it. Mainly I want to address the way it deals with complicity.

I’m still figuring the game out, and my grade in it is a solid C – so, you know, I’m no expert and am probably missing a lot of the nuances and secrets. But the gist is that, when the game begins, you must choose a character from among the six girls hanging out in the opening room. They’re all Little Reds – as in Little Red Riding Hood – but they have different names, different histories, different looks (one’s definitely The Goth, for instance), and appear to be different ages. Having chosen a character, you find yourself on The Path, your character before you with her back to you (that is, you are and are not your character). Words appear on the screen instructing you to “Go to Grandmother’s House – and stay on the path.”

Well of course the first thing you do is get off the path and start exploring. There are glowing flower-type things to collect, and various sites to discover. You quickly find out that these sites are all sites of trauma, each specific to one of the characters. You also find out, from the ominous tones cutting into the soundtrack and the pawprint flickering on the screen, that a wolf is loose in this world, preying on you.

The game puts its player in a state of hyperawareness – it’s a slow exploration of an unknown geography, and as you play, you become aware of your emotional state fluctuating constantly from curiosity to boredom to anticipation to fear. You can’t run – you can only move at the pace the game sets for you – and you finally get so bored (and curious) that you start to seek out your wolf. When you meet him (alternately a lumberjack, a werewolf, various other kinds of creeps, depending on which character you’ve chosen), the screen fades to black. Your character wakes up outside of grandmother’s house in a pile; when she gets up, she’s visibly injured and moving slowly. Whatever the wolf did with/to you, it has resulted in bodily injury. You are complicit – you sought this out, you invited this – or did you? You were just wandering around, after all. This is where the perspectival separation between character and player is crucial – in a sense you’ve become responsible for your character, and ultimately it was you who led her into danger. But then, that danger is required to ‘win’: at the end of each character’s trajectory, if you’ve met a wolf, the scorecard declares “success!”

The Path is a tightly controlled, morally ambiguous, and profoundly uneasy game – violence lurks everywhere. What it does best, I think, is, well, three things. First and foremost, it creates an unsettling experience of vulnerability for the player, no matter how far into the world you go. Second, the game refuses to present violence (the implied rape) as punishment for the character/player’s curiosity. The violence presented is fucked-up, but the game (and likely the player) also relishes in the anticipation of it: in the logic of the game, you must stray from the path – if you don’t, you’ll walk along endlessly, safely, and never discover anything. Third, and I think this is crucial, the violence is nearly always implicit – what one is made to focus on is not the violence itself but its pervasiveness, its potentiality, and its effects.


Other good recent writing on sexual violence in art/pop culture:

Roxane Gay on the Careless Language of Sexual Violence

The Crunk Feminist Collective on Rihanna’s “Man Down” Video

Jessa Crispin on The Female Body and Dead Girls

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14 comments for this entry:
  1. m kitchell

    This reading is fascinating. There’s also a sort of weird intertextuality with the idea that most of the things in the Daphny song literally happened, for instance the “take a photo of your friend vomiting on your head”

  2. Roxane

    Great post, Megan. Rihanna is a curious, curious artist. I always wonder how much of her image/lyrics/persona come from her and how much comes from her production team. In her most recent album, Rihanna is clearly working through some sexual/violence issues and trying to do some interesting things with S/M, Man Down, and Only Girl in The World. She is all over the place. I am not familiar with Xiu Xiu but will be shortly. Lots to think about here.

    (And thanks for mentioning my essay on sexual violence. Just noticed that.)

  3. daphny

    FIX IT

    TALE OF TALES ARE A BUNCH OF HACKS they dont make games they make SCREEN SAVERS

    ughhh those guys try to have a conversation with them youll UNDERSTAND ME

  4. daphny

    also he doesnt say devil devil devil he says daphny daphny daphny

  5. megan milks

    Hi Mike! Yeah, I wondered about that (the vomit reference) – it’s such a striking lyrical juxtaposition. Thanks for the links.

    Roxane – hi! Agreed, Rihanna has seemed weirdly incoherent as an artist. “Russian Roulette” (from Rated R, 2009) also works through sexual/violence issues, but there was something uneasy about the timing or approach, it didn’t quite land – and then “Love the Way You Lie” kind of cleared the way for this new stuff, especially “Man Down,” which somehow seems more convincing as an artistic statement than other songs in this terrain. (Or maybe I’m just more convinced of the statement? That’s possible.)

    Daphny, hi, thanks for reading! I take it you feel strongly about The Path. I dunno, I find it pretty interesting. But I’m not a gamer. Thanks for the lyrics correction – will make that change.

  6. Danielle Pafunda

    Thanks for this post, Megan, & the links. I actually found the Jessa Crispin piece problematically messy. I’m in sympathy with the sentiment behind it, but it strikes me counterproductive to lump so many varieties of female corpse and violence against women together. For instance, a show like Buffy deploys these tropes in destabilizing, interesting ways that counter something more pedestrian-dead-girl examples she sites. Of the women in Buffy she says, “[they] are still the target of male violence, they just happen to live.” Just happening to live is actually a big deal arguably positive twist in the violence-against-women narrative, and violence against women in that show happens in radically different context than something like The Killing, no? Whether or not Buffy’s the ideal feminist narrative is a different argument, but it’s certainly not standard fare. & even the standard fare comes in multiple varieties, might have subversive undertones, etc.

    I guess I’m confused about the thesis here–is the suggestion that we should depict violence against women in only one or two sanctioned ways? To me, as a feminist and a media consumer, there’s an effective difference between descriptive/interrogative work that rewrites the standard kill-a-girl templates and exploitative work that lazily banks on our familiarity with serial killer oeuvres. The latter being, among other things, often quite boring (perhaps the least of its offenses, but also an easy way to lead the public eye elsewhere).

    Anyhow, I know it’s a bit beside the point, here, but I’ve such a pet peeve about feminist-lumping! I can’t help yakking about it! If we want people to start reading cultural norms carefully, we’ve got to demonstrate how. We can’t point to the trope dead girl and say ALWAYS BAD & WRONG, even if she happens to live (and now I’m being a bit ham-fisted; Crispin’s certainly more nuanced than that).


  7. Lucas de Lima

    It seems Rihanna’s song is fertile ground for lots of mistranslations/interpretations (my post you linked to being a juxtaposition of the video with a Wojnarowicz quote). I wonder if one could think about Rihanna’s mediumicity and reiterability as itself violent, as a sort of complicit self-erasure. I like how the video for “Only Girl” projects a negative space that figures as the reversal of the self-erasure… it’s all Rihanna, only Rihanna, everybody else is dead…

    Speaking of apocalyptic pop, Salem covered Britney’s “Till the World Ends” in a similar vein:

  8. megan milks

    Hi Danielle! Yes, agreed. I really admire the urgency with which Crispin writes, and some of her linkages are interestingly provocative – but also definitely, as you say, problematically messy.

    Buffy FTW!

    I don’t know that she’s suggesting there are or should be specific, sanctioned ways to depict violence against women – if there is a thesis there, I see it simply as ‘Look at this overwhelming flood of dead girls, and the real dead girls it corresponds to – there are a lot of them – what the fuck.’ Lumping them all together is a messy tactic, but seems strategic in creating the sense of frustration and urgency that to me makes her essay compelling. Whether that strategy ultimately shoots her in the foot – maybe. The point about Buffy, I agree, is lazy, and bringing her ex into it on such flimsy grounds seems, well, unfair.

    Anyway, I love what you say about the importance of making distinctions between descriptive/interrogative and exploitative work – yes. I still am (always am) trying to find the vocabulary to work through these issues and distinctions, and I immensely appreciate the complexity and nuance with which you’ve approached them (here and elsewhere). So thanks!

  9. megan milks

    Lucas, thanks for this comment. Your reading of Rihanna’s song and video is persuasive. Yeah – my reading above perhaps presumes more stability than there is; the song does seem more interestingly complicated when I think about it in the way you describe.

    The SALEM cover/video is fantastic – thanks for linking.

  10. Danielle Pafunda

    Oh, true, Megan! The urgency and frustration is excellent, and something we need *a lot* more of– It’s absolutely bizarre that we’re (women types) expected to be polite and measured even about getting killed off.

    Yep, Buffy would be on my desert island list. <3

  11. Roxane

    Danielle, I definitely think Crispin’s reading is more nuanced (as you suggest). I think she’s really on to something in her essay in that the aesthetic of the dead girl is used so wantonly and carelessly. Buffy is doing something different but that show is one of the exceptions to the overall rule of the dead woman’s body as a singular narrative.

  12. Danielle Pafunda

    Hey, Roxane,

    Yep, totally agree that the dead girl trope is poorly, casually used left and right. I just think we should talk about its deployment carefully. My bigger concern is, I guess, that when we launch a feminist critique of a nefarious practice, we do so sensibly & carefully. I worry that overstating the case, lumping unlike examples, etc. will undermine the emotional effect of an essay (the frustration and urgency Megan notes), and fail to inspire folks to think more carefully about what they consume.

    I don’t think the dead woman’s body is quite so singular a narrative. I think it’s fractured, which lets it seep further into the culture. But I would agree that most of the fracture sucks, occurring in an f’d up zone of patriarchal hate spasms. Very little of the dead girl/woman body jets off in more feminist or non-puke-inducing directions. There are lots of amazing critiques of the dead girl trope out there. I’m not as well read on the topic as I’d like to be, but I think Elisabeth Bronfen’s Over Her Dead Body is especially strong (excepting chapter on Plath & Sexton maybe not so wonderful), and Kathy Acker’s Eurydice in the Underworld for a more creative critique. Y’all probably know these well, but I like to give ’em a shout out!


  13. Johannes

    I actually think the dead girl is quite often an unsettling trope, starting with Poe and his famous dead women. As somebody pointed out a while back on this blog: strippers are “live girls” not “dead girls” and as “Lady Lazarus” would tell you, she needs to die in order to wreak havoc, it’s the live lady, who is always brought back to life who is the imprisoned one… I don’t want to say anything like the dead girl trope subverts the hierarchy or anything, because I don’t think art tends to work like that, but I think it’s wrong to assume that death is always bad and disempowering etc.


  14. adam strauss

    I love this: ” My bigger concern is, I guess, that when we launch a feminist critique of a nefarious practice, we do so sensibly & carefully. I worry that overstating the case, lumping unlike examples, etc. will undermine the emotional effect of an essay (the frustration and urgency Megan notes), and fail to inspire folks to think more carefully about what they consume.”

    Within deadgirlalia, how does race fit in? When I think of “the” deadgirl, I picture white; but in terms of non-art politics I imagine the deadgirl as or far more likely to be other than “white.” Is it crazy to wonder if white girls die tromp-loi’el (mispelled) deaths, whereas other ones flat out die?

    I like women alive (dead vegatables strikes me as more potentially interesting; I’m actually being serious and definitely don’t mean the colloquialism for minimally functional humans) ! I love “Lady Lazarus” precisely because the death is tromp-loy: she ain’t dead, she’s utterly charged/animated