by Alex Knepper
As I’m coming up on 30, I think it would be a fun project to chronicle some of the best songs I have come across over the years in my typically-gay obsession with melodic pop sung by women. I don’t claim any great original taste in this department, but my curation of the best of the best among my favorites, I think, is distinctive. In general, I’ll want to highlight lesser-known songs, especially album cuts that show a side of these women’s music that the general public often doesn’t hear.
Rihanna’s ‘Love Without Tragedy/Mother Mary’ is one of those brilliant pop songs that I find so out-of-nowhere that it’s still a surprise to me that it really exists. On Unapologetic, an otherwise mostly-generic album of forgettable EDM and hip-hop tracks — excepting singles ‘Diamonds’ and ‘Stay’ and the underrated hypnotic Eminem collaboration ‘Numb’ — here comes this seven-minute soul-baring track that has two completely distinct sections, no chorus, and remains emotionally intense and convincing from the very beginning to the very end.
The first section is her truest artistic statement on her relationship with Chris Brown and the humiliation and betrayal she felt. Tense keyboard lines that play like a sadder version of the production to the Police’s ‘Message In a Bottle’ set the scene for a panorama of idealized scenes from their relationship: “Red lipstick/Rose petals/Heartbreak/I was his Marilyn Monroe/Brown eyes/Tuxedo/Fast cars/A James Dean on the low”, gradually adding layers of percussion and choirs to increase the tension, as images give way to hurt: “You took the best years of my life/Felt like love struck me in the night/I pray that love don’t strike twice”…and ends with a heartbroken cry: “What’s love without tragedy?”
Then, as like a tearful breakdown giving way to cathartic introspection, the pounding intensity of the first section gives way to a hazy, ethereal, atmospheric soundscape as Rihanna turns to her faith and a peculiar gratitude for how blessed she is to have been put in a situation in which tragedy was even possible for her in the first place: “Mother Mary, I swear I wanna change/Mr. Jesus, I’d love to be a queen/But I’m from the left side of an island/Never thought this many people would even know my name”. It is interesting that she uses the names ‘Jesus’ and ‘Mary.’ Vague appeals to God and a universal human purpose are common in pop, but it’s pretty unusual to hear Jesus and Mary mentioned by name like this. As we reach the end of the song, it doesn’t feel like things can ever ‘go back to normal’ or ‘be like they were before.’ But she’s smiling after the crying is done, ready for more, prepared to go back to life full-heartedly, with eyes open this time to the risks that really entails: “I’m prepared to die in the moment.”