Just gonna stand there and watch me burn
Rihanna opens the song by singing about burning. Eminem closes it by rapping about tying a woman to the bed and lighting the house on fire. What first seems to be only a clichéd metaphor transforms into something uncomfortably real.
In the "Love the Way You Lie" music video, Rihanna sings her lines standing in front of a burning house. Actors Megan Fox and Dominic Monaghan both literally play with fire as they depict an increasingly violent relationship full of drama and mutual abuse. The final line of the song is, quite frankly, a death threat: "Imma tie her to the bed and set this house on fire." And the final scene of the video shows both Rihanna and Eminem standing there with their backs to us, watching a house burn down.
It seems like all this burning in both the lyrics and the video must be some sort of metaphor for the destruction that comes from abusive relationships—until Eminem's bone-chilling final line. Then, the fire that fills up the screen behind Rihanna becomes a symbol of actual violence. "Watch me burn," becomes real rather than metaphorical.
The real violence suggested in these lines is a widespread reality. Every day, an average of three women and one man are murdered in the United States by an intimate partner. One in four women reports having experienced domestic violence, and nearly one in three teens who have been in relationships report abuse of some kind.
Rihanna was herself beaten up by ex-boyfriend Chris Brown when she was just 21, requiring an emergency room visit and shocking the world when gruesome photos leaked to the tabloid press. "Watch me burn" may be a symbol for a disintegrating relationship, but the line evolves into a serious warning about how dangerous a violent relationship can become.
But that's alright because I like the way it hurts
Given what the public knows about her own history, Rihanna's second line is stomach-dropping. Does it reinforce a myth, or grapple with a part of reality?
Rihanna doesn't look or sound happy when she sings these lines, but they don't necessarily come off as a lament or warning, either. The singer has an alluring voice, and most of us are used to hearing it in hot pop-rock ballads about love and sex. But this hook, catchy as it may be, is about dating violence. The apparent sex appeal of "I like the way it hurts" is confusing at best, and disturbing at worst—one critic bitterly calls it "brutality chic" (source).
Here's the part of the picture that Rihanna's short hook doesn't break down: One common myth about domestic violence is that people stay in abusive relationships because they "like" being abused. This is also something that abusers may say to their partners to shame and control them. Critics are not off-base to point out that when Rihanna sings a line like this, it could be sending a dangerous message about who's at fault for domestic violence.
On the other hand, the song might also describe the self-doubt that is very real for many people in violent relationships. Among the tens of millions of YouTube viewers, it's a statistical guarantee that there are between tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands who have been in or are currently in abusive relationships.
Rihanna's hook definitely runs the risk of reinforcing a dangerous myth (that abused people like or deserve the abuse), but it may also reach out to others who are in pain or in danger—and hungry to hear someone with similar experiences talk about them.
I can't tell you what it really is
I can only tell you what it feels like
Eminem's intriguing first line may actually hold the key to the song's success—and to Eminem's popularity in general.
One of the most common criticisms of "Love the Way You Lie" is that it isn't an accurate explanation of dating violence and its real causes. It's instead a personal, emotional, contradictory account from one person's perspective—and the perspective of a male abuser, at that.
But Eminem hits us right off the bat with an acknowledgment of his position in the song. He can't tell us "what it really is"—and he knows that. He never uses words like "domestic violence" or even "abuse." He also never comes out in interviews and tells the young people of the world to steer clear of abusive relationships. Marshall Mathers is not a teen guide to dating violence, to put it mildly. "What it really is" is a discussion he leaves to the rest of us.
Instead, in his own words, he tells us "what it feels like": an abusive relationship from his perspective, which at least seems personal rather than fictional given his own history. He follows an almost identical route in his 2005 confessional "When I'm Gone," a song about his regrets over mistreating his daughter and ex-wife. The feelings-factor is high, even if the analysis is lacking.
This emo side of Eminem has been a big hit with fans, but it has never served to clear up what Eminem really meant in super-scary songs like "Kim," in which he raps about brutally murdering his ex-wife, or "3 A.M.," a song written from the perspective of a serial killer. Even those who don't adore his every word can't help asking: What does he mean? Is he serious? What is he hiding? What is his music really about?
By never telling his audience "what it really is," Eminem maintains an endlessly enigmatic public persona. And he also maintains a degree of personal distance from the controversy that inevitably surrounds his music. At this point, Eminem really wouldn't be Eminem if he told us exactly what he meant by all the shock-talk. Talking about "what it feels like" without losing the intrigue surrounding what he really means is a strong point for the rapper, and perhaps the key to understanding the song.
It's so insane cause when it's going good, it's going great
I'm Superman with the wind at his back, she's Lois Lane
But when it's bad it's awful, I feel so ashamed
A lot of people probably didn't expect Eminem to admit to feeling ashamed about much of anything, including his known history of violent relationships. But now that he's ashamed, should we feel bad for him?
In these lines, Eminem talks about the fall from feeling high, confident, and powerful in a relationship to spinning back into negative and dangerous behaviors. As many advocates against domestic violence highlight, violence is almost always a way of trying to control someone. That powerful feeling is something that abusive people seek out, using threatening and dangerous actions to get there. Here Eminem hollows out that appealing Superman feeling by showing some of the raw ugliness and sadness that he sees in his own behavior.
Admitting his regret and shame is a potentially powerful form of advocacy, coming from a rapper so popular and influential—and so well-known for his verbal attacks against women. On the prequel to Recovery, the 2009 album Relapse, Eminem raps about peeing on Rihanna and raping Lindsay Lohan. Seems like he made a pretty quick recovery—and we wonder if he ever apologized to Rihanna for that particular lyrical attack.
It's doubtful that the rapper is sitting back and reading Alice Walker or joining the latest campaign of Men Stopping Violence, but he definitely opens some doors by spitting lines about about shame instead of just rage. What do you think? Genuine recovery, or half-baked apology?
Who's that dude? I don't even know his name
I laid hands on her, I'll never stoop so low again
Eminem has not one, not two, but three different personas. Disassociation from real life seems to be a big part of his public image, but this line shows Eminem questioning his feelings about his own violent side.
Eminem has said that "Slim Shady is a name for my temper and/or anger. Eminem is just the rapper. Marshall Mathers is who I am at the end of the day." And he brought all three to his performances, shocking audiences with Slim Shady, impressing them with Eminem, and drawing them into his real life story as Marshall Mathers.
"Who's that dude?" could be a line about another man, but we think it could also be Marshall Mathers wondering aloud who he is during his violent episodes. And that's when it all gets kind of meta—is this violent but ashamed man the real Eminem, the real Marshall Mathers, or the return of the Slim Shady persona who is such an expert on issues of woman-bashing?
It actually seems like we might be seeing Eminem rapping about Marshall Mathers grappling with Slim Shady. And that violent, temperamental dude that he doesn't recognize is also one he doesn't want to be. Deeper yet, that same dude, in his Slim Shady guise, is a liar ("I know I'm a liar," he quips later on the track). He lies to himself and to his partner. He promises he won't hurt her, but as soon as she comes back, he threatens to kill her. He says the violence won't continue, even though he knows it will.
This is a deep psychological struggle of the sort that Eminem has a definite knack for portraying, however hair-raising the outcome.