2017 Favorite: N.E.R.D and Rihanna’s ‘Lemon’ Video

By Ayana Byrd Dec 19, 2017

From the gifs that cracked us up to the books that blew our minds, 2017 has been a vibrant year in arts and culture. Today, contributing editor Ayana Byrd reflects on the power of the "Lemon" video by N.E.R.D and Rihanna.

I can’t dance. As a Black woman born to two-stepping, fancy-footed West Philly parents, this is hard to admit. But if I could dance, if my fantasy of killing it on the "Soul Train" were real, I would move like Mette Towley.

Towley isn’t famous, but she is the star of the N.E.R.D & Rihanna video “Lemon” that was released in November. “Lemon” has a lot going for it: Rihanna rapping, Rihanna shaving Towley’s hair off and leaving her alone for the rest of the video, and choreography by JaQuel Knight who also did Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies.” But what truly makes the “Lemon” video great is what Towley is telling us. In three minutes and eight seconds of nonstop focus on her body, her torso covered in sweat and glitter, her breasts maybe—but maybe not—in a bra, her butt “bouncing her around, bouncing around” like the song’s lyrics, her dancing says, You can look at me all you want, but none of this is yours.

Towley dances in a Janet Jackson “Pleasure Principle” kind of way—with no one else around and looking like a woman who pop culture rarely acknowledges. She is sexy, but not an object. She is alone in a dark, empty indoor flea market, but no one is following or preying on her. She never preens, pouts—hell, she doesn’t even smile.

I have never been sure if this is the kind of sexy that most men want, the self-possessed kind that isn’t catering to the male gaze. Because if it is, why do so many men who are casting directors, choreographers and video directors give us the crawling, writhing, begging, take-me-please other type of sexy?

“The truth’ll set you free, but first it’ll piss you off,” Pharrell says in a voiceover in the opening moment of “Lemon.” Those words could be the mantra for 2017, a year when so many of us are perpetually pissed off, clinging to the notion that these near-daily tales of racist, penis-exposing, misogynist hatemongers are leading to a societal reset. It’s the hope at least, that all of this fuckery is taking us somewhere better. In the meantime, like Towley, we can dance in a way where no one can tell us anything, where we don’t ask permission, where we just keep moving, a fist in the air, our curves both soft and strong.

More of Ayana’s favorites:

TV Show: Tie: "Call My Agent,""Master of None," "Game of Thrones"
Movie: "Roxanne, Roxanne" ("It screened at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival and comes out in 2018.")
Album: "Kiddo," by Jesse Reyez
Song: "River" by Leon Bridges. ("This is an old-ass song, but I discovered it on the "Big Little Lies" soundtrack," which dropped this year and is not old-ass.")
Book: "We Are Never Meeting in Real Life," by Samantha Irby
Podcast: "I’ve never listened to one because, hi, I’m your great-grandmom."
Hashtag: #MeToo
Creator: Michael Larnell, director of "Roxanne, Roxanne"
Meme or Gif: "It’s like you’re speaking another language to me. No part of me is capable of coming up with this."