There’s a lot of debate among purist about what constitutes a real Rock Star™. Is it constituted by what kind of music they play, what they look like, how they live? By the narrowest measure, rock stars have traditionally been white men with electric guitars. By most measures, the rock stars are the ones who rock, on stage and in life. Famously, it helps to be tragic and dead, or so burned out as to be barely alive. You also have to be larger-than-life and worshiped as a God. Whether or not rock stardom requires playing rock music is the biggest question. What does it take to be included in the pantheon of rock stars? I motion to posthumously include people who lived before rock music was invented, such as Edith Piaf and Billie Holiday, just because their lives were hella hardcore. I would also dearly love to exclude Madonna, who’s managed to make a career on literally nothing except sexual charisma. (Which is its own bizarre talent, I suppose.) What about Billy Joel, who is as squishy-soft musically as he is around the middle? Not a rock star, in my book. What about Bad Religion’s Greg Graffin, who plays undeniably hard-rocking music and teaches paleontology when he’s not on tour? That’s either rock star as fuck or not rock star at all. Or what about the fact that some of the best music of the past two decades was made by guys who’ve never been seen without their robot masks? Are they rock stars? It’s a mixed-up, fucked-up world out there, and the old rules about who gets to be a rock god no longer apply. The old rock gods are ascending back to Mars and/or Valhalla even faster than the polar bears and black rhinos, and it looks like the stage belongs to rappers, pop divas and guys in robot masks. So, having taken all that into consideration…if Rihanna says she’s a rock star, damn straight, she’s a fucking rock star.
Rihanna, EDM queen. Frankly, it’s a pretty generic EDM song; with any other vocalist on duty, you couldn’t pick it out of a playlist. But it’s Rihanna, and when she says we’d better live up while we still have time, she sounds like she means it. That’s a generic-as-fuck platitude, designed to get you bellied-up to the bar for shots, all primed and ready to get out there and make some bad decisions. But, again, it’s Rihanna, and she makes bad-decision-making behavior look like good-decision-making. And face it, you’re never gonna be this young again, so get the fuck out there and do something stupid.
Well, this is about the polar opposite of my own life, but I’m glad that Rihanna and Nicki are both getting some. Obviously, the level of bad-bitch-ness that Rih and Nicki Minaj are at is an unattainable ideal, especially for those of us who spend most of our time indoors with our cats. But there’s a little bit of a bad bitch inside of all of us, and we need to remember that when we’re feeling like useless blobs of angst. The musical stylings of Rihanna don’t get a lot of credit for having deep cultural or spiritual impact, and hey, they’re not really there for that. But Bad Gal RiRi is there to remind us that we should be having fun and being fabulous and there’s billions of fish in the sea, just in case anyone cares about fish. Don’t ever misunderestimate how fucking empowering it feels to be fabulous and get in front of the lights and cut loose.
Are you ready for some very NSFW stripper exploits with your girl Rihanna? After you fap to the video, we can have a debate about the delicate intersection of sexual exploitation, body politics, and artistic liberty. In a word, Rihanna has produced a strip club anthem for the ages, and she doesn’t hold back on the imagery. People of delicate sensibilities may find this offensive. Some may want to slut-shame the singer for exposing herself in this way. Some may hold it up as a gross example of the overall pornificiation of popular culture and its seemingly unbreakable habit of dehumanizing women. Those are all valid arguments; we have indeed reached a saturation point where the aesthetics of pornography permeate the mainstream, and it’s mostly geared to the gratification of the male gaze, at the expense of female performers; and some of the worst examples of exploitation and objectification occur at the upper echelons of pop music. All of which, I’m sure Rihanna is well aware of. She’s a performer whose success allows her control over her image, and it’s unlikely that anyone tells her how to present herself. That she’s chosen to show herself as, in the words of pearl-clutchers, ‘little better than a common pole dancer’ is a self aware move, and a show of solidarity. Being a pop star isn’t all that different from being a stripper; it may be degrading or empowering, depending on what you make of it, but all it comes down to people throwing money at you in return for a fantasy. Another point, too often ignored in these debates, is that for women of color, there are not that many avenues towards the good life, and they often find themselves making choices that white women don’t have to. Strip club culture is in many ways black culture, just as criminal culture is intertwined with black culture, as a necessity and a result of outsider status. For many dancers, a few hours of getting naked is worth going home with a few thousand dollars cash, and separating yuppie douchebags from money earned sitting down is its own kind of empowerment. It’s merely turning to your advantage all of the forces that are supposed to be working against you, it’s rising up when you’re supposed to be kept down.
The lesson of Rihanna’s song may be that though critics have often dismissed her and shamed her for being provocative, she is not ashamed. No, when you compare her to a stripper, she is proud.
A little while back, I took us on a trip down memory lane to Rihanna’s very first single. It was a catchy, fun, fairly generic pop song, set apart only by the burgeoning charisma of its singer. Flash forward a decade. The singer is now one of the biggest pop stars in the world. The music is no longer generic pop. Up until recently the idea of loving a Rihanna album was hard to imagine; one loved Rihanna songs, yes, but there wasn’t really such a thing as a Rihanna album. A Rihanna album was a collection of Rihanna singles. However, Rihanna’s last album, Anti, is an album in the classic sense of the word – a unified statement not powered by hit singles. It still has elements of pop, but now there’s more interesting things at play; trip-hop, house, R’n’B, d’n’b, edm, etc. Rihanna executive produced the record and cowrote most of the songs, and all that creative control clearly shows that dancing in the sunshine was never her vision of herself.
Flashback to 2005, y’all! It’s pretty much a given that whatever’s at the top of the music charts at any given time is pretty much crap that will be forgotten within weeks. It’s been that way since time immemorial. When a young artist tops the charts with their debut single, you expect them to also be forgotten within weeks. But every once in a while that young artist with the catchy single develops into a real keeper. When Rihanna had this, her first hit, there wasn’t much to put her ahead of all the other pretty girls with promising singles, but she soon established herself as pop music’s resident bad girl. It was her rock solid judgement in picking hit singles, her give-no-fucks attitude, her unapologetic glamour, her turbulent personal life and her honesty about it – all the things that make a great pop star, all in one loud package. More than a decade later, she’s not only still at the top of her game, she’s actually growing out of the gilded pop star box and edging towards becoming an artist with vision. The distinction between pop star and visionary artist is kind of a false dichotomy anyway; plenty of successful pop stars have vision. It’s a vision of themselves being successful pop stars. But there’s definitely a difference between those who are content to sing and dance and make money, and those who see themselves as cultural figures with something to say. Rihanna has been evolving slowly from the former to the latter, and if she never arrives at ‘serious artist’ acclaim, it won’t be because she couldn’t transcend the tropes of ‘stupid pop star’.
Let’s take a break from the arty and obscure and just enjoy a shot of pure, uncomplicated pop. Yep, simple and uncomplicated with no problematic baggage to unpack or intricate social context to parse- Oh wait! Never mind, this is Rihanna. No pop star in her echelon has more contextual baggage. If you want to ask why I would be a fan of Rihanna, one of the queens of the corporate pop machine, the short answer would be, she’s so damn good at being a pop star. She can dance in a negligee and deliver a mindless song like she really believes in it. She’s great at being glamorous. She’s an unrepentant ‘bad girl’ with very little interest in maintaining a ‘likable’ reputation. And as for the heavy baggage of being a woman of color in the stereotype-driven pop world, of having her difficult personal past made into another item of public consumption, of trying to have a creative voice and control her image in an industry that gives its biggest names the least amount of freedom? She carries it all with remarkable grace. I call it the grace of having no fucks left to give. She’s damn good at what she does, she’s not ashamed to profit from the industry that profits from her, she’s not afraid to reclaim images of black womanhood that ‘cleaner’ stars would shy away from as too loaded, and she will not be a part of anyone’s cheap victim narrative.