Beyonce has pushed Rihanna to be the best Rihanna she can be

I tuned into the VMAs last night to see a celebration of the dominant force Black women and Caribbean musicians and musics are having on U.S. culture right now. And even though Beyonce’s Lemonade performance was incredible, I was most struck by Rihanna’s extended performances on the eve of her Vanguard Video Award, and even her speech itself, which vocalized the Caribbeanness of the night–almost every song performed had Caribbean musical influences. As Rihanna said of Barbados upon receiving the award, “When I think about the Vanguard Award and receiving this tonight, all I could think of was my country. They’re gonna be so proud, this is the first Vanguard Award to land anywhere close to my country. My success, it started as my dream. But now, my success, it’s not my own. It’s my family’s, it’s my fans’, it’s my country’s, it’s the Caribbean as a whole, it’s women, it’s Black women.”

Riri’s opening performance (watch here), with its bubblegum pinks and dozens of dancers moving in sync, made me think that the existence of Beyonce has pushed Rihanna to craft more total performances than she was inclined to do earlier in her career. Rihanna never was a dancer like Beyonce is, often choosing to stand or sway, or do small unchoreographed Caribbean dance moves as she sang, but on her ANTI World Tour she appears to have pulled out the choreography stops and pushed herself as a dancer and a performer to something larger, more fully Pop. And in her opening performance last night, Rihanna focused on her dance moves, giving a visual performance that captured the attention of the arena and left the assembled celebrities standing and screaming for her at the end.

But what really blew me away was Rihanna’s performance of “Work” (watch here), set over a dancehall mashup track produced (I think, from the digital signature) by DJ Mustard, in which Rihanna appears with a big white t-shirt pulled over her head, a long black du-rag tied over it. Behind her is a riser stacked with dancers participating in her song, this mob of black and brown partiers inspired, too, by Kanye West’s recent performances with stages packed full with his clique. With last night’s dense human scene Rihanna channels the Jamaican club depicted in the first video for “Work,” but she also, by donning the “masque” of drag, troubles the male gaze she solicits in both of the “Work” videos. Grimacing and leering as she dances, in her VMAs performance of the song Rihanna at times makes herself ugly in a way that Beyonce never does, in a way Beyonce actively fought. In this performance of masculine ugliness as well as hyperfeminine sexiness Rihanna reminds us that she is Caribbean in a way that Beyonce, despite her mastery of Caribbean dance moves, will never be and never wants to be. (Depite the political content of Beyonce’s newer work, her identification with Creole culture may mark the edge of her progressivism.) Beyonce’s playfulness stops at the edge of her beauty.

Rihanna performs “Work” at the 2016 VMAs, image via capitalfm.com

In the space of the VMA awards, where Black labor produces white capital, Rihanna’s performance of “Work” is an embrace of the “Caribbean Carnivalesque,” what Caribbean rhetorician Kevin Browne explains is the emergence of folk energies that inhabit “the liminal spaces between revelry and revolt” (14). Negotiating with the space given her by MTV’s neocolonial representational regime (read up on the history of MTV on this one), Rihanna’s performance of “Work” rejects the male gaze that circumscribed the hypersexualized performances of the evening by Beyonce, Nicki Minaj, Ariana Grande, and Rihanna herself. In the context of an album of ballads that sound like something by Amy Winehouse or Adele (themselves ironically the white inheritors of soul), Rihanna’s “Work”–“You see me I fi work, work, work, work, work”–signifies on the gendered, nationalized emotional labor asked of Rihanna to make herself intelligible as a commodity whose Caribbean exoticism is part of her appeal. By performing this much-mocked song with a t-shirt pulled over her head, Rihanna pushes the limits of her white audience’s illiteracies even as she explodes Caribbean ways of celebrating, performing, and critiquing onto an MTV stage. Thus, on a night that left some pitting Beyonce and Rihanna against each other, Rihanna rose to the bar Beyonce sets for all performers today but also showed us what makes her what Queen B will never be – a rude gyal.

Works Cited in this Post

Avidly’s “On Beyonce’s Face,” 2013.

Black Girl with Long Hair’s “Unaware of Jamaican Patois, Critics Blast Rihanna For Speaking “Gibberish” On Her New Single ‘Work’,” 2016.

Yaba Blay’s “On ‘Jackson Five Nostrils,’ Creole vs. ‘Negro’ and Beefing Over Beyoncé’s ‘Formation’,” Colorlines, 2016.

Kevin Browne’s Tropic Tendencies: Rhetoric, Popular Culture, and the Anglophone Caribbean. Pitt U Press, 2013.

Andy Green’s “Flashback: David Bowie Rips Into MTV for not Spotlighting Black Artists,” Rolling Stone, 2016.

Rihanna, 2016 MTV VMA performances of “Don’t Stop the Music” medley and “Work” medley.

Neetzam Zimmerman’s “Beyoncé’s Publicist Asks Internet to Remove Unflattering Beyoncé Photos; Internet Turns Unflattering Beyoncé Photos Into a Meme,” Gawker, 2013.

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Our S&M Relationship With Rihanna

at last night's Grammys, via popsugar.com

at last night’s Grammys, via popsugar.com

I was so surprised, last December, to read Sasha Frere-Jones’s scathing dismissal of Rihanna’s singing voice. “Rihanna’s voice isn’t big or compelling,” he wrote, “and it works mostly by sounding relaxed and drooping, with a hint of a West Indian accent, a descending twang that sounds a bit like moaning. Her voice has a distancing effect, and it conveys not emotion but, rather, a position of powerful detachment.”

To my ears, Rihanna’s voice is leaded with emotion. When she’s lazy, her stillness reads boredom, but when she’s working, and she was at the Grammy’s last night, all I hear is pain, her voice big and moving but its brilliance dulled by hurt, as though she can’t breathe deep enough or smile wide enough to let her vocals glimmer. She sounds contained, clipped.

Like millions of Americans, I find Rihanna incredibly compelling. In her performance of “Stay,” at the Grammy’s last night, she sings like a woman who means it: she really does want him to stay. We know who she means: Chris Brown. The Grammys producers help us out in this interpretation by cutting to him, clench-jawed in the audience,  whenever Ri performs.

Anne Helen Petersen explains that “[a] star is formed when audiences combine information about the star’s onscreen performances (the type of person she plays on screen…with information about the star’s off-screen life (her romances, her children, and other gossip)…. Each star’s “image” is the result of this alchemy.” Petersen offers examples like Reese Witherspoon and Julia Roberts to illuminate the creation of a star. Rihanna is a severe contrast to those to fun, wholesome white women, because Rihanna is creating an image of herself as a domestic abuse victim. This has been reinscribed most recently by “Stay,” but also very explicitly in her guest vocals on Emimen’s “Love the Way You Lie” and Drake’s “Take Care.” Suddenly, what Frere-Jones sees as “detached” suddenly reads “disassociated.”

The chorus of “Stay” tells of ambivalence trumped by physical desire.

Not really sure how to feel about it

Something in the way you move

Makes me feel like I can’t live without you

It takes me all the way

I want you to stay.

As on Eminem’s track, Rihanna is performing the role of a woman stuck in acycle of a violent love. These lines are all about physicality trumping, and ultimately melding with, emotional truth. A man who can “take me all the way” colors what she wants, not needs: “I want you to stay,” whether or not that’s good for her. “Stay” doesn’t have to allude to violence for us to fill in the blanks. A quick mention of “dare” and “around we go” and we know this is about her addiction to Chris. She loves him even though he’s bad for her.

On “Take Care,” Drake promises to “take care” of a girl with some baggage. No one mentions domestic abuse, but again, we read it in. Eminem’s “Love the Way You Lie” is more explicit, with talk of burning and hurting. Again and again, Rihanna reifies our image of her as a woman pulled into abusive relationships, needing to be saved. And we keep watching, because the Rihanna in pain is increasingly the Rihanna we know and love.

In her performance of “Stay” on SNL, emotions move across Rihanna’s mannequin face in suggestions: the suggestion of fear, of anger, of lust. Her vowels are closed off and her lips are full and red. As a viewer invested in Rihanna’s image, I get the sense that summoning this genuine pain from inside herself, which I do hear playing across the timber of her voice, takes whatever energy another performer might devote to reaching the audience. But instead of complaining that she doesn’t dance enough, we should shut up and feel lucky to get to watch this sexy, masochistic performance. We’re perverts, voyeurs, watching this beautiful woman squirm.

By comparison, Rihanna’s Grammys performance last night was more emotional. She seemed to have a hard time looking at the audience, where Chris Brown sat waiting to be shown on camera. When she sang, “All along it was a fever,” she looked sick, in pain, and we knew it was for him.  “I put my hands in the air, and said, ‘Show me something.'” This is a woman dying for the thrill of experience, and we’re living vicariously, buying into every flinch.  We want her to want it. We want her to fall. We are the sadists to Rihanna’s masochist. When she mimes her lover’s words, scrunching her perfect nose in pain, “If you dare, come a little closer,” she could be speaking to us.

Someone behind Rihanna, maybe herself, is very smart, and very sick. Who keeps picking these autobiographical songs for her to sing? Who keeps her recording with and appearing with Chris Brown? Is this really love, or a brilliant publicist who understands how stars work, and that as consumers of Rihanna we want to see her struggle and lose?

At the end of his article, Frere-Jones wonders whether “appreciating Rihanna’s work may demand that we accept the idea that her disregard of herself is a source of freedom, or of power.” Frere-Jones’s “power,” I think, refers to some kind of feminine self-assurance, that is, empowerment. He is wondering whether Rihanna’s blasé, as a kind of self-expression of her own boredom, represents empowerment in the same way that Beyonce’s self-objectification as Stripper Queen of the Superbowl does. I don’t know whether Rihanna’s ennui means she’s empowered to not give a shit or whether, as her handlers might have us believe, she’s seriously hurting. But her inaccesibility is certainly central to her star power, because her stillness leaves blanks we color in with pain. Someone is inventing Rihanna as a tragic woman, the kind of sad sex kitten Marilyn Monroe turned into when the light was wrong. Rihanna’s songs are for us, and about us, about this fucked up relationship we’ve found ourselves in with her. “Just gonna stand there and watch me burn?” she asks us, then answers herself, “That’s all right, because I like the way it hurts.” Rihanna’s not the only one who loves her pain: we do, too. We’re watching every moan. Rihanna wants us to stay, and we will.

Rap, School, and Weed in varying degrees of awesomeness

This video and song are so bad I wasn’t sure whether to post them but I felt compelled given the whole “looking for school in rap” function of this blog.

Snoop Dogg & Wiz Khalifa – “Let’s Go Study” | Watch Hip Hop Music Videos & New Rap Videos | HipHop DX.

However, as retribution for that I’ll also give you the cover art for Rihanna’s new song “Diamonds” (also not the best song ever, but better than that weak joint above), about which all I have to say is that it’s fucking awesome.

As for the song itself, it has a little bit of Phil Collins going on in the instrumentation, a little Nicki Minaj in the hook, and a little American Idol in RiRi’s stretchy vowels. Still love her though, duh. But if you’re gonna listen to a Rihanna song it should probably be “Rude Boy.” Speaking of which, did you ever read that article about Ester Dean?

And if you’re actually going to care about a Rihanna video, it should obviously be “Man Down.”