So Rihanna is coming to town Friday, and I’ve known for weeks I’d have to write a big feature story. Since she doesn’t seem to do interviews with anyone who isn’t Rolling Stone, I wondered if our readers might offer their take on the current Princess of Pop.
It seemed appropriate to employ social media in my quest for Western New York’s interpretation of the Barbados-born bad girl of contemporary hip-hop and pop. Rihanna’s tweets have been endlessly entertaining, or endlessly revolting, depending on whom you ask. At the very least, they’ve certainly been endless.
When the renowned feminist scribe Camille Paglia penned a piece for the Sunday Times of London in which she compared the singer to Princess Diana – due to “her ravishingly seductive flirtation” with the media – Ri Ri, as her fans call her, immediately got busy with her tweeting thumbs: “Just so happens I came home drunk to this in a pile of papers outside my hotel room! My lil Bajan behind, never thought these many people would even know my name, now it’s next to Princess Diana’s on the front of the newspaper! Life can be such a beautiful thing when you let it be #yourejealous.”
It’s difficult to imagine Rihanna becoming half as big as she is – Rolling Stone recently reported that her “Unapologetic” album was one of the few to receive a sales bump following the recent Grammy Awards, and the album already had sold in the area of 2.5 million copies prior to the Grammys – in a pre-social media world. As Paglia’s piece suggests, this is a woman who knows how to manipulate her image through every available avenue.
So, off to social media land, where I compiled a list of questions for the Rihanna-savvy and the mildly curious alike, offering a few guidelines – something more thoughtful than “She sucks, and she can’t sing in tune,” or “OMG, she is soooo awesome, even better than Ke$ha!” would be nice, I suggested – and listing a few topics of discussion.
Where does she fit into the pop pantheon, if she indeed does? Is she all hype, or pure talent, or somewhere in between? And does she have the responsibility to be a role model for the millions of young people who made her rich, re: the whole Chris Brown thing?
The response was overwhelming, with letters and posts numbering in the hundreds. (The majority of them came from folks involved in Buffalo culture and the arts – musicians, visual artists, actors, photographers and the like.) And the portrait of Rihanna that emerged from these Buffalonian ruminations is interesting but also a little bit troubling. At the core of arguments for and against Rihanna’s pop supremacy is a complex debate on the issue of responsibility. Should Rihanna feel any toward her audience, which is made up largely of young women? Beneath that question lurks another: Is a public figure’s personal business – particularly one who has so obviously sought the revealing spotlight of massive fame – ever really personal?
Or is a pop star merely that – an entertainer, whose only responsibility is to put on a good show and throw out a few memorable ditties for the folks who are laying down their cash, hard-earned or otherwise?
Let’s turn the microphone over to our readers.
“I loved one of Rihanna’s first singles ‘If It’s Lovin’ That You Want,’ an infectious piece of reggae and pop. Being from the islands, I thought she might take the reggae direction, but because of how she looked, they marketed her looks and music to fit the American female superstar stereotype, and of course, her music evolved into a mediocre pop, hip-hop style. A very pretty girl, she started her career at 16 and working ever since, she has grown up in the entertainment hip-hop circles and started to hang around with Chris Brown, another young R&B hip-hop singer who grew up in the business. The problem is that they are young and immature, prefabricated by the music machine and are not evolving as serious artists. As for talent, she has a flat monotone singing style that is mediocre at best – she is not a powerful singer. Her music is highly produced and the producers should get credit for that. Rihanna is not really a singer, she is an entertainer, now more known for her exploits than her music.”
– Dan Page
“Maybe you should partly consider what changes the public has placed in what qualifies a singer/entertainer to gain entrance to the pop pantheon. Would Elvis qualify now? Barbra Streisand? Frank Sinatra? Judy Garland? Madonna?”
– Kevin J. Hosey
“I’ve seen her live and her presence and talent are to be admired. Seriously.”
– Matthew Pike
“For me, music is either invocative or evocative. I feel something, experience something, remember something. Not so with Rihanna. It’s hard to judge her music, because I can never find anything to hold on to in it. I’ve never heard anyone say, ‘I remember this amazing snack I had 10 years ago ...’ – that’s the way it is for me with Rihanna’s music. I can remember listening but I can’t feel anything about it. I don’t just mean that her music is overproduced (although it is) because I like a lot of overproduced stuff. Formulaic is also the wrong word. I think her music is so calculated and designed (expected?) to cause a very targeted response that it’s lost any truly human element. Her music is like air – you’re only really aware of it when you concentrate hard enough to sense it.”
– Mark Felski
“ ‘Umbrella’ is funky! But if you add a piano, it’s [Alicia Keys’] ‘Empire State of Mind.’ She represents a culture that, after she got beat down by Chris Brown, some little girls actually said, ‘She probably deserved it.’ It’s clearly not about talent. She has none. She’s got mesmerizing eyes and a great body, and that, combined with her never-ending carousel of really stupid decisions, makes her a pop prostitute capable of earning her major record label pimps all kinds of money. At least when Madonna slept her way to the top she owned it. And now she owns them.”
– Eric Tyrone Crittenden
“Just write about her guitarist, Nuno Bettencourt, instead.”
– Thomas S. Orwat Jr.
“She has her place with the younger generations. I do think she has a nice voice, even if she wouldn’t be my first choice of female artist to listen to. I lean heavily toward strong, soulful-voiced women like Etta James, Bettye LaVette, Janis Joplin. I’m sure her show at FNC will be something her fans will enjoy. There is always room for different genres, and not everyone will share the same musical tastes. But if she makes her fans happy, I guess that is all that matters. My daughter is going, and I’ll smile and tell her to have a great time. Just like my Mom did, when I was going off to see Black Sabbath! LOL”
– Peaches WNY
“I think her smoking on the video of ‘Diamonds’ is an even worse message to send young girls. The issue of abuse is serious, but it also opens the conversation about ending such things. I don’t think her voice stands out, certainly not like Adele or Norah Jones or even Alicia Keys. Whatever happened to singers like Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan? Even the Supremes. People who would really rock the emotions with no need for artifice?”
– Kilissa Cissoko
“Rihanna is beautiful, stylish and has a great voice – what woman of any age wouldn’t want to be her? Therefore, of course she is a huge role-model to young girls. Currently, it’s all over the media that she is ‘sitting behind’ Chris Brown and his legal team during the assault case. Rihanna needs to realize what message she is sending to young girls who look up to her. Are adolescents learning that it’s the norm to have your boyfriend beat you, or that women don’t have equal roles in relationships? She has to recognize her star power, because she has responsibilities. Young girls look up to her and will try to imitate her. It is disappointing to watch her stand by her abuser and saddening that she hasn’t empowered herself to recognize that she doesn’t need to stay with him. Rihanna needs to ‘shine bright like a diamond,’ as her song says, and ditch the dud.”
– Jessica Granchelli and Jenn McCabe
“I consider myself to be a musicologist, and I like her. My concern with Ri Ri is her inability to break things off with Chris Brown. And yes, she does have a responsibility where that is concerned, to worry about the message she is putting out there to young girls who look up to her. Brown has made it abundantly clear that he is incapable of controlling his anger, and it doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon. I also think she will be around for a long time. She’s already been around for a good while. She has some good solid hits out there, and now the new one, ‘Stay’ is another. Her range isn’t great, but it doesn’t need to be. She isn’t trying to be Mariah Carey.”
– Jo Pfetsch
“She always comes out with a hit song. She’s not a dancer or performer like Madonna. She has her songs played all over the world. Her songs are played over and over on the radio. ‘Diamond’ especially. I think her live performance on Jimmy Kimmel was such a moving performance. [It gave me] goose bumps. She’s always trending, designers love her. Young kids love to be like her. The Chris Brown thing is personal, and it should be left alone. Let’s not make her Mother Teresa. She makes cool songs that make you want to sing them.”
– Cheryl Gorski
“I’ve ‘watched’ her for a while, I’ve seen her on a lot of awards shows over the years, etc. She seemed in the beginning, and maybe still is to a degree, willing to do collaborations with anyone and everyone, which I think raised her profile considerably. It would seem she has good handlers in her corner who have pushed her career along. I am sure her home nation of Barbados is quite proud of her success – the island connection probably got her on the Bob Marley tribute at this year’s Grammys. But she has fashioned herself/been fashioned into quite a pop icon – hottest woman of the year awards and all. I happen to like some of what she does. I find her singing credible and vulnerable at times.
– Rich Hendricks
“I think she’s got a good voice, but not great one. She definitely has enough talent to be considered to be a pop star, but how much talent does such a distinction really require? She has been a big name for over five years, which is a lot longer than many people (myself included) thought she would last on the national scene. I have a lot of respect for Jay-Z and it says a lot that he has been behind her, but I don’t think that her music will hold up over the long term. I don’t think she transcends being just a ‘Top 40’ artist. As for the role model side of things, I think the Chris Brown situation sends a lousy message to her female fans, but that’s not her responsibility. Her personal life and personal choices, regardless of how flawed they may be, are just that – personal. Any parent that blames a pop star for his/her child’s actions is not much of a parent.”
– Scott Celani
“Being a singer myself, I think she’s a fair singer who is the perfect pop creation. She’s beautiful, has ‘the body’ and model-like features. But unfortunately, she’s human after all, as the whole Chris Brown fiasco [makes clear], and that’s what bothers me. She appears to be perfect in every way, and then lets this man abuse her and forgives him. It sends a horrible message to women and girls, and I do somewhat blame the industry, who really created her image in the first place. And the record company doesn’t care – they ‘let’ her sing on Chris Brown’s album, almost condoning what he did to her, in a way. I really do think artists have a responsibility to the younger audience, but I wonder how much responsibility should go to the ‘image makers’ that created her? And of course, she went along for the ride. As an artist myself, I struggle with that notion of how private should our private lives be, but then I see another woman forgive someone for abuse, and put themselves right back in that cycle.”
– Lorraine O’Donnell
“Rihanna is a good performer, a decent voice, her personal life is her biznezz.”
– Cynthia Morgan