Opening nights of massive pop-spectacle tours can be dicey endeavors. The variables can seem endless, the opportunities for things to go wrong – cues to be missed, wardrobes to malfunction, risers to fail descending on cue – all but infinite.
Rihanna, the marquee pop princess of the moment, an analog in 2013 of what Lady Gaga was in terms of public obsession in 2011, kicked off her “Diamonds” tour at First Niagara Center on Friday evening. Aside from the star taking the stage an hour later than her scheduled time, this “open dress rehearsal” went off without a hitch.
The rabid, capacity crowd certainly helped, as did the fact that Rihanna and her entourage had been in Buffalo for most of the week prior to Friday’s show, rehearsing the ins and outs of the massive production repeatedly – reportedly, right up until the moment the gates were opened and the fans swarmed the arena on Friday.
This clockwork precision was essential to the show’s success, certainly, for what Rihanna is selling to her fans is, much more than music, the idea of glamour, an assumed exotic and clearly jet-setting lifestyle, and perhaps most prominently, sex.
All of Friday’s impressive choreography conspired to cast the star as her generation’s version of Marilyn Monroe, a Hollywood starlet for the social media age. So the songs, and the mostly bump-and-grind-based choreography that accompanied them, presented an attitude of narcissistic sexual obsession that even a second-year psychology student could have a field day with. None of this happened in an organic fashion – it was clear that Rihanna, her eight dancers, twin background singers, and four-piece band all needed to hit their marks exactly for it to work. On Friday, they did so.
Simulated masturbation moves and incessant pelvic thrusts aside, there was the music itself. Rihanna has managed to find a middle ground between contemporary hip-hop, classic pop, electronic dance music, and watered-down reggae and dancehall sounds. In a pop music world that is traditionally far from daring in its musical construction, the confluence of these myriad influences lends an air of eclecticism to Rihanna’s music. In short, her stuff is kinda weird – though she does favor the big pop chorus, many of her tunes on Friday seemed to meander somewhat listlessly toward some nonspecified goal. The multitiered stage, levitating circular lighting rig, and nonstop choreography either distracted from the somewhat directionless amalgamation of musical stylings, or simply added to the power of the songs, depending on one’s personal tastes.
Rihanna took to the stage clad in a black robe, black curtains falling on cue to reveal her kneeling on a pillow, with vaguely religious symbolism redolent of Madonna circa “Like A Prayer.” The robe didn’t last long – nor did the pillow, which in a hilarious Spinal Tap-ish moment, was reeled off the stage via a piece of fishing line by a roadie who spent the rest of the set hovering in the pit with a water bottle, attempting to anticipate when his boss might need a drink.
“Phresh Out the Runway” erupted into a skull-rattling sub-bass cacophony that would last for the rest of the set, at first obfuscating the groove, but later – and kudos to the soundman for this – finding its prominent but proper place in the mix.
Having sufficiently grabbed the attention of the full house, which offered unison screams that were at times almost as deafening as the synthetic bass booms, Rihanna then got down to business with the first of several songs celebrating sexuality in various forms.
“Birthday Cake” offered a thinly veiled metaphor, but more importantly, a relentless, sensuous groove that had the assembled dancing in the aisles. “Talk That Talk” found Rihanna acting as coquette, while “Pour It Up” owed more to strip club pole-dancing than to more traditional modes of choreographed dance, its bawdy beat pulsating in a sort of electro-burlesque.
The multi-act show – each act denoted by the lowering of risers holding band members and the temporary disappearance of Rihanna, who would then commence the next act in a new, but similarly skimpy, outfit – concentrated on material from the recent “Unapologetic” album. There were some cool additions to the program, however – a take on Eminem’s “Love the Way You Lie,” for example, which showed up to open act 4 – and they abetted the forward momentum of the set.
Somewhat incongruously, Rihanna’s primary on-stage foil, aside from her troop of dancers, was guitarist Nuno Bettencourt, formerly of power-pop/metal band Extreme and, more recently, Perry Farrell’s Satellite Dance Party.
Bettencourt is a flashy virtuoso, but he was kept on a short leash here, taking only a few scripted solo spotlights, the most impressive of which came during “Numb.” Bettencourt was joined by a keyboardist, a bassist who doubled on synth-bass, and a drummer who split his time between a number of impressive drum kits, all of which featured electronic triggers that buried any potential acoustic nuances beneath the uniformity of techno. So this was a live band, yes, but it was sometimes hard to tell as much, particularly when one factored in the liberal use of vocal harmonizers and samples, which routinely made Rihanna’s voice sound like the work of four or more singers.
The music felt synthetic and boasted a plasticity that made it difficult to embrace, but it was incredibly easy to dance to and sing along with. Which was exactly the point.
Though Rihanna showed up an hour late, she didn’t cut the show short, performing for nigh on 120 minutes, with the expected final encore of “Diamonds” providing an emotional high point for the assembled, who sang along with an emotional investment that appeared genuine.
A very strong show, then, and one which presented Rihanna as a confident and fully in-control performer. What was the message behind it all?
In truth, it’s probably not worth pondering. A graduate thesis could be written on the conflicting sexual semaphores in Rihanna’s songs, and the effect they may or may not be having on her audience, which appears to be comprised more of worshippers than of mere fans. But this is pop music made to dance to, after all. It conjures a world that values the body over the mind, and sees no conflict in doing so. And in this world, as Friday’s show made plain, Rihanna is Queen.