Admittedly, I haven’t always believed in the political power of Rihanna. That might be partially due to my inability to think philosophically while a preteen who was forced to run laps in gym class to “Pon De Replay,” and who went through awkward lessons in dancehall etiquette to “Umbrella” in my middle school’s cafeteria, and by that I mean my first introduction to what my peers called ‘dancing,’ which in reality was just grinding your ass into some dweebish 12-year-old boy’s lap under a strobe light that someone’s mom rented, while wearing an unfittingly preppy, mall-branded polo. Even then, and at each school dance until my senior prom, I knew that my generations’ moral standing was set to spiral downward until we all faced our inevitable deaths by teen pregnancy.
Consequently, my relationship with Rihanna’s music tapered off, and at no loss to her as she continually released albums full of dancey, earworm pop hits as none other than Rihanna, The Great Pop Star. And while not being particularly devoted to her for that span of her music-making career, I can skim through her discography and confidently recite the lyrics to about 80 percent of her songs, which is a sign of some blurry years of involuntary pop-radio-tuning hypnosis. What I do recall about growing up in the dawn of Rihanna as a musical icon is her being all-in in her versatility, never seeming fully committed to any particular style or stage presence, always just cranking out music in a way that seemed more formulaic than driven by some greater purpose.
It wasn’t until 2015 that Rihanna truly struck me, seeming unfiltered as ever with songs like “FourFiveSeconds,” and “Bitch Better Have My Money,” where the focus was much less about dancing or having a broken heart, and much more about standing up with womanly power in a male-dominated industry like the music business. I’d like to think that the entire audience at Wells Fargo who sang along with Rihanna last night about getting the payout she deserves or otherwise threatening her debtor with high-caliber firearms, can simply get down with the ethos of a black woman who feels undervalued in the music industry, even for as popular as she is, and for long as she’s been at the forefront the business.
Still, there was plenty of room for the indulgence last night at the Wells Fargo Center, where the show began with Rihanna rising to a platform at the back of the venue, and fully cloaked in some white, spacey robe, making her way towards the front stage while being transported on a hovering bridge, untouchable above the swooning audience, whose cell phone lights formed a twinkling curtain around the stadium. All of this was done, of course, while singing “Sex With Me,” which is a song that basically boils down to the message that every male rapper routinely delivers, but means so much more coming from a young woman standing alone with the world at her fingertips. I can’t think of anyone in a better position to sell this message than someone with as much fame as Rihanna.
The rest of the show maintained the same massive pop star level of dazzling production. Rarely seeing a song through from start to finish, the set pulled largely from her new album ANTI, as well as a blend of a huge portion of her hit songs from her expanded “Umbrella-ella-eh-eh-eh” discography, with a change in the stage set-up for about every four songs. I’d be hard pressed to find anyone complaining about Rihanna’s onstage crew of scantily-clad body contortionists and glitter-suited dancers. Honestly, though, I could’ve done without the dudes who went from breakdancing to sync-playing guitar in Rihanna’s semi-live band.
The larger-than-life stage set — the backdrop that served as a projection screen for psychedelic swirls of color, the endless waterfall of bubbles cascading from a foam machine, and the onstage elevator that would lift Rihanna out of sight for outfit changes—were all fitting. But what mattered more than all of that was seeing, at the forefront of it all, Rihanna, smiling while effortlessly leading the show with her signature raw, mezzo-soprano vocals, never failing to miss a dance step or a flip of her hair, all in the midst of building a legacy of empowerment for women in pop to follow. On the subway home, I realized that I was riding with a bunch of solo concertgoers, made up like a bunch of Rihanna lookalikes—decked out in pristine makeup, puffy fur coats and all kinds of bling. I took it as a sign that however subtle the societal changes might seem, Rihanna’s politics are already winning. — MARY LYNN DOMINGUEZ