Saturday, January 25, 2014

Bad Girl, Gone Good

There was a time when every new worldwide pop star would not just face the spotlight of the media, but also the forensic interest of the cultural intelligentsia; feminist academics and middle-aged male novelists used to fight it out for interviews with Madonna in her heyday.

Perhaps we should be glad the entertainment business has gone back into one giant P.R. exercise, but on the other hand we might be missing something, and the broadsheets, though always happy to pepper their magazines and front pages with photographs of pop and film stars, aren't that likely to get anywhere near the over-represented stars of the 21st century. Only when there's a very public breakdown, Britney Spears or Justin Beiber style, do things move to the commentariat pages.

So, that brings us to Rihanna, and having listened to her constantly for the last couple of days, I'm somewhat surprised how the Number One Liked Person on Facebook, and the person with the 4th highest amount of U.S. number one hits in history has been both ubiquitous and uncommented on. Its true that though there are Rihanna songs that they could sing in the more obscure places on the planet its doubtful whether more than a couple have risen above the pop cultural currency worth of the contemporary R&B singer. In this, its easy to dismiss Rihanna as simply the most successful of the producer's age-old need for a malleable voice. Yet there's something about Rihanna that seems to be missing from such pen portraits - and probably explains why she has been able to sell a phenomenal number of "downloads", collaborate with everyone from Jay-Z to Coldplay, and even finesse the latter into an appearance of the otherwise-Brit dominated Olympic closing ceremony.

In less than a decade, and at the still tender age of 25, Rihanna has gone from being an unknown amateur singer from Barbados to probably the 21st century's most consistent megastar. A well-handled career, a badly handly-personal life, a mesmeric, but somehow fluid beauty, a good, but by no means unique voice, and a canny choice of songs and collaborators have combined to make Rihanna perhaps the embodiment of 21st century celebrity. Unlike Beyonce or Britney Spears, who emerged from the collective endeavours of Destiny's Child and the Disney Club, and unlike Lady Gaga who appeared fully-formed as "the Fame Monster", Rihanna's success has been gradual. Her first couple of albums were relatively minor R&B records; she could have easily been another Brandy or Monica, a hit or two then diminishing returns. The song that took her to another level, the auto-tuned "Umbrella" is neither her best song, nor that indicative or her style. Her best records are often derivative in some way (Tainted Love quoting "SOS", the Pink-ish "Shut Up and Drive", Aguilera-style ballad "Unfaithful") or collaborations where she can be seen as the minor part (to Coldplay, Eminem or Calvin Harris) yet throughout this her voice and image provide a formidable counterpoint to what surrounds her. Perhaps this is Diana Ross remade for the 21st century, where it is the celebrity producer or rapper-collaborator rather than the girl group and Holland-Dozier-Holland that matters. Yet if anything, the sense of Rihanna the "artist" have reduced rather than increased as each album has been released, so that on 2013's "The Monster", a song where she is featured artist with Eminem, she is reduced to the role of a compelling sample, like the Dido song "Thank You" on his mega-hit "Stan."

Rihanna's success is also fascinating given that she is from Barbados, an island whose previous musical fame was the Typically Tropical carnival song "Barbados." Part of the Commonwealth, Barbados is musically lighter than Jamaica, though soca and calypso are not dissimilar to some of the more partying forms of Jamaican reggae. This lilt is very present on Rihanna's first two albums, though her initial breakthrough hit "Pon da Replay" is a more modern dance party anthem. As her career has progressed, there's been less of these traditional rhythms in her work, yet her voice still has an individuality to it, even when singing standard pop rock ballads like "Take a bow" or house bangers like "We Found Love," which makes her able to take these somewhat generic numbers and make them her own. Though collaborators like Eminem, Coldplay, Calvin Harris and Drake may be drawn to Rihanna as a useful, all-purpose foil, a pretty human sample with her own fan base, what she brings to even these collaborations is a purpose and individuality that makes them as much her song as theres. Most surprising perhaps was the collaboration with Coldplay, for contemporary R&B and the slightly staid, maudlin stadium anthems of Coldplay might seem a million miles away; but as probably the only non-niche rock superstars of the 21st century, Coldplay should be praised for not entirely giving up on the idea that a rock band can make the charts. In that sense their co-opting of Rihanna to be their "Princess of China", a song that either has no choruses, or three different ones depending on your point of view, was one of the highlights of both their careers. Again, she makes the song her own - being a very believable princess, as her appearance at the Olympics showed - but also provides Coldplay not just with a contemporary R&B edge, but forcing them to up their game a little.

One can go back to Madonna for the archetype of the female solo artist sustaining a pop career over the decades. Madonna has frequently collaborated with other producers and writers, but has always been very much in control of her image. In the mid-80s she successfully broadened her sound to include Motown ("True Blue"), latin ("La Isla Bonita") and even rock balladry ("Crazy for You") but despite this she never lost sight of the dancefloor - finding her most successful later albums with cutting edge dance DJs. Yet though Madonna remains a formidable model, its not one that is entirely viable in the 21st century. Madonna never veered off into a new direction such as rock, or easy listening, aware that part of her appeal was always going to be as a club artist. Rihanna hasn't had that advantage: she's not necessarily an R&B artist; despite being signed to Def Jam, being in a relationship with the abusive Chris Brown, and recording with rappers like Jay Z and Eminem. Her output has been far more pop, but also refreshingly diverse. Whereas Lady Gaga's career seems to have already faltered on the narrowness of her musical template, despite the many costume changes, Rihanna's albums (none of which has sold over 5 million copies, and which rarely stray beyond 50 minutes), are pop smorgasbords, peppered with anything up to six or seven hit singles, but rarely coherent works - with the list of collaborators representing a who's who of contemporary production. Not for her the producer-muse of Kelis and the Neptunes for instance. The Caribbean influence on both her voice and lyrics remains one of the things that makes her albums a cut above some other R&B records, and lesser known tracks like party song "Cheers" from "Loud" are better than forgettable ballads like "Take a Bow".

What we see is an artist for iPod and download, and like those artists of the fifties and sixties, very aware that careers can be short, and that fans are potentially fickle. From "Pon de Replay" to "Diamonds" in 2012, Rihanna has rarely been away from the charts, often competing with herself in an array of "featured artist" roles. Of her albums, the EBM focussed "Talk that Talk" and breakthrough record "Good Girl Gone Bad" (especially in the reloaded version which adds hits "Disturbia" and "Take a Bow") are perhaps her best, though "Loud" seems her most consistently strange record. Listening to her collected works, the artist she most brings to mind is ABBA, whose albums were littered with great songs, many of which were released as singles, often in a myriad of styles (rock on "Does your Mother know?", latin on "Chiquitta" for instance), and the albums - released in quick succession as was the seventies way (and which Rihanna, almost unique among major contemporary artists has been doing since 2005) are less style changes, and more little concept pieces in their own right.

At the age of 25, with one trauma hopefully behind her - the highly public domestic abuse by her ex-partner Chris Brown -Rihanna's continuing success is remarkable. She remains an artist beloved of her fan base, and appealing to a much wider audience. (I mentioned on Facebook that I was putting together a compilation, and was surprised who wanted to hear a copy.) The modern record industry has re-perfected the Brill building mix that dominated music before the Beatles, with the additional understanding that artists need to contribute ideas and lyrics to the mix these days. The model for Rihanna's continuing success is surely predicated on the charts worldwide not having any major format or style change - this is a music of reactionary times, not revolutionary ones. At home collaborating with the new hipster and the street hustler, Rihanna could seem to be a cynical concoction, but compared with the over-ambitious and underwhelming Kate Perry for instance, or with ideas-starved pop bands like Maroon 5 and fun, or the ever-reducing circles of contemporary R&B, this Barbadian singer remains one of the iconic artists of the age. She brings cool to Coldplay, empathy to Eminem, and softens the hard edges of Jay Z. With a new album due in 2014 and further collaborations no doubt coming along in its wake, I'd not bet her against her just yet. Eight albums in, you feel her big album will be one entitled "Greatest Hits", though she already has enough to fill one of those two or three times over.

No comments: