In concert: Rihanna at Jiffy Lube Live
By Chris Richards
Rihanna’s boldest hits have always straddled the invisible lines that separate love and danger, vulnerability and aggression. But as she belted the refrain of “Go Hard” on Friday night, the 22-year-old pop princess straddled something much more conspicuous: the turret of a hot pink army tank.
It was the biggest stage-prop-as-metaphor in a performance teeming of cartoonishly violent imagery and powerfully heartsick pop songs when the singer’s “Last Girl on Earth” tour made one of its final domestic stops at Jiffy Lube Live.
And the prop-aphors kept coming: A scantily clad firing squad armed with fluorescent rifles pantomimed the singer’s execution during “Russian Roulette.” Demonic predators on stilts ambushed her during “Disturbia.” Animated stockpiles of rainbow syringes flashed across a towering video screen during “S.O.S.”
For Rihanna, love isn’t a battlefield so much as a gulag reimagined as Disneyland -- a purgatory where love can’t hurt you if you’re toting Day-Glo weaponry. She strutted through this prismatic war zone for an expertly paced 90 minutes, singing forcefully while retaining a beguiling emotional distance from her mostly young, mostly female, mostly adoring audience. On her albums, that distance can feel like despondency. On stage, it felt like mystique.
This is a singer who has every reason to be guarded. Last year, Rihanna suffered a galactically publicized catastrophe when fellow pop star and then-boyfriend Chris Brown assaulted her the night before the 2009 Grammy Awards. Suddenly, millions were demanding a bigger window into Rihanna’s headspace.
With the hyper-sharing culture of the Facebook era, our appetite for celebrity access grows and grows. Some artists are willing to oblige (see: Kanye West on Twitter). But increasingly, the candy shell that used to protect pop stars from the public has since morphed into the same high-grade titanium that Prince and Madonna utilized to shield their respective mythologies in the ’80s. Can you imagine Lady Gaga’s personal life exploding in the tabloids the same way Britney Spears’s did five years ago?
(Read the rest of the review, plus more pictures after the jump.)
Rihanna has developed a similar psychic armor -- and that’s exactly what made her most recent album, “Rated R,” so hard to enjoy. She failed to inhabit these darker, more dramatic tunes, opting to execute them with cold, flat precision.
But on stage they felt vivid, partially because you could actually see her punctuate her verses with her Twizzler-red coif as she lashed it from side to side. The rest was due to her backing band who loosened up her songbook's rigid electronic rhythms, giving the star a little space to roam.
She was all sass with “Rude Boy,” a song whose slackened beat practically demanded the gyrations she performed. Guitarist Nuno Bettencourt of hair metal balladeers Extreme, stood sentinel, quietly tucking a percussive riff into the mix. On the rock-tinged songs Rihanna is so fond of, including “Fire Bomb,” "Rockstar 101" and “S.O.S.,” the guitars roared.
They came roaring back during the grand finale of "Umbrella," the uber-hit now synonymous with 2007. It's a song about fidelity, but Rihanna took a different tack, melding cheer and uplift with doom and gloom. The video screen depicted rivers of molten lava swallowing a dystopian cityscape while red confetti came flurrying from the rafters.
Rihanna basked in the downpour, donned a wide smile and then let out a strange roar of her own -- somewhere between a victory shout and an anguished groan. It was the sound of a pop star with an enormous voice who's still trying to figure out where she stands.
August 21, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories: In concert | Tags: Rihanna
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