It is fascinating to consider the gigantic omissions mainstream media makes in recapping the past year with delicious “Best of [insert year].” These are omissions of substance, but they are not often included in the discourse of popular culture. They are experiences about losing. Losing jobs, lovers, apartments. The losers’ agency—or lack thereof—is manifested in perhaps deciding a preference to “lose,” guesstimating the long-term result will be worth the sacrifice. Of course, other times exogenous factors create a shared reality where you—and this certainly includes me—have limited power in changing one’s conditions. These are the stories about getting broken up with, getting evicted from a home and—by far the worst of all!—getting fired from a money-producing position. To grasp the impossibility of having it all, please consider the Worst Application of a Venn Diagram, Ever, which I built using the empirical evidence of my entire extended network.
Therefore, to belong in one of the above circles and lose your position in it leads to reasonable agitation. How will you re-enter a circle? Will it be the same one?
The worst condolences arrive in phrases that encourage an unhealthy re-evaluation of one’s self, one that is not necessarily true but makes hardships easier to overcome. Things that sound like “Well, you didn’t really like that job anyway” or “S/he wasn’t the right one.” The idea of substantially reorganizing our own understandings of reality according to drastic changes that have occurred might be a comfortable coping mechanism for modern survival. But it might also be wrong. Therefore, sometimes there is value to our refusal to “move on.” If we were able to re-enter new circles easily, how authentic was our satisfaction while we belonged to the one(s) we lost? Our stubbornness and perseverance exist for a reason: knowing when to not hear others is important.
At the same time, others’ views do matter, even if we have attained the power to not care about them. The views of others’ mattered at one point: they were integral in forming the shared memories that constructed our understanding of the world and our place in it. The multitude of layers that go into creating shared memories is infinite, and that is why “reality” has always been suspect as a concept. The ambivalence exists even in the shared cultural saga that today comprises our history: we don’t know how much resonance was lost over time and which parts were exaggerated, and to what extent.
We encounter differences in the creative representation and recreation of the public narratives that we think of as history. The same “thing” can translate to different memories among different people. In a similar fashion, the way we understand popular culture differs, according to the way we approach it and analyze it. That is why I asked so many people I met for the first time over the last year: “What’s your favorite song from 'Unapologetic'?” It is an easy strategy to tinker with someone’s views and beliefs without appearing elitist or offensive. It is harmless to ask, yet the responses it renders can be enlightening.
From my perspective as a media consumer, I gained the most over the past year from Rihanna. But before revealing my own personal reasons for awarding the year to Rih, it is important to contextualize the way she is understood as a public person by others. A carefully selected group of exceptional individuals—whose credentials are further analyzed in 1.2—received the following questions via email:
1. what is your favorite rihanna song?
2. what do you think rihanna does exceptionally, if anything? (sing, dance, twerk etc)
3. what pisses you off about rihanna, if anything? (name, event, incident etc)
4. do you think rih is smart? (y/n, maybe & feel free to expand)
The responses I received are presented in their exhaustive entirety below. Using these four questions as empty blocks to be filled by others facilitated my identification of the recurring themes in the construction of Rihanna’s public persona. Additionally, it enabled me to swiftly proceed in celebrating the contradictions that became apparent through the Rih-poll I conducted.
My endeavor to give constraints and limitations to people’s interpretation of Rihanna in the form of succinct questions ultimately yielded the expected result. The exact thing someone identified as her best attribute someone else considered her biggest flaw. The frequency with which this phenomenon appears in the graph "HER ATTITUDE RIHANNA" demonstrates why she is such a divisive public figure.
My graphical representation of the responses crystallizes the points where most people tend to agree. Rih’s best quality in the majority’s eyes is what I am going to define as her “badassness.” Her worst quality, according to the poll, is her public love life and its repeated inclusion of Rihanna’s Ex-Boyfriend.
GOOD GIRL GONE BADGALRIRI
Rih’s badassness is her biggest commercial tool. It is how she appeals to the broad public, representing a sort of “do whatever the fuck you want” brand of feminism while being highly prolific by constantly releasing new music. Beyond the new music, new videos are directed to accompany them, and by extension, so are looks. Adding public appearances, concert-tours and fashion engagements, Rih is the definition of a millennial pop star: a fully diversified brand. Riding or provoking trends, it is obvious that her creative team is excellent in the art of cool-hunting and ceaselessly provoking the audience. She is also kind of queer—if not, then queer-friendly, (in)famously enjoying the company of female strippers and partying hard, never pretending to be pious.
Rihanna refuses to behave in the traditional manner celebrities do when it comes to handling their brand and their relationship with their fans. She doesn’t try too hard to please them, or at least she doesn’t try hard to avoid issues of potential controversy and turmoil. She has consistently demonstrated a lack of hesitation in putting up with people’s shit, which is refreshing. Sometimes she responds to people’s negative comments on Instagram in a petty manner, and it is amazing:
The reason I find that amazing is because it demonstrates that she does not feel obliged to be a classy, nice person in order to respond to people’s expectations. I think that has been a helpful trait for her to maintain a sense of sanity, as she has become a huge media sensation, and one of the most popular people on all social media platforms: she can act selfishly and ignore the projections a massive audience is sending towards her.
Hearing about how amazing Rihanna’s Insta was, I was one of the last people to add yet another tragic social media badge on the online shame wall that will become my legacy when I die. I even named my account in honor of Rih. My willingness to indulge in Instagram, or at least try it, was directly linked to Rihanna. As an adult, this is an embarrassing confession to make, even if I thankfully remain younger than Rihanna. And so is my admiration for someone who is not above being petty.
WE FOUND (TYRANNICAL) LOVE
My actual admiration stems from even darker an origin, the very exact action for which people find her reprehensible. Specifically, her decision to disregard all responsibility she carried as a role-model to young women and remain stubbornly in love with Rihanna’s Ex-Boyfriend. I was certainly not happy for the repercussions linked to her decision to first recognize, and subsequently ignore, feeling a need to live up to public expectations. But I was happy to see someone else dangerously stuck on their first young love, even if I did not want them to work together as a couple.
You see, if I had to imagine Rihanna’s version of the Worst Application of a Venn Diagram, Ever, it would look like this.
Yet, this has not been the case for her in recent times, and here she was with only the ⅔ of the circles intersecting.
Naturally, I am aware that the way I chose to understand this chunk of popular culture was linked to how I felt about all the times I had gone back to someone I thought to be the love of my life. The ugliness of the drug-highs from drugs I never thought I would do and the calls to the police and the fading trust that would never allow for whatever we had to be love again. But I had to go back to understand that. I had to learn by myself, and not through others, not to believe in tyrannical love. To realize that I was wrong in letting myself believe everything would be worthless if that one red circle didn’t work out.
Looking at Rih’s Best Song table, the clear victory of “We Found Love” triggers my curiosity about the shared memory to which it might be connected. Could the shared memory be that of the video accompanying the song? I remember the nihilistic prowess of the sound coming from cars during a summer, their roofs or windows open. The bravado of blasting the song connoted an attitude almost celebrating youth through destruction: “we are young, let’s fuck ourselves over completely.” If anywhere, in New York City it resonates.
The all or nothing all the time mentality suits the dangerous and dark persona Rih has presented to the public since Rihanna’s Ex-Boyfriend beat her at the Grammys. The intro of the video provocatively declares: “you almost seemed ashamed, that someone could be that important. That without them you are nothing.” The grotesque dependency described here is one I can relate to, or at least a former version of me that was more self-destructive and did—a lot—more drugs believed to be true. The truth is the song’s beat continues to do two things to me: it gives me a feeling of intense emptiness for having been unable to find again someone who made me feel the way my first love did, and it makes me want to do a dangerous amount of drugs, because fuck it, I am young. But then at the end, the sight of a mattress without any bedsheets reminds me that I should want more for me. That the intensity and the drama is not worth it; that is not where the meaning of human connection lies.
Coming across the titles of the respondents’ favorite Rihanna songs I remembered that I used to not like her. I used to find her annoyingly prepackaged and modeled ala mini-Beyonce and hated a lot of the songs that launched her career, usually songs featuring an annoyingly repetitive pattern in lyric terms, be it “-ella” or “nananana.” This instigated an internal quest: when was it that I became intrigued by Rihanna first? It was with her sixth album, "Talk That Talk."
A brief chronology of my growing appreciation for the artist is provided, conveying that I have grown to like her more and more over time, a sentiment which contradicts the general consensus of music critics.
The release of "Unapologetic" was a shockingly blunt provocation. It made it obvious that the performer had rekindled a romantic relationship nobody wanted to see materialize. Rihanna’s Ex-Boyfriend had once again managed to collaborate with her on her new album, and the song was entitled a controversial “Nobody’s Business.” In reality, they both made it all our business, which felt unnecessary. It is important to note that since the time the album was first released in November 2012, Rihanna’s Ex-Boyfriend became her ex-boyfriend, once again. Thus far, it seems like there is no romantic return pending. Following the end of their relationships, tweets were tweeted and social media was used vengefully. Now social media will forever document how they were both unapologetically portraying teenage levels of maturity following what they will probably put behind as their first young love. Rihanna vitriolically hinted at her professional superiority through Instagram. Meanwhile Rihanna’s Ex-Boyfriend asserted—via Twitter—that: “She’s not mine if she’s everybody else’s.”
Overall, Rihanna’s team has succeeded in crafting an image of femininity that is feasible for her to live up to as a young woman who sometimes likes to act indulgently. It is unlike the typical “dual femininity” mold we come across when considering previous female pop-stars, a mold in which to stop being virginal translates to being a slut. Shying away from these two extremes, Rihanna’s current position is empowering for being both sex-positive and simultaneously giving her the creative agency to be much more than the typical female pop-singer.
It seems that Rih is particularly invested in the fashion industry, and has gradually worked towards her immersion as she collaborated with River Island on creating an eponymous fashion line. Rihanna for River Island was heavily promoted online and available to buy at our local Opening Ceremony! Certainly, the biggest selling point is the attachment of the Rihanna brand to the clothes: they are clothes that she created because they are exactly what she wants to wear, or at least that’s what she has to say to promote her products. She also acknowledges that she is not the person who does all the work, crediting Adam Selman (pictured above) as her designer.
It must be amazing to be such a commodification-generator: to just need be to have a unique value that maximizes the fiscal potential of projects, brands, firms. As it must be awful, too. You can never know for sure when your surroundings treasure your presence selflessly, rather than parasitically. But the same sort of ambiguous balance is the one subsiding when one enters a love affair of dependency.
I remember being completely uninterested in the Beyonce documentary that was broadcast about a year ago. Beyonce’s perfection alienates—or rather “alienated," until the masterful release of her visual album—voyeurs like me. Since last week, her perfection does not particularly bother me as much, and I was happy to learn, through last year’s documentary I ignored, why Beyonce’s face hurts: “Sometimes it feels like I have to walk with a permanent smile on my face, because if I am just normal and I just look around, then somebody might mistake me for a mean person.”
While it saddens me to think about a person who leads a life consciously trying not to upset others, there is a broader implication of a celebrity that understands such a responsibility: the celebrity manages to maintain a section of his/her self private. This private self is not public property; it is for those people who the celebrity chooses to be intimate with. That takes away the danger of feeling like you have made everything available for sale.
This should not be misconstrued as me (the writer) thinking the actions of one of the two performers is superior or wiser. Rather, it should be perceived as me (the person) knowing that some experiences are not meant to become public property.
If it feels like I let that happen, please know that it was a choice I made carefully, accepting at last that “s/he wasn’t the right one.”
That is why for me, Rih is the best. We both stubbornly persisted, then lost, then accepted to hear what others knew all along.
Are we finally able to sense irony’s ontological weight on an affective level.
THE MANY FACES BEHIND THE ANSWERS
Deciding who the right people to ask these questions was a somewhat random process, but it was not haphazard in terms of demographic representation. The pool included a significant number of individuals of diverse identities: race, color, gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation.
Including artists, lawyers, writers, editors, pop-music-aficionados, graduate students and financial analysts, many of the respondents are my friends, or people I admire and respect. Women working at the IMF and the UN, men from Jamaica—ven a Canadian! Many live in foreign countries, like France or Greece, while others live in the US but are Turkish emigrants. Even a former Def Jam intern, who once found herself in the bathroom with Rihanna Herself, provided her insight.
Further breaking down of their identities sans the consideration of how they themselves identify would be presumptuous and disrespectful on my end. Thus, the only trait I reveal about them is their gender, a paragon that I think should be considered when dissecting a public figure like Rihanna.
I intentionally did not edit the responses to let some of their personality come through, even in their anonymity. (Also, because they are funnier this way, and can be interpreted as elliptical enigmas or riddles.)
RIH’S BEST SONG
The numbers never lie! That is somewhat true, so I tried to compile a list that objectively encapsulates what the people’s favorite song by Rihanna is. The arithmetic reality that came about is derived from the research presented in the appendix, in addition to the responses I received after posting the question on this site.
It is important to publicly acknowledge that I was somewhat lenient with the enthusiasm of some respondents who gave more than one song as an answer. I also was biased in not recognizing the song “Diamonds” was named three or four times, because I hate it and we can all agree we are totally over it forever.
*STUFF NOT HERS: This category was a result of multiple people naming Rih’s collaborations with Jay-Z, Eminem and Drake, or even stating specifically: “I like Rih’s features on other people’s songs.” I also added a misidentified A$AP Rocky song to this list, because she appears in the video for the song and I think that it was a hilarious error to make.
OTHER RIHANNA SONGS: The high number of songs that appear solely as one person’s favorite is fascinating. Rihanna releases a lot of music, but there is so much to choose from there is little crossover in consensus towards her best song—beyond the ultimate winner “We Found Love.”