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FACES: Rihanna

We explore the pop star's significance in the music world and beyond

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FACES is Consequence of Sound’s literary magazine. Each volume focuses on an artist whose scope of creativity and cultural impact defies simple categorization. Through a blend of original artwork and a variety of writings, we hope to both shed light upon and celebrate the artists who continually inspire us to put pen to paper.

I admit to having blindly dismissed a lot of pop music over the years. Just hearing that generic genre label attached to a song, album, or artist was reason enough for me to decline a listen and allocate my attention elsewhere. It’s a snobbish filtering system, but one I’m not alone in using. To me, the term “pop” always conjured images of factories, conveyor belts, and units (not songs) rolling off the line. It signified music being manufactured rather than crafted, consumed not absorbed, and so blatantly conceived, packaged, and promoted as a product that it must be plastic and void of any real artistic authenticity or sincerity. That attitude has left me standing outside (often alone) the frenzy that Rihanna naturally seems to create every couple of years, save for having ignored a few singles in passing on the radio or reading about the Chris Brown saga.

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Feature artwork by Cap Blackard  (Purchase Prints + More)

The pity in dismissing a genre en masse isn’t that I’ve missed out on songs that I would surely love. I already have enough songs — more than enough to last a lifetime. No, the shame stems from the assumption that because someone makes a certain type of music, his or her story can’t teach, resonate with, or inspire me. And after reading the following thoughtful essays from Brian Josephs, Lyndsey Havens, and Wren Graves, I realize that Rihanna’s incredible journey has all of that to offer me, even if I won’t be eagerly purchasing her new album, Anti, when it hits shelves.

Regardless of how you feel about Rihanna’s music, she’s an artist worth getting to know. Hopefully, these pieces will be an introduction for some of you just as they were for me.

–Matt Melis
Senior Editor

Table of Contents:
— Finding Love on the Dance Floor with Rihanna by Brian Josephs … Page 2
— Living the American Dream by Lyndsey Havens … Page 3
— The Accidental Mirror by Wren Graves … Page 4

Original artwork by Consequence of Sound Art Director Cap Blackard, Kristin Frenzel, Jacob Livengood, and Steven Fiche.

Past Issues:
FACES: Neil Young
FACES: Tom Petty
FACES: Dave Grohl
FACES: Carrie Brownstein

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Finding Love on the Dance Floor with Rihanna

By Brian Josephs

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Feature artwork by Kristin Frenzel  (Purchase Prints + More)

The years 2010 and 2011 were when we reached peak Rihanna. There were hits on hits. As if by way of hyper-powered cathode tubes, “Rude Boy” maximized island lust and color en route to mainstream ubiquity. That wasn’t her peak — there was “Only Girl (In the World)”; there was “What’s My Name?” and the square root of 69; there was “We Found Love”; there was “S&M”. These songs didn’t just slip into the Hot 100. A lot of them were world-conquering anthems. Rihanna is arguably the last pop artist to consistently bend the zeitgeist to her whim on a hit-by-hit basis.

But when the Rihanna paeans are being written and the award show tributes are being rehearsed a few decades from now, “We Found Love” (and “Umbrella”, the star maker) is going to be the required reference point. In addition to being her longest-running No. 1 single, “We Found Love” has become one of the best-selling singles of all time. Then there was the video, which inverts the chorus’ “We found love in a hopeless place” into “We’re hopelessly in love.” The triumph turns into oblivion — two lovers prostrate themselves in excess, abuse, and emotional trauma.

The video is a classic – you don’t piss off that many organizations and provide that much emotional catharsis within four minutes without becoming one. However, you get a whole other light when you take the video out of the equation (as impossible as it may be). The escalating key riff is euphoric, and the hook is an instantly chant-worthy cry. It’s a soap operatic cliche, but Rihanna’s talent has rarely depended on creating witticisms. Rihanna maximizes what’s on that lyrics sheet for resonance — whether we’re talking earworm-like or emotional (or both: ella-ella-ella).

And when you drop “We Found Love” in the middle of an EDM trudge on a weekend night, it stands out. Rihanna’s peak years aren’t distant enough to not remember what filled and ultimately encumbered those DJ playlists: schizophrenic, dubstep-influenced hits orchestrated by the likes of Dr. Luke, Max Martin, and Stargate. Some of them work by themselves, but string them together in succession and you get an experience that ranges from bland to blatant recyclables. The irony is how many of them attempt to express the same things “We Found Love” does: a bit of fantasy, an idyllic hook, momentous romance, empowerment, etc.

Rihanna took the same elements — whizzing synths, that electronic buildup — and flipped it from disengagement to something more interpersonal. Idealistically, technology and digitization are supposed to make doing so easier. It doesn’t. EDM influences too often err toward the ephemeral, zapping whatever soul present for a safe Billboard hit and a check. Technological advances and doo-dads aren’t just a musical risk either. It creates a static between people, and it does so in the most communal areas. Like the club, which is ironically supposed to be an area for socializing.

You’ve probably seen it: attendees posted on the walls next to their wingmen and wingwomen, yet somehow alone. They look through their phones and scan through Twitter, Facebook, and the like for some sort of escape, detached entertainment or some sort of intangible something. A downfall of technology is how it sells the idea that there’s something out there — whatever is in the mysterious world wide web, but within grasp because it fits within your palm — that’s somehow better than what’s already in existence. The search for those things persists despite the possibility that none of those things are real. Rihanna also lives in fantasy. In fact, it’s one filled with a dangerous level of ecstasy: yellow-filled diamonds, shadows crossing to bring life, “It’s the way I’m feeling I just can’t deny.” It’s a nowness and excitement that cuts through the new age static that expresses a purely person-to-person feeling. The clarity and succinctness of that idea is what makes “We Found Love” galvanizing — and Rihanna hasn’t made a hit that does just that since.

So “We Found Love” isn’t great because of how it drops its guard for love. Like that couple’s romance, it’s thrillingly momentous.

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Living the American Dream

By Lyndsey Havens

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Feature artwork by Jacob Livengood  (Purchase Prints + More)

I’ve been asked, “Have you heard this?” countless times. But it’s only when the song that follows has some redeeming quality to it that I can actually remember the exact moment when I first heard it. Listening to one of Rihanna’s earliest hits, “Pon de Replay”, while sitting on a six-hour bus ride to overnight camp was one of those moments.

I was sitting next to the type of friend who was always introducing me to new artists or songs. We were sharing headphones, bi-podding, when she asked, “Have you heard this?” I hadn’t. I sheepishly responded, “Maybe, I think so,” too young and afraid to admit I might be behind the trend. She played “Pon de Replay” as I subtly glanced down at her iPod to scan the artist’s name. It was the summer of 2006, I was 12 years old, and I had no idea who Rihanna was.

Before she was known to the world as Rihanna, Robyn Rihanna Fenty left her birthplace of Barbados when she was just 16 years old. She signed her first record deal with Def Jam in 2005, and by August her debut album, Music of the Sun, was climbing the charts. Meanwhile, the album’s hit single, “Pon de Replay”, had reached No. 2 on The Billboard Hot 100. Flashback to that bus ride: I was now listening to “If It’s Lovin’ That You Want”, the second hit single off the album. I was immediately mesmerized by the catchy, up-tempo, Island-influenced beats and Rihanna’s accent. I sat and stewed over the fact that I would have to wait four weeks until I was home and could download more of her music.

When I was told Rihanna would be the feature artist for the latest installment of FACES, I wasn’t surprised, but I also didn’t really understand why. As self-doubt set in — maybe it’s because I’m just an intern, I thought, or did I somehow miss her latest album release or headline-worthy moment? — I did a Google search only to be greeted by what I already knew. Rihanna was the musical guest on the season 40 finale of Saturday Night Live and performed two singles, “Bitch Better Have My Money” and “American Oxygen”, off her upcoming album (which has yet to be released). Other search results included her Met Gala gown along with the auto-fill suggestion, “Rihanna and Chris Brown.”

None of these results, surely not a gown or past relationship, define Rihanna, and they didn’t help me understand why or how she became such an iconic figure in pop-culture. On her latest single, “American Oxygen”, she sings about chasing the American Dream and how her go-getter mentality started at a young age: “Young girl, hustlin’/ On the other side of the ocean/ You can be anything at all/ In America, America,” she sings. The song’s chorus repeats, “We sweat for a nickel and a dime/ Turn it into an empire,” which now, about a decade after her first taste of success, Rihanna has done. In 2014, she ranked eighth on Forbes’ list of The World’s Most Powerful Celebrities with a worth of $48 million. How did this woman who came to America as a girl end up on that list? To me, that’s what makes Rihanna so compelling.

“American Oxygen” debuted at the March Madness Festival in early April, which Rihanna headlined. A sample of the song had already been used to fade in and out of commercial breaks during the NCAA Final Four tournament, which seems like a bit of a stretch from the American Dream, though still a dream nonetheless. The song is being called a political statement and social commentary, because it largely is, but it’s also an ode to Rihanna. Included in the montage that plays behind her in the song’s music video is a poster that reads: “Nation of Immigrants.” A category Rihanna falls into.

While living the American Dream, Rihanna still finds ways to latch on to her Caribbean roots. The concept of the sun is often explicit in her songs, from the title of her debut album to her recent release “Towards the Sun”, included on the soundtrack for the animated film Home. In between the two bookend titles are forgotten reggae-influenced tracks such as “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and “Dem Haters” (off her 2006 album, A Girl Like Me) and more popular tracks like “Umbrella” (from her blatantly titled 2008 album, Good Girl Gone Bad, that marked her initial turn towards edgy) in which Jay-Z sings, “Jay, Rain Man is back with little Ms. Sunshine, Rihanna where you at?” She may have relocated, but little Ms. Sunshine never left.

And that’s the thing about Rihanna, even after leaving not just her childhood home but her childhood in its entirety behind, she has managed to remain more or less the same — an optimist, an artist, I’ll even throw in feminist. From striving for to reveling in the American Dream, Rihanna has come a long way on her own terms. She hasn’t let an abusive relationship or fashion faux pas derail construction on the career she created for herself.

On the collaborative track “The Monster”, Eminem sings, “I wanted the fame, but not the cover of Newsweek/ Oh, well, guess beggars, can’t be choosey/ Wanted to receive attention for my music/ Wanted to be left alone in the public. Excuse me/ For wanting my cake and eat it too, and wanting it both ways, ”while Rihanna repeats the song’s hook, “And you think I’m crazy, yeah, you think I’m crazy,” probably because she wants it both ways, too. The crazy part is, I think she has just that.

Regardless of why you might know the singer now, whether for her sometimes controversial lyrics (“S&M”, “Bitch Better Have My Money”), her love life, her fashion, or maybe because someone once played you a song of hers on their iPod, her name has become so recognizable that it can be reduced to one syllable: “Ri.” Ri wanted a career as a singer, she has one; she wanted attention for her music, she has it; she wanted to live the American Dream, she sure is. She built herself an empire from the ground up while paparazzi peered in through the windows, and now that Rihanna has made her empire, she wants to live in it.

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The Accidental Mirror

By Wren Graves

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Feature artwork by Steven Fiche  (Purchase Prints + More)

Entering high school, and with dreams of becoming either the lead singer in the first Swedish death metal band ever founded in Middleton, Wisconsin, or the next member of the Backstreet Boys, I found myself taking singing lessons in the Bel Canto Opera style, this perhaps being my mother’s idea of a compromise between the two. Or maybe it was self-protection: before the vocal tutoring, I had a thin, pitchy, wavering voice, which I nevertheless unleashed daily upon the defenseless audience of my parents and little brother. After over a year of intense study into the lift of the throat, the mask of the face, the inhalation of the voice, and the hold of the breath, I improved and proceeded to sing in a loud, pitchy, wavering voice, capable of filling an opera house without hitting any of the opera’s notes — a development which my parents did not think was an improvement.

I offer myself as proof: not everyone can be a star. But as long as pop stars are generating hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue, every agent and producer worth his weight in platinum records is scouring the Earth for the next generation of Million Dollar Babies, some of whom are almost literally babies. If you want to be a pop star, and you’re reading this, I have news for you: it’s too late. But if the dream persists, you may want to consider your other qualifications.

You should be ridiculously attractive, unless you’re from England, in which case you can be merely good looking; you should begin performing around the time you learn to walk, if not sooner; you should have white skin — still sadly true — although if you are so incredibly gifted and gorgeous that not even the American Public could ignore you, you can occasionally get away with a very light brown; you should somehow come to know a person in the music industry, of course; you should be very lucky, of course; and, the most reliable method of all, you should appear on television on behalf of the Not-Quite-Evil Empire, Disney.

Rihanna ticks several of these unlikely boxes, and yet her story is so strange that even Cinderella raised an eyebrow. Robyn Rihanna Fenty was born in the Saint Michael parish of Barbados, a country that, according to the International Monetary Fund, has the 153rd largest economy in the world out of 188 countries. (Barbados has a population of 285,000, which is roughly half of Wyoming, our least populous state. By per capita GDP, Barbados is middle of the pack, similar to Botswana and Montenegro.)

The population of Barbados was small and mostly white until the 1640’s when the great international sugar rush began, and colonial landowners in the Caribbean began to import an, ahem, nonconsensual workforce. (Malcolm Gladwell has written movingly about his mother and skin color in the Caribbean. Light-skinned blacks have a social advantage over those men and women who happen to have darker pigmentations because a lighter complexion can often be traced back to a nonconsensual donation of white genetic material.)

After emancipation in 1834, sugar prices rose with labor costs, and the savvier Caribbean nations saved their plummeting economies by turning to their cheapest, most abundant natural resource: the beach.

Enter Evan Rogers, on vacation.

The passionate man with his hair parted like God’s own curtains (in the above video) is making his only foray onto the Billboard charts as himself (Rythm Syndicate), but along with writing partner Carl Sturken (sunglasses and guitar solo) he’s made dozens of trips to the top of the pops as other people. From Donny Osmond and “Soldier of Love”, Debbie Gibson, and the Irish boyband Boyzone (which sounds like the bar you’d find between Jackhammer and The Man Hole) to American Idol winner Ruben Studdard and N’Sync, Rogers and Sturken have a knack for the kind of hook that’ll have you humming after a single listen.

All those trips up the Billboard pay for a lot of trips down to the islands, and because Rogers’ wife is Bajan, Rogers spends a lot of time on Barbados with the in-laws. “I’m always there, and people know I’m a record producer and a songwriter, so everyone knows someone who wants to audition for me,” he told the Hartford Courant in 2012. Twelve years ago, it was a girl group. Three girls. Rodgers only saw one.

She was 15 years old and already arrestingly pretty. She was a game dancer and a virtuoso vocalist, with an instrument as perfectly suited for modern pop as a Stradivarius is for Brahms – even if her sonant stylings, at least on the early songs, tended towards, “overenthusiastic church choir soloist.”

The other two girls were politely dismissed, and Rihanna was whisked to New York to cut a demo, along with her mother (although not her father, whose addiction to crack cocaine and alcohol had, by this time, led to divorce. If tabloid reports are to be believed, his struggles with alcoholism continue.).

In the meantime, Rodgers and Sturken went into the studio. “[Rihanna] opened up a new chapter for us, a new hat: record executives signing artists. We said to ourselves, ‘We’ve worked with Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, all these stars, we know what a star is, we know what it takes.’”

A smash song, an utterly unique voice, and a whole lot of midriff.

In Bajan Creole, one of Barbados’ two official languages, “pon de replay” means “play it again,” but the jumpy handclaps that are the real star of the song were born in the dance halls of Kingston, Jamaica. Jamaica is one of the capitals of the great African musical diaspora, and it’s Jamaica that put the warmth in Rihanna’s debut album, Music of the Sun, a collection of Reggae-shaded love songs with a pair of dancehall grinders in “Pon de Replay” and “Rush”. The only real miscue is the sonically misplaced R&B jam “There’s a Thug in My Life”, but the album failed to produce a second hit, and Rihanna began a process of cultural assimilation.

2006’s A Girl Like Me finds Rihanna straddling the Atlantic. Here, she’s channeling three M’s: Madonna, Mariah, and Marley. The tactic paid: “SOS” layers Kingston percussions over a sample of “Tainted Love” and became the Barbadian’s first number one single. “Unfaithful” showed she was more than a human synthesizer. She trembled and wailed and pushed Ne-Yo’s over-the-top lyrics over the moon.

But it was on 2007’s Good Girl Gone Bad (or really the 2008 Reloaded re-release) that Rihanna came into her own as a fully international, fully mature star. She raves and whispers, she’s cocky and broken, she sneers, pouts, taunts, pines, and always, always seduces. Armed with the atomic weapon “Umbrella”, Rihanna conquered the world, topping the charts in 17 different countries, taking home a Grammy and, perhaps more relevant to a pop star in the 2000’s, two Moonmen at the MTV Video Music Awards.

In all, Good Girl Gone Bad: Reloaded spawned four Top-10 singles and some of her finest deep cuts, but music of the sun this is not. Rihanna is more interested in what happens in the dark.

She never again recorded the kind of straight reggae love song that made up more than half her first two albums, and while she’ll return to the islands for a track or so on each new record, she doesn’t live there; she’s just visiting. Her new releases are a game of international twister: a toe in Berlin, a finger in Brazil, an elbow down in an L.A. club. It takes an open mind to get seven Top-10 singles before you can legally drink.

Ah, that: 12 days before her 21st birthday, it was announced that Rihanna would not be performing at the Grammy Awards because her 19-year-old boyfriend, Chris Brown, had assaulted an unidentified woman. A photo of the woman was leaked (L-E-A-K-E-D, a word that is pronounced, “sold for thousands and thousands of dollars”) to TMZ by members of the Los Angeles Police Department, which is illegal, by the way. The identities of victims are protected by the law, although not, in this case, the actual law officers. Rihanna became arguably the most famous victim of domestic violence in history.

The only thing remarkable about this incident is the spotlight. In every other way, it is a common story the world over. In Barbados, for example, nearly one in three women have been the victim of domestic abuse (this according to Dr. Rosina Wiltshire and CARICOM, a NATO-like organization of 15 Caribbean countries). When I first came across that figure, I thought of the three girls who auditioned for Evan Rogers 12 years ago. I don’t want to make any assumptions about Rihanna’s childhood — what we know of the divorce and crack-addicted father would certainly be trying enough — but I do want to point out that if Rihanna’s behavior after the incident seemed strange to a lot of media pundits (she has stayed intimate with Brown, and together they recorded one of the more disquieting duets in recent history, “Nobody’s Business”), the environment in which she grew up would seem even stranger.

The numbers aren’t much rosier in the United States: 1 in 4 American women have been battered by an intimate partner or family member. You almost certainly know someone who was a victim of domestic violence, even if you don’t think you do. The incident was probably never reported to the police, and the victim probably didn’t leave the relationship or house the first time they tried, if ever.

This is what the data tells us. I don’t quite know how to apply it to Rihanna, who is, after all, an individual and not a statistic. I will say it has given her a certain gravity that can’t be felt among her peers. Unlike Katy Perry, whose pop star credentials can best be measured mammographically, and unlike the perfect Beyoncé and the Stepford-perfect Taylor Swift, and somewhat like the burnouts among the Disney Mouseketeers who came before and the Disney sitcom squad who are coming after (but on a scale they couldn’t imagine), Rihanna has suffered in a very public, very humiliating way. She’s our most human pop star — the star who came crashing back to Earth.

Now 27 years old and firmly middle-aged by the standards of pop, Rihanna seems to be contemplating her place in the world. In her single “American Oxygen”, she speaks directly to a younger version of herself: “Young girl hustlin’/ On the other side of the ocean/ You can be anything at all/ In America.”

No other pop star working today could make that video, because no other pop star could plausibly claim to represent immigrants, black Americans, poor people, privileged people, Bob Marley, The Beatles (Mariah Carey and The Beatles are the only musicians to have more number one singles than Rihanna), the angry and the oppressed, and, also, okay, she isn’t wearing a bra (sex is a universal impulse, and what could be more American than aligning yourself with a popular cause?), and that, too, is why we love her. If you want to understand why she’s Queen of the Billboard, look no further. From a broken home to breaking records, from a hotel in Barbados to a police station in L.A., through a ferocious work ethic and blind dumb luck, Rihanna is the patchwork pop star who resembles nothing so much as our own reflection.

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