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The wildness and beauty which pop produced for so long are now more likely to be found in hip hop, which dominates the charts. Pop star after pop star is toppled; will pop suffer the same fate as rock? Our newest stars, devoid of charm, nod sadly in answer. “New Rules” singer Dua Lipa’s current persona seems smug and soulless when compared to Cardi B’s offering; Ariana Grande’s look – the most petit and spotless since Kylie Minogue – certainly suggests an artist, but her bland songs let her down, and the screeching Sia, with her pretend elusiveness, offers us little hope. The high sales of Taylor Swift’s tedious, lifeless ventures into pop attest only to her opportunism, and while the “Look What You Made Me Do” video is an interesting if transparent exercise in mythology-building and intertextuality, the alacrity with which journalists analysed it and theorised reveals the excesses of an undiscerning poptimism.
Disney’s pop stars seem little more than prototypes. The unrelenting Demi Lovato edges towards decent pop, but lacks a message. Most of Selena Gomez’s work is run-of-the-mill – although “Love You like a Love Song”, with its most significant lines ‘It’s been said and done / Every beautiful thought’s been already sung’ acknowledging pop’s twilight, was a moment of greatness. Miley Cyrus’ Bangerz era (2013) is a confident, weird declaration of independence from Disney, notable in its presentation of sex as innocuous and unsexy. She reminds us of the centrality of sexuality to any kind of authentic expression of individuality, while introducing us to a post-sexual revolution age. The Bangerz Tour seems to me a triumph, but Cyrus – inured to fame since her teenage years – couldn’t maintain that motivation for her already-forgotten Younger Now era (2017). Moreover Cyrus’ Bangerz image, like so much recent female pop, simply brings us back full circle to Madonna:
Given projected demographic shifts in the United States, if any pop is to counteract the proliferation of hip hop in the near future, it will be Latin-inspired. The two major female Latin pop stars of this century are of course Shakira and Jennifer Lopez. At first the exotic Shakira was every bit as convincing as Rihanna or Beyoncé – with her mononym, signature dance and irresistible, resplendent songs from 2001-7, she seemed destined for a place on pop’s highest pantheon. But with 2009’s forgettable “She Wolf”, a period of few ideas and stunted artistic growth began from which the artist has never really recovered.
Jennifer Lopez never shared Shakira’s light, but I don’t believe her career is as negligible on the artistic front as is often thought. Its first six years might be characterised by a self-indulgent preoccupation with her own celebrity which limits her creativity; for instance, the effectiveness of the introduction to the “Jenny from the Block” video relies on her pre-eminence at the time and today simply jolts us away from any pop sublimities. But the piece as a whole exemplifies Lopez’s clever dialogue with the public. Its universalist opening line: ‘Children grow and women produce ‘em / Men go work and some do steal ‘em / Everyone’s got to make a living’ creates a bridge between listeners and the star, while the presence of rappers then teasingly shrouds Lopez in a mystery which contradicts her insistence that she’s still an ordinary woman. Her emphasis on her ‘rocks’, and the abundance of expensive jewellery and clothes throughout her videos, invite people to idealise Lopez’s lifestyle in a way that manufactures closeness (and which Beyoncé could learn from). The public are equal to Lopez save her privilege. The “Get Right” video develops and parodies the same formula, with a playfulness that Shakira never managed.
“Do It Well” and “Hold It Don’t Drop It” from Lopez’s Brave era (2007) are two of her most infectious songs, but performed catastrophically on the charts because she embraces a hardness which alienated the public and undermined her earlier strategy. Lopez then underwent a reinvention and re-emerged with a string of hits. Despite an unhealthy reliance on Pitbull (who looks and sounds as bad as his namesake), these later songs are often dreamy expressions of lust or hedonism, which just about work alongside their enticingly glamourous videos. But we mustn’t forget that Lopez is chiefly a businesswoman: see how 2012’s “Dance Again” video ruthlessly steals from Kylie Minogue’s “All the Lovers”. And now further reinvention, rather than the desperate “Booty” video (which could have been a witty reclamation of the body part that won her so much fame but is instead strangely insipid) is required of JLo if she wants to extend her career.
The chart success of Camila Cabello’s playful “Havana” (2017) points to a future crowded with Latin-inspired acts, for whom Lopez and Shakira will be useful models. A child of pop, in her debut single “Crying in the Club” a heartbroken Cabello is lifted up by a sample of “Genie in a Bottle” (1999) by Christina Aguilera, who also released Latin albums. A touching and innovative recognition of pop as both a balm for individuals and a unifying, transcendent force in the club setting, Cabello might preserve pop a little longer. In another audacious act of canon creation her “Never Be the Same” video references Britney Spears’ “Oops… I Did It Again”, and with its gorgeous rawness the song is auspicious and in my view among 2018’s best.
The stars we’ve looked at count among the most followed individuals on social media, yet those technologies create the illusion of a cosy world which has led people to demand relatability of celebrities, threatening pop’s ideals. In a century of connectedness stars are more friends than idols – slightly prettier, funnier, smarter versions of their fans, without the godlike glamour that makes an artist. So while oversaturation has always been a problem in pop, it’s very possible that the age of Madonna pop we’ve explored is being overthrown by a new zeitgeist. The internet has also enabled everyone to cultivate niche tastes in music, so popular music in general – with the inevitable negotiation of styles needed to make something with universal appeal – might become obsolete.
Now that we’ve some distance from pop’s story perhaps we can reflect on it and appreciate its wonder and import in a spiritually impoverished Western world. For a long time sensual pop worlds have helped the West to regulate a collective consciousness that is on the whole suffocatingly cerebral and technology-orientated. Now, frustrated by celebrities’ inability to fulfil our spiritual needs many look to politics for their creed, presidential candidates for their gods… they translate unprocessed feelings into political statements and believe that the resurgence of dated ideologies like socialism or Fascism give them a purpose in life… they gauge the validity of a view by its intensity, not its coherence. When this doesn’t remove their inner emptiness they despair, and project their despair on to the world, remaining ignorant of the spiritual dimension. But attempts to revive the spiritual won’t succeed for as long as we’re committed to archaic conceptions of spirituality which cannot speak to modern society. I believe we should look to new manifestations of the spiritual – often in great pop music – and extract and develop these into a spiritual framework for the twenty-first century. We know that female singers are especially important due to the healing power of the feminine voice, which can even help trauma victims. Blindly lionising pop stars obviously doesn’t work (although the ramifications are less serious than when we lionise politicians), but the best pop stars transcend their celebrity and personify soulful qualities including consciousness, mystery, kindness and self-actualisation, and thus play a crucial role in people’s spiritual growth. Walt Whitman said:
There will soon be no more priests. Their work is done. They may wait awhile … perhaps a generation or two … dropping off by degrees. A superior breed shall take their place … the gangs of kosmos and prophets en masse shall take their place. A new order shall arise and they shall be the priests of man, and every man shall be his own priest. The churches built under their umbrage shall be the churches of men and women. Through the divinity of themselves shall the kosmos and the new breed of poets be interpreters of men and women and of all events and things. They shall find their inspiration in real objects to-day, symptoms of the past and future. . . . They shall not deign to defend immortality or God or the perfection of things or liberty or the exquisite beauty and reality of the soul. They shall arise in America and be responded to from the remainder of the earth.
Well my eye roves across these decades of modernity to locate Whitman’s new prophets, and really it can only settle, tentatively, in one place. As they watch Tina Turner or Prince or Michael Jackson or Beyoncé women and men writhe in ecstasy, with the cosmos in their eye, in the temples that are arenas and music festivals… and so pop stars’ achievements must be lauded and their position at the centre of our culture defended and celebrated. As the millions of people who watch Vevo videos each day know, pop changes lives – and we need it more than ever.
To view the music videos of Nicki Minaj is to step into a beautiful landscape presided over by one of pop’s most complex creations. In just a few years a young black immigrant has thrust herself into the centre of the world’s biggest music industry and become the bestselling female rapper ever. Her career, despite mismanagement, has thrived due to her irreplaceable persona and voice which are by turns intense, coquettish, tender and tough. Like Eminem she uses an array of alter egos – and while hers are less organised than his their originality lies in their free and hyper-feminine embrace of individuality. Minaj had no illusions about how male-dominated hip hop is – her femininity is defiant and trailblazing, and songs like “I’m the Best” (with which her debut album opens) show a commitment to female empowerment stronger than any of her pop contemporaries (‘I’m fighting for the girls that never thought they could win’). The “Super Bass” video is a joyous expression of heterosexual female sexuality rarely seen in the format, and “Starships” continues her refreshing inclusion of the male form in titillating videos. By building on the colourful image of Cyndi Lauper, Minaj seems less derivative of Madonna than her more-lauded rival Lady Gaga, and hasn’t dated as badly as Gaga sonically. (She’s also more honest about Madonna’s influence, as in “Muny”.)
Her first two albums Pink Friday (2010) and Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded (2012) show a split between hip hop and pop which seems fitting for a woman whose early career anticipates and accelerated the convergence of the two. “Come on a Come” from Roman Reloaded is a pugilistic masterpiece and my favourite of her songs, while her verse on Kanye West’s “Monster” deserves every bit of its fame, and “Roman’s Revenge” further demonstrates the Dickinsonian playfulness, strangeness, dexterity and gender-fluidity of her lyricism. Her next album The Pinkprint (2014) shows hip hop and pop integrated – though I don’t think this necessarily makes it better. In fact, it seems somewhat sedate compared to the earlier records on which she exorcised so many demons. Ironically, as we enter an age of hip hop she may struggle more than the likes of Beyoncé and Rihanna to adjust – to unlearn all the pop habits which shaped her career, and then to redefine her image accordingly, is a tall order.
Even if she isn’t capable of reinvention she’ll surely be a milestone to which all future female rappers are compared. Her irrepressibility paved the way for Iggy Azalea (a once-promising rapper who lost all focus after the freak success of “Fancy”) and Cardi B, whose brash, menacing single “Bodak Yellow” topped the American charts last year – a feat Minaj, despite sixteen top tens, hasn’t yet accomplished. But B can’t rap with Minaj’s intensity or fluency, so won’t replace her. Perhaps the greatest threat to Minaj’s success is her own narcissistic complacency which has allowed so many potential hits to go to waste, but then if she’d found the same exposure as Gaga or Katy Perry she probably wouldn’t have flourished – her place to one side of pop’s upper echelons suits such a polarising and incandescent figure. And of course it’s entirely possible that her survival instinct and capacity to surprise will serve her as well in the future as they have done thus far.
An artist is judged by the extent to which they’ve fulfilled their ambitions. I believe Lady Gaga’s monumental effort to give four decades of pop music its glittering conclusion categorically failed. Kesha on the other hand aimed lower, but wove a whimsical paracosm more coherent and distinctive than Gaga’s opus. Nonetheless, Gaga’s The Fame era (2009-2010) for which she is best known, showed promise and remains one of pop’s most exciting debuts. To compare “Just Dance” – an innocuous splash of electropop – with the more eccentric “Poker Face” video and then with the cinematic kookiness of the “Paparazzi” video is to discover how her ambition burgeoned dramatically with commercial success. While her McQueen-esque costumes, which made the streets she walked down into runways, were a masterstroke in terms of publicity, their frantic diversity revealed an impatience to get out new ideas which limits the era’s unity. One can see why David Bowie, who so meticulously crafted his personae, would not associate with the starlet. And unlike Prince, whose outfits were part of his mystique, Gaga concealed herself behind her clumsy if sometimes inspired eccentricity, risking the possibility that when the mask was lifted the public would not approve. However, we can’t demand perfection of any artist, and we must especially forgive new artists for such missteps. Her incomplete aesthetic was still utterly mesmerising in 2009’s pop landscape, and 2010’s “Bad Romance” heralded a period of rapid growth and creativity. Comparisons to Madonna were understandable. The revamped Monster Ball Tour is a loud, rushed yet marvellous production which I believe marks Gaga’s apotheosis. Her virtuosity as performer rivals Madonna, and her voice is stronger. But the first sign that her team didn’t share Madonna’s incisive knowledge of the industry arrived soon with the release of the monotonous “Alejandro” instead of the gorgeous “Dance in the Dark” (even if its bridge steals that of Madonna’s “Vogue”).
Adele’s success in 2011 could never have worked in Gaga’s favour, but she could have harmonised her era with Adele’s to avoid the damaging contrast between honesty (21) and pretence (Born This Way). Following her debut, Born This Way was in many ways an understated era – a song of staggering, simple beauty like “The Edge of Glory”, released with an imaginative yet subtle video might have changed the music industry. Instead Gaga released the album’s mediocre title track with its high-octane LGBT advocacy. In thereby alienating heterosexual listeners Gaga relinquished her position as a camp figure in the mainstream (as Madonna always was) to become a pigeonholed queer icon (akin to Cyndi Lauper). Like Beyoncé, her vain desire to symbolise a political movement tarnished her art. The era couldn’t recover from such a botched start – overexposure and hastily-conceived videos further bruised the star so that by the time she returned to form with the “You and I” video the public had lost interest. Then Artpop (2013-14), visually sound but musically questionable, was virtually abandoned after one single. Cheek to Cheek (2014), her jazz album with Tony Bennett, and the soft-rock Joanne (2016) reflect a jaded and nostalgic turn away from pop, and while the latter did salvage her image with the raw “Million Reasons” and consummate Super Bowl performance, its modest sales were propelled almost entirely by core fans. “Come to Mama” is my favourite track from Joanne – a gloriously camp plea to the embittered which voices woman’s healing power and foreshadows that Clinton presidency that never happened (Gaga performed the song on Clinton’s campaign), and “Sinner’s Prayer” is also a highlight. “The Cure” (2017) is a luscious one-off radio-friendly single which underperformed and ended hopes of a true comeback. Rarely has a superstar been so swiftly consigned to veteran status: Gaga must be commended for her talent and work ethic, but she’ll be remembered as a woman who had the opportunity to change popular culture and flunked it. Her career’s trajectory only reinforces the remarkable breadth and consistency of Madonna’s.
There has never been anything particularly exciting about Katy Perry. One of the Boys (2008-9) is her strongest era to my mind, as it has an aesthetic cohesion her subsequent eras lack. While the record itself is close to unlistenable, her stylised, Bettie Paige persona is at times compelling. Her interviews from 2008 reveal a breathily-voiced, slightly irritating young woman revelling in girlish artifice, clearly a rebellion against the evangelical Katy Hudson she’d been before. This rebellion is the only authentic aspect of her career; Perry was not able to develop further personae as inspired or complete as the first one. The music videos from the first stage of her career complement each other, and are only slightly calculated; with her confidence and unapologetic poppiness, Perry replaced in the music industry the far superior Gwen Stefani, whose commercial success by 2008 was on the wane. If only Stefani had possessed Perry’s ambition and business sense!
2010-12’s Teenage Dream era was a sanitised, manufactured and protracted replay of its predecessor. A demand for a marketable relatability led Perry to try to suppress her tendency towards artifice, creating a tension in the artist which exaggerated her quirkiness into parody. Due to this tension Perry has never, in spite of her infectiously catchy discography, connected with the public as successfully as the entirely relatable and talentless Taylor Swift, whose album sales dwarf hers. While Teenage Dream’s songs are more melodic than One of the Boys, they don’t share that album’s authenticity and (albeit limited) lyrical invention. Teenage Dream’s generic videos also lack the narrative thread which such a long era requires, and Perry’s unsuccessful attempts at satiric winks through self-mockery deny us a truly immersive, sublime pop experience. Her shortcomings are glaring in the “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” video, her most comically ambitious creation which fails on all counts due to the heavy-handedness of her performance. Clever elements of the era, such as the candyfloss scent which permeated arenas on her California Dreams Tour, were so evidently dreamt up by someone else that they do not expiate her selling-out. Perry pales in comparison to the brooding, arch Marina and the Diamonds, her British counterpart, although that artist seems similarly torn between artistic and commercial success (erring on the opposite side to Perry), and the resulting desire is to transcend rather than synthesise pop trends.
Perry’s latter two albums, Prism (2013-14) and Witness (2017-18), are scarcely worth mentioning. Prism evinces a refusal to mature, an absence of subtlety, a cheap and comic sexuality and of course a continued (partly successful) quest for chart domination. Perry does not have political insight, but was evidently empowered by her liaison with Hillary Clinton in her 2016 campaign to contrive a political message for her most recent album. The result is the rather hollow “Chained to the Rhythm”, which is like Lily Allen’s “The Fear” but with an even less definable message. The video, although quite imaginative, undermines the song’s subversion with its high budget gloss and elaborate choreography. Perry has been punished for this misstep (and also for a dreadful haircut): Witness has underperformed dramatically. The short-lived pop princess bows out in style, however: her performance of “Dark Horse” in her recent Witness Tour is, I believe, one of the highlights of her career. Perry dances to the hypnotic song on moving blocks, against the backdrop of a giant, setting sun. The effect is spectacular, recalling the Ancient Egypt of the song’s video but with the subtlety and simplicity which her career has so often cried out for, although the performance is cheapened by her incorrigible goofiness.
The Witness Tour
Perry will not be remembered as an artist, though ambitious pop stars will learn from her very serious marketing formula – hopefully without sacrificing their artistry on the altar of quick singles success. To give her some credit, Perry was not a serious artist to begin with so her career trajectory is not too disappointing; and she has proven herself as an engaging entertainer and effective businesswoman.
Few regard Amy Winehouse as a pop star, but that’s what she was. Her unorthodox image – integral to her success – borrows more from David Bowie than Dinah Washington, and although she denied the influence of pop on her work, watching Madonna in the nineties must have fed the imagination of the young, British aesthete. Winehouse’s soul was not part of any broader movement; she fearlessly and singlehandedly appropriated the old genre and, with the success of the rich, confessional Back to Black (2006-7), made it pop. How telling that, after her death, Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Beyoncé were among the first to acknowledge her influence.
Winehouse’s music videos are faultless, and testify to her performativity, as do her unchanging makeup and beehive, now imprinted on the popular consciousness. Like Adele, the foremost British musician this century, listening to her voice one might mistake her as American. But Winehouse and Adele’s astonishing, smoky vocals and grounded, soul-baring lyrics are very much the product of their milieu. Their range of influences, American and British, gave them unique perspectives on soul and pop, and without the cultural anxiety that would accompany any American on such an endeavour they intuitively pillaged the best aspects of both. In their debut albums, Frank (2003-4) and 19 (2007-8), snatches of their British accents can still be heard. Intimidated by Adele’s newfound success, Winehouse reportedly suffered from an artistic crisis in 2012 while working on her third album; while Adele magnanimously attributes her success to Winehouse, it’s not hard to see how swiftly and opportunistically she filled the gap left by Winehouse’s descent into addiction. It’s easy to imagine Adele’s success as accidental, but due to its timeliness and emotive power 21 (2010-11) was bound to succeed. A general public exhausted by Lady Gaga’s histrionics welcomed the brief return to the age of nineties’ divas that Adele’s act offered. In spite of an English self-effacement, all the melodramatic sass of Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey can be glimpsed in her mannerisms on stage, yet her crippling flight- and performance-anxiety confirm a greater sensitivity. She’s more secure about her pop influences than Winehouse, naming the Spice Girls and Beyoncé as her idols, and despite all her gestures to soul her definitive songs can be safely categorised as pop. Image is as crucial to Adele as it was to Winehouse; her persona is twinkling, smouldering, affable and calculated to a tee; her gregariousness masks not only a serious artist, but her formidable focus and drive. (Look at the adeptness with which she prevented a backlash in 2017 by dedicating her second Album of the Year award to Beyoncé.) 25 (2015-16) was a fine, sumptuous repeat of its predecessor, but if she’s to maintain her primacy her next record must show adventure; I’d suggest exploring a slightly erotic sound.
Nobody foresaw the success of either of these women, but given their competitiveness and sheer talent it was inevitable. Adele must be regarded as the superior artist given just how poor Winehouse’s output and performances were after the release of Back to Black; it is a tragedy that Winehouse’s talent was so marred but – as with all great art – we must count ourselves lucky to have experienced what she gave us: the seeds of a nearly-perfect pop act.
A comparable though less convincing British diva is Florence Welch from Florence + the Machine. Known for her Grace Slick-esque wails, Welch attempts to integrate the art pop of Kate Bush and PJ Harvey with a more radio-friendly sound represented by Paul Epworth and even Calvin Harris. Full of idiosyncrasies and creative impulses, she is best viewed as a British Lady Gaga. Although more lyrically intense and stylistically measured, Welch, like Gaga, suffers from overreaching – there is no conscious vision that unifies her work; simply a beautiful wildness which pretends to say more than it does. Releasing her consistently good records in the shadow of Winehouse and then Adele, Welch, despite her faults, has not achieved the chart success her talent deserves. She came close to crafting a wonderfully popular, if overblown, sound, but did not embrace her pop sensibility enough to guarantee mainstream success. If a pop musician masquerades as something other than a pop star, the public will punish them for it. Let’s hope that Welch’s coronation as major pop star does happen, perhaps at the beginnings of a solo career; though I suspect that ship has sailed. My favourite of her songs are “What the Water Gave Me”, “Never Let Me Go” and “Breaking Down”, consecutive tracks on her second album Ceremonials (2011-12). Inspired by Virginia Woolf, these songs evoke that writer’s melancholy and sensitivity so much they’ve become inextricably linked with Woolf in my mind.
Ellie Goulding, a minor artist in comparison, showed potential with her debut era Lights (2009-11), with spangled, magical visuals which complement her soft and ethereal voice. “This Love (Will Be Your Downfall)” hints at what could have been. However, Goulding found American success early on with the song “Lights”, and further success slowly sapped her creativity, the dire Delirium (2015-16) culminating her degeneration into blandness. I believe Goulding’s art so faltered because her success was accidental. The demure girl from Herefordshire probably never envisaged herself as a global pop star, and thus couldn’t protect her artistic vision from venality. Her artistry gave way to a ruthless pivot to commercial success; whereas the most ambitious and important pop musicians always conceive the artistry and commercial success as one and the same.
It’s a shame that Charli XCX, one of our most energetic and promising pop stars, never quite reined in the punkishness which audiences in 2014 (when her first major album Sucker was released) found so off-putting; Neon Hitch, whose early songs and videos displayed originality and verve, failed to distinguish herself from Kesha. After featuring on successful singles, these two women could have catapulted themselves into the pop world, but did not seize the opportunity with enough tenacity. Sometimes the stars just don’t align; there was little chance Natalia Kills, a creative and motivated musician who debuted in 2010, would find any success in the shadow of Lady Gaga. Success has always been an uphill battle for non-American pop stars: they must offer something distinguishable from the American superstars while still pivoting to the world’s biggest music market. Jessie J, whose fun debut era Who You Are (2010-12) is let down by daft lyrics, struggled with an increasingly over-Americanised identity until she both alienated her British audience and became expendable in the United States. M.I.A., always a greater visionary than the grandiose Kanye West, didn’t prioritise chart success, not realising that superstardom opens up doors artistically – arena tours and award show performances enhance any pop act.
Lily Allen’s vaunted pop experiment mostly fails because even her most joyful melodies are dragged down by the misery of her lyrics. Allen does not have the astringency for social commentary, and her attempts at it only reveal a rather underdeveloped world view. She is at her best at her most personal: “Chinese” is a novel and earnest piece in which the poppy melody is trusted to lift up and reveal the joy that lurks beneath the seemingly mundane act of ordering a takeaway. Perhaps It’s Not Me, It’s You (2008-9) can serve as a blueprint for future pop stars with the sharpness and thoughtfulness required for such a project to work. But only a brave person would utter the names of these marginal musicians in the same breath as those two great women who still tower over the industry. Amy Winehouse and Adele changed the pop world.
Of all the women featured in this blog only Madonna, Beyoncé and Rihanna are already immortal. Rihanna’s story is of a Barbadian teenager who was plucked out of a crowd by A&Rs and in under fifteen years outsold every female musician save Madonna. She is endlessly sexy and stylish; a vocal and visual chameleon with a mysteriously immutable core; Josephine Baker, Janet Jackson, Grace Jones and Madonna are her kin.
Her overlooked, reggae-tinged debut era Music of the Sun (2005) was essential in ensuring she’d never lose her Caribbean spirit, and while she was at that time controlled by her label she must always be given credit for her voice, her greatest asset. Those who hear only technical ability won’t appreciate Rihanna’s unmistakable sultry voice which – orphically – brightens any song, which – when her new singles are released – inexorably crosses each ocean to serenade the Western world from radios and phones. During A Girl Like Me (2006), the passionate eighteen-year-old began to tug at her marionette strings until they were severed with Good Girl Gone Bad (2007-8), which started the decade-long project of self-definition that would captivate millions.
While “Umbrella” is a classic song and video, like Madonna her songs and eras are secondary to her personality, increasingly so as she matured and found stronger self-expression. 2008’s “Live Your Life” and 2009’s “Run this Town”, urban songs for which she provides hypnotic choruses, are early signs of the superstar she’d grow into, honing one of the coolest looks in pop. Even with Rated R’s (2009-10) fashion mishaps she retained the coolness which made her the most palatable female pop star to heterosexual males save Adele. That dark, bold era (where she attempts to heal wounds inflicted by her abusive ex-boyfriend Chris Brown, and her father) was followed by her most stylised, Loud (2010-11). The lush, feminine hues of Loud’s videos (especially “Only Girl (In the World)”) represent a rejection of adversity and the salve she found in pop. With her next two eras Talk That Talk (2011-12) and Unapologetic (2012-14) she thrived on and responded to her celebrity, playing with the camera and becoming one of her decade’s most ubiquitous icons, amassing more US number ones than Michael Jackson and Madonna in the process. She meticulously guarded herself from overexposure, and telegraphed her strength, vulnerability and freedom through fashion:
At the CFDA Awards
I’m more endeared to the uneven, solipsistic Anti (2016), with its moments of raw emotion, than to the pitch-perfect Lemonade, and I suspect the “Work” video(s) and the neo-doo-wop ballad “Love on the Brain” will endure longer than anything else from either. But like Beyoncé, Rihanna must not lose her focus on chart success if she’s to fulfil her potential – Anti’s sloppy release strategy verged on self-sabotage, and tracks like “Yeah, I Said It” are best left to the likes of FKA Twigs. Rihanna also began to channel the alternate emoting and detachment of Amy Winehouse, which was at times captivating but accentuated her nihilistic impulses – the tension between nihilism and egotism has always been latent in Rihanna compared to Winehouse, but manifests itself persistently in her magnanimity to Brown, attention-grabbing outfits, inconsistent performances and messy (sometimes distraught) online posts. I sincerely hope this great light doesn’t go down the path of Winehouse or Whitney Houston – if anything her Barbadian insouciance will save her.