The Rihanna narrative

In the mid-1970s, it wasn’t unusual for bands to spit and throw drinks at their audience. Fans felt as if they’d been anointed: conferred divine or holy status by their favoured bands. Or maybe they were just too drunk to care. At any rate, they spat back and hurled drinks, making gigs a kind of ritual exchange of bodily fluids and lager. Fans loved it and, most bands didn’t mind the reciprocal abuse.

Rihanna wouldn’t have enjoyed it one bit. Earlier this week, when mingling among her adoring fans at a concert in Birmingham, she offered her outstretched arm as rock stars often do nowadays. One adorer clung to her arm for a little longer than she would tolerate. Remember: fans like the communion that touching, holding, or being covered in phlegm often brings. Rihanna did not quite … err … grasp this and walloped the clingy fan with her microphone. The video of this incident is right here. Unrepentant, Rihanna explained the strike tersely: “That bitch [the fan] won’t let me go.” There was no apology or hint of remorse.

RiRi is right up there with Beyoncé and Lady Gaga. Still only 25, the Barbadian born Robyn Rihanna Fenty has made eight albums, appeared in four movies and is currently on her fifth tour, the latest a sell-out (a standing ticket at the Birmingham concert would have the fan back £95). Forbes lists at number four in their top global celebrities, estimating her wealth at $53 million (£34.25 million). In common with many female divas, much of her income comes not from music, but from advertising deals. As well as endorsements with the likes of Vita Coco and Nivea, she has her own fragrance, Reb’l Fleur. She has 75.5 million likes on her Facebook page and a twitter following roughly the same size as the total population of Peru (30 million). Her all conquering Diamonds tour stretches over eight months and across all continents. Even before the tour started Rihanna had won 6 Grammy Awards and sold 37 million albums and 146 million digital tracks. If last year belonged to Lady Gaga, 2013 is Rihanna’s year.

A couple of weeks ago, I was called by a Colombian journalist, Sandra Janer, who writes for a Bogotá-based magazine Fucsia. She wanted to know why Rihanna is so popular. Her logic was that Rihanna has been involved in a well-documented abusive relationship with rapper Chris Brown, to whom she has returned, despite, it seems, taking some beatings from him. Sandra Janer’s assumption was that people instantly lose respect for women who take punishment from a man yet forgive him repeatedly.

Actually, I replied, Rihanna’s tumultuous relationship with Brown is exactly what makes her fascinating. Far from being turned off, we become perversely intrigued: why would a fabulously wealthy celebrity who, it would seem, is spoiled for choice when it comes to men, opt for a guy who knocks her about? I was reminded of an argument by cultural historian and film critic Neal Gabler. “Celebrity really isn’t a person. Celebrity is more like a vast, multicharacter show,” he suggests. “Celebrity is narrative, even though we understandably conflate the protagonist of the narrative with the narrative itself and use the terms interchangeably.”

While he doesn’t define what he means by narrative, I presume he refers to an unbroken account, consisting of incidents and people that connect to form an overall story. The story may be a chronicle, or a history to record events and it may incorporate elements of a fable in the sense that it conveys a moral or lesson. Without diminishing RiRi’s vocal talent or the quality of her music, her global popularity is still astonishing. But it makes more sense if we view her less as a person, more as a narrative, a story with a moral. And, of course, the violent relationship with Brown is an integral, perhaps the most important, part of her story. Celebrity culture functions as a kind of drama we stage in our own minds. Our dramatis personae are the actors we see in the popular media and we write our own scripts, according to our own imaginations. It’s impossible to see an image or hear the name of Rihanna without thinking about her turbulent love life.

Where’s the moral in her story? It still isn’t clear.  Some say Rihanna is right to endure cruelty in the pursuit of true love, while others think she is a sucker and that her conduct is typical of a powerful woman who is simultaneously disempowered. That’s the fascination: we debate this endlessly without ever reaching a definite conclusion; the moral of Rihanna’s narrative is indeterminate.

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