THE WASHINGTON POST
It’s Tuesday night in America and Rihanna is at the very top of her game — a game called “Who Wants to Be Civilization’s Most Visible Pop Star?” Moments before she officially clocks in at Washington, D.C.’s Verizon Center, the entire arena glows impatiently, 10,000 smartphones raised up, eager to snap a bad gal who was born to be snapped.
Try as we might, nobody takes better pictures of Rihanna than Rihanna. She’s the greatest living symbol of the Instagram era, a superstar who communicates intensely with her disciples via selfie. To dismiss her for her vanity is to whiff on the entire lesson of her fame: Being seen is a way of being understood.
Selfies, of course, are nothing new. We’ve been engulfed by this highly democratic form of self-portraiture for a few years now, and contrary to our most apocalyptic hunches, the great American selfie-boom did not presage the end of the world. In fact, these images only make our world more visible. When we sling a selfie off into the digital breeze, we aren’t smearing our narcissistic drool across the public bandwidth. We’re declaring our existence in an overcrowded society.
Rihanna’s selfies declare her existence as a person, but more so her existence as a pop star — and they do it by forging intimacy and mystique, usually in the same frame. Like the sheer fabrics she occasionally sports in her selfies, these are images that conceal and reveal. More important, they give Rihanna agency over her visual narrative, allowing her to control exactly how her image is projected into a messy mediascape. Her selfies make it easy for us to identify with her vulnerability while inviting us to admire her power.
Is that power a complete hallucination, though? The critical theorist Bernard E. Harcourt says we’re currently living in an “expository society” — one in which we are expected to upload our lives onto networks where we can be effortlessly surveilled and profiled by data-collecting corporations, by the U.S. government and by one another. And while this reflexive spillage of personal info could obviously be exploited to our detriment in the very near future, we don’t seem all that freaked out about it.
Andy Warhol wasn’t freaked about it, either. He knew that our modern fascination with being seen was really just our fundamental human desire to have our personhood recognized. He believed in visibility as a human right — perhaps at the expense of other freedoms. “People are always putting it down as an invasion of privacy, but I think everyone should be bugged all the time,” Warhol once said. “Bugged and photographed.”
It’s hard to know how Andy would have felt about PRISM, but he obviously would have adored Rihanna. Is there a contact-point between the two? You bet. Celebrities set behavioral examples that make us feel more comfortable in our daily habits, whether we’re mindful of the influence or not. So while Rihanna’s music sometimes alludes to rebellion and resistance, she has also helped us become completely cool with surrendering our privacy to unknown observers. Maybe that stealth hum coursing beneath Rihanna’s most seductive melodies is actually the sound of Samsung, one of the singer’s biggest sponsors, data-mining our lives while we Snapchat ourselves two-stepping to “Pour It Up.”
Either way, the hum is drowned out in concert. In its place is a pleasure-buzz that doesn’t quit. Rihanna’s singing and dancing both seem completely possessed and totally spontaneous. And being suspended in that funny space where you can’t tell if she’s going for broke or only half-trying is one of the deepest satisfactions you can feel at a pop show.
The set leans heavily on songs from her new album, “Anti,” but they all sound like packing foam intended to safely transport Rihanna’s more life-enhancing hits directly to our frontal lobes for permanent storage. One exception: “Work,” currently the No. 1 song in the land, which suddenly sounds perfect because Drake isn’t here to foul the reverie with his tedious guest verse.
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Onstage, Rihanna persuades us to listen to this tune — and all of her tunes — with our eyes. Her dark lipstick seems to have been applied so we can better read her lips. When she touches herself to the rhythm, we’re reminded of the beat registering on our bodies, too. As for the stage design, it’s exquisite. The lighting is knockout artful and the costumes are all sci-fi dishabille. The show looks how it sounds, and sounds how it looks, which is inexplicably rare at a pageant of this magnitude.
In the seats, thousands of phones appear to be recording at any given moment, but they aren’t all pointed toward the stage. A concert is a place to see and to be seen, so naturally, attendees snap selfies during the solemn gust of “Stay,” during the elated thump of “We Found Love,” during the chic snarl of “Bitch Better Have My Money.”
Prigs might be quick to hiss at these young people for repeatedly removing themselves from the moment, but at a Rihanna concert, snapping a selfie is an act of engagement every bit as pure as dancing or singing along. Selfies don’t degrade the moment. They consecrate the moment. Tonight, in this room, as strange as it may seem, there is no gesture more reverential than turning your back on Rihanna and taking a picture.