rihanna: performance @ gramercy theater.
"It's great to be bad! I love being bad. Good is boring. You should be bad."
"Before a show, I usually just drink tea. Me and everybody, we get in a circle, all the dancers, the whole entire band...we hold hands and we just say a big prayer before we go out and we usually have a great show when we do that."
-- Rihanna, web interview after her appearance on TODAY show (link)
A few days before attending Rihanna's free show at New York's Gramercy Theater yesterday, I came across the above video. From the beginning of this album's promotion, I found the idea of Rihanna being "bad" to be laughable. I mean, for god's sake! The girl drinks tea and prays before she goes on stage. If she were actually bad, she'd drink a handle of whiskey and kick some orphans. The only thing I expected to be "bad" about yesterday's performance was the performance itself. Rihanna isn't necessarily known for her impeccable vocal performance and ease of movement on stage.
Apparently Rihanna's not known for her punctuality either. While the doors opened at 8PM, the show didn't begin until a little before 10PM. I guess her tea took a very long time to steep. Fans didn't seem to mind the late entrance, as a select few sang along and waved their complimentary Rihanna umbrellas (courtesy of the Totes brand) as several DefJam releases blared over the speakers before the performance. At approximately 9:15PM a man in a suit emerged from backstage. A lot of people started cheering, and I had no idea why. Was he the opening act? No. Given that Sprint sponsored the event, he was giving out a free Sprint Upstage to one lucky fan*.
When the lights on the stage came down, the rest of the unlucky fans went crazy. When the lights came up, the crowd went even crazier. The band started with a short reinterpretation of Rihanna's first single "Pon de Replay" performed by her two back-up singers. This led into the pop/R&B star's first number one hit "S.O.S." Rihanna entered in a short poofy black & white dress**. She was accompanied by four dancers in black-- two male, two female. The choreography for this number was remarkably well-done, so much that it added to the performance without distracting the viewer or seeming like it was overcompensating for something that wasn't there vocally.
Now that I've mentioned vocals, I should say that Rihanna sounded much better than expected. In fact, she sounded remarkable. I say "remarkable" in the sense that if you can appreciate the unique nasal, robotic quality of her recorded voice, you could appreciate it live. There seemed to be little or no use of backing tracks, which can't be said of all pop artists (I'm looking at you Lindsay, Ashlee, and Britney). Beyond her vocal improvements, Rihanna seems to have improved as a performer. It's as if DefJam sent her to a modern-day equivalent of Berry Gordy Jr.'s Motown charm school. Her movement quality and facial expressions left us believing that the mechanical voice was accompanied by a genuine human persona with true feelings.
This emotional quality was demonstrated exquisitely on the next song in her set, the heart-wrenching ballad "Unfaithful". Rihanna began the song with minimal instrumentation, sitting on a stool without her dancers on the stage. The initial energy on this song could send chills down your spine. But as the band began to swell instrumentally and the song went on...the energy died. Rihanna had a tendency to overperform on this song. Her face scrunched up as if she wasn't the "murderer", but rather the murdered. The presentation almost got campy at points, as she resorted to tapping her perfectly-styled bob on the line "bullet to the head" and dropping her head for a long pause before uttering the closing line "...a murderer".
As if teasing the crowd, the band began to play Rihanna's second single off of Good Girl Gone Bad, "Shut Up and Drive". Rihanna interrupted. She took this moment to congratulate herself on having an international number one single and thanked her fans for making it happen (blah blah). She told people to buy her album (blah blah). And then she yelled at a few people who didn't raise their hands when she asked who bought the album (blah blah). There was some sass and attitude in the way that she spoke when doing this, to the point that I may have actually thought she was "bad" for a second. And you know she loves being bad.
"Shut Up And Drive" has to be my least favorite song on the album. I'm no elitist when it comes to pop music, but all I can say is that it's pure pop drivel. The metaphors and similes comparing her body to an automobile are overboard and cliche. I really can't take it, and the sample of New Order's "Blue Monday" doesn't help it at all. However, I have to give Rihanna's band a huge amount of kudos for filling the venue with a driving (no pun intended) amount of sound. The live version of this song is exceedingly more compelling than the recording. Rihanna could have easily remained stationary on the stage and looked like a true rock star***. Despite that, the four dancers ran in with chairs, surrounding Rihanna and performing mechanical movements around her as if she were a car. Needless to say, these movements appeared more forced than the lyrics, encouraging the viewer to focus way too much on the visual elements when the power of the song was in the aural elements.
The final song in the evening's set was a lackluster version of "Umbrella". Once again, the back-up dancers proved to be unnecessary, moving in uninteresting ways with some umbrellas. The performance could have benefited from taking a cue from the video's minimal choreography. Despite it's shortcomings, there was no way to hate this finale overall. Rihanna, the band, and the back-up singers rocked this. HARD. There were even points in the song where a smile crept onto her face, leading us to believe that she might actually *GASP* be having fun.
It was easier to hate Rihanna after she announced that "Umbrella" would be the final song of the evening, but hey...what do you expect for free? A few resentful audience members took posters home with them after tearing them off the wall. For some reason, this must have made them feel better.
Despite a number of hits under her belt, Rihanna is hardly a household name at this moment in time. If I learned anything from seeing this performance, it's that she's about to be. She is the new archetype for a futuristic R&B dance-rock star. I suppose this could be considered an overstatement, but I truly believe it. Good Girl Gone Bad can easily please a hip-hop, club, R&B, or pop-rock audience, which was evident in the diverse group of folks who showed up for the show. The amazing part about this is that Rihanna hasn't even came close to her potential yet. Perhaps a few gulps of tea and a few ounces of praise will help her get there...
* The lucky fan was me. It was actually kind of embarrassing.
** The dress she wore was the same as in the image above, courtesy of rihannapictures.org.
*** By true rock star, I mean true rock star with very little charisma.
d/l: RIHANNA- Umbrella (Divide & Kreate remix) (YSI)
(electro-rock remix of pop single)
- buy it - site it - space it - hype it - wik it / site it - space it -