On Rihanna, Authenticity and Reinvention

Associate Beauty Editor Suzie Michael and writer Anne T. Donahue discuss what it means to be a Rihanna fan in 2017.

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ANNE T. DONAHUE: OK, so Suzie. What’s your favourite Rihanna moment? Because I’m going to say I use her annoyed-and-rolling-up-the-car-window gif almost daily, but I’m also obsessed with when she called out reporters at the CFDAs after they were so scandalized by her sheer crystal dress. She does such a great job clapping back at sexism, and I think her approach to idiots is the type that younger fans can probably see and apply to their own lives. She recently mentioned in an Instagram post that Naomi Campbell influenced young girls, herself included. I think Rihanna has that effect, too. I would’ve killed for a role model like her when I was a teen.

SUZIE: YES. That is something I think about all the time, how I would have loved to have her around when I was growing up. Though maybe I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate her as much—I’m not sure. But you’re right, her ability to stand up for herself (on Twitter/Instagram, in interviews, etc.) in an industry that doesn’t really let celebs do that, and rather resorts to publicists, is seriously game-changing. Like when was the last time Rihanna’s publicist released a statement about anything? Does that job even exist?

Anyway, my favourite Rihanna moment—this is more of a ~time~ though—is when she was active on Instagram and that @Rihplies account gained popularity (they’d just find every comment she left on people’s photos). It was so fascinating to watch her go through something as normal and part of our day-to-day as Instagram and see how she reacted to things in a perfectly Rihanna way.

My all-time fave is when someone asked her, “What’s the most dangerous thing you’ve ever done?” and she replied “Fall in love.” It’s been three or four years and I still have that screenshot saved on my phone. I love Rih at her most honest, which, IMO, is when she’s talking about love.

ATD: Why is that? Or do you listen to every artist talking about love?

SUZIE: No, it’s definitely a Rihanna thing. She doesn’t talk/sing about love like anyone else. It’s very visceral when she does it. I read that she recorded “Love Without Tragedy/Mother Mary” in her house while Chris Brown was in the room with her (when they’d briefly gotten back together) and that image itself just breaks my heart and also is kind of the perfect example of what I’m trying to say about Rih re: (ha) love. She may not throw herself into her music as much as other artists—or choreography or acting or whatever—but she really throws herself into vulnerability, and I respect her for that more than anything else.

ATD: I think vulnerability is even more important than the technicalities, too. When an artist is vulnerable, it gives the rest of us permission to be vulnerable, too.

SUZIE: In every magazine interview, the writer almost always mentions that Rihanna seems like she has more fun and enjoys life more than the rest of us. Don’t you totally feel that way? It’s like she goes through life with a different perspective than most people. I always wonder what lens she’s looking through. Even photos of her picking up a smoothie from a restaurant! Why is she having so much more fun than we have when we pick up smoothies?

ATD: I think about that a lot! Have you seen the video compilation of every time she thought she was being photographed and her cousin Leandra was filming instead? She seems so full of joy. And I think she applies that to her music and to her style, which is why we respond to it so much. Even her sad songs and her not-super-exciting pieces seem to be executed with enthusiasm. She pours herself into everything, but not recklessly. It’s like she’s figured out who she is, and she likes herself, and that’s enough. And I think that’s actually such a rare, wonderful thing—especially for artists. There’s this myth that artists have to be miserable to create beauty, and Rihanna has totally flipped that.

SUZIE: Oh that’s really interesting. She’s the opposite of the tortured artist. I feel that way the most when I watch the “Cheers” video. Has anyone ever had as much fun as she had in that vid? Idk. However, interesting you bring up her enthusiasm because I feel like one of her most recurring criticisms is that she always sounds bored on her songs. Which is actually one of my favourite things about them/her. Unapologetic was a weird album for me because she was clearly going through a tough time around the time it was recorded and released (Chris Brown/Karrueche/RIP and good riddance to that whole era) and you could hear it in her voice, even on the more dance-y songs. I think that’s amazing and completely intentional. To me, it’s like she goes through life with this sense of excitement, but when she’s onstage she kind of…turns it off?

ATD: I’ve never seen her live because life is unfair, but as weird as this sounds, I think her faux boredom—because I don’t think she’s actually bored—is part of her commitment to being “like us.” Her performances don’t position her higher than her audience. Instead, her nonchalance brings her closer. I imagine younger audiences watching her and thinking, “Maybe I can do this.” Instead of, “I’ll never be able to do this.”

SUZIE: She wants us to know she doesn’t take that whole world too seriously and doesn’t want—and refuses—to fake anything.

ATD: Do you have a “least favourite” moment? Even musically? It took me embarrassingly long to listen to Rihanna because she debuted when I was in the throes of indie rock. And I kind of stayed there until “Umbrella” and even then, I was very dismissive of her. I think my least favourite moment is almost my inability to take her seriously when I was younger because she was top 40. I operated under the belief that top 40 was “dumb” and I was “cool.” It is not and I was not.

But I remember that drama with the Rihanna tour plane, and I can promise that if I’d been on it, I would’ve had a panic attack almost hourly.

SUZIE: The “Where Have You Been” video is easily my least favourite moment. That choreography makes me criiiinge. Like that dancing is my nails on a chalkboard. It’s SO bad. Actually, not even the choreo but HER. I think the dancers may have been fine, but I’m sure as hell not going to rewatch the vid to double-check. Anytime she tries to do semi-complex choreography is my least favourite Rihanna moment, tbh. It’s not that she’s a bad dancer, of course, but she overthinks it and you can see it on her face.

ATD: Are you happy with Anti after the delays? Because you were invested in the arrival of that album and I feel like we talked about it for an actual year before we even heard anything. I remember you saying you had to spend some real time with it.

SUZIE: I’m so, so happy with it. Some songs I’m still lukewarm about (like “Woo” and “Desperado,” ugh, why even), but the album as a whole is fantastic. Yes, a bit all over the place, but which of her albums hasn’t been? I think the songwriting on Anti is the best of her career, too. There are some lines that are great, but if anyone else sang them I’m convinced they’d be pretty whatever. When Rihanna sings “You love when I fall apart, so you can put me together and throw me against the wall…” SORRY, but anyone who feels nothing when they hear that line is seriously disturbed. I remember when the solo Mikky Ekko version of “Stay” was leaked after the official Rih version, and, no offence to Mikky, it was SO boring. And yet the Rihanna version is my #2 favourite breakup song of all time. (“Ex-Factor,” in case you’re wondering, is #1.) There’s just no one like Rihanna, man. It’s like she takes a song and sets it on fire, and yes, I know how lame that sentence is but I had to say it anyway!

ATD: No, this is a place for honesty! I don’t know anybody who loves Rihanna the way you do. And speaking of which: What do you think about the way her style relates to her music? Do you think her overall aesthetic undergoes an overhaul for every new album cycle? Like, her earlier “club-centric” (gross, I’ll never say that again) songs saw a lot of cute halters and skirts and now we’re seeing her in suits, in fur — would you liken her transformations to someone like Madonna’s? Would we say Rihanna reinvents herself?

SUZIE: Well, I love interacting with Rihanna Navy on Twitter because of how clear-cut the Rihanna “eras” are in their heads. It’s really interesting to be able to say something like “Loud era” and every Rih fan knows you’re talking about red hair and bright colours and prints. That’s what makes her so fun to watch.

I definitely think Rihanna reinvents herself (and she has likened herself to Madonna in the past, so I don’t feel weird saying that) but to me it feels less…forced than Madonna’s. And that’s no shade to Madonna whatsoever. I think it’s because it’s a different time, and we see Rih on Instagram and in paparazzi shots every.single.day. It’s a gradual transformation that we are all a part of and we get to witness whenever the hell we want. With Madonna, it wasn’t like that. It was one day she’d look a certain way, then a month later she would show up at an event and wouldn’t look like that anymore.

Hard to comment on the actual music here, though, because I’m not sure how much I believe when it comes to her “involvement” in the songwriting process (I know, I know, sorry). I think she only recently started actually evolving rather than putting out an album whose only criteria was to be totally different from the last and have a handful of sellable singles.

ATD: Which makes sense because she’s 28, so she’d have to evolve creatively to — I think — avoid wanting to walk into the sea. And when you think about it, her style’s just gotten better and better in that it seems to reflect her instead of catering to what’s cool, hip, etc. Remember “Pon De Replay”? Of course you do. But she was such a wee baby teen. And now her music and her clothing is so, “I’m a grown-ass woman.” Like, the woman can wear a suit.

Plus, I think her lack of clothes tells a story, too. In “Work” and “Kiss It Better” we see a lot of her body. But she is so in control of how we see her, still. I wonder if her choice to let us see more also reflects how this particular album allows us to hear more. And again, in a very controlled way.

SUZIE: I really love that we keep going back to the control factor, because her Thing is constantly seeming both in control and out of it (or above it maybe) at the same time.

ATD: So is 2016 the year she should’ve gotten the Vanguard? This is such a boring answer, but I think this year was perfect. They had to wait for Anti.

SUZIE: Oh man did we ever have to wait for Anti. I do think this is the right year for it. She seems more in control (see, again!) than ever. I read a review of If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late (stay with me, I swear it’s relevant) that said it was the first Drake album where his lyrics weren’t being drowned out by the music and he’d finally learned to play with the sounds on a song, rather than compete against them. And I feel like not only did Anti do that for Rih (hello, can you even imagine her trying to sing “Love on the Brain” three years ago?) but her image just feels SO solid and unshakeable. She’s the most Rihanna she’s ever been.

SUZIE: Speaking of waiting for Anti, why do you think something like #WhereIsR8 was so widely accepted and totally played up on Twitter, whereas people weren’t really “allowed” to say anything about Frank Ocean, and if they did, they were met with “He can do whatever he wants.” Is it because it’s common knowledge that he’s a perfectionist, and she’s maybe not? Is it the type/quality of the music/artist? Or is it because we saw daily paparazzi photos of her leaving the studio whereas Frank just kind of disappeared?

ATD: I think that has a lot to do with it, and I also think it’s Rihanna’s high profile. Pre-Anti, she did that Vanity Fair interview (which was life) and was pictured at events, out and about, being herself, etc. and I think when you see someone actively living, we — as selfish music consumers — want them to be living for us the way we’re living for them. Does that make sense? Frank Ocean and Rihanna are both artists, but Frank has positioned himself as a visual artist and poet as well. Rihanna’s art is no less valid, but hers lives in a more accessible and widely-consumed realm. And I think the bigger the name, the more opinions come into play. I’d say she’s more like Kanye in that sense where hype is just as much a part of their brand as secrecy is Frank’s.

SUZIE: If you could ask her one question, what would it be?

ATD: Oh shit. Okay, well assuming I’ve already asked her to be my friend and she’s accepted, I’d ask her about how she, as an artist obviously in control of her public image, how she doesn’t lose it over misconceptions about her. I feel like a lot of people think they “get” or “know” Rihanna, and then they project those ideals onto her and her choices. I thought it was interesting when she told Vanity Fair she didn’t date and didn’t have time, because I think we have this idea of this woman who can date whoever, live however, etc. and we forget that she’s a real, tangible, complex person. I think so much of what we think about Rihanna has nothing to do with Rihanna at all. What about you?

SUZIE: tbh I would just ask her about her skincare routine because LOL WHAT IS THIS.

ATD: I will never look that good in anything, ever. And I’ve accepted this as my personal truth.

SUZIE: What is your favourite Rihanna lewk? Did you know that for all of 2013, I’d get dressed to go out on weekends by stalking Rihanna fan accounts on IG? Like I would go on @hausofrihanna or @rihannadaily and try to recreate her past outfits with stuff I had in my closet. Is that creepy?

Anyway, I have to split up my answer because it’s complicated. My favourite Rihanna beauty look is a tie between the entire time she was in Brazil for the 2014 World Cup (long black hair, red lipstick, dewy skin) and the blonde shag + nude lip at the Stella McCartney dinner in 2012. The most beautiful I think she’s ever looked is this shot from her Elle shoot. And my favourite Rihanna outfit, and this might be a controversial choice, is this white suit she wore to the Edun Spring 2015 show (that choker!!!!!!!!!!). Honestly, I’ve thought about this so much. I have legitimately asked myself this question on a weekly basis since 2011.

ATD: I love this so much because it’s so different than mine. I love both looks for the “Work” video — honestly (and this will sound so basic), she really inspired me to play with lip colour and to stop being so shy about wearing something sheer or cropped or less safe. Also, that fur coat she rolls up to The Real Jerk is so powerful. Unfuckwithable. That entire video is just a lesson in dressing for yourself and for absolutely no one else.

But again, I could totally be projecting.

SUZIE: Wtf Anne I thought I inspired you to play with lip colour.

ATD: You did because of your love of Rihanna, how about that.

SUZIE: I totally know what you mean though; I feel like (literally copying her outfits aside) she’s single-handedly changed the way that I dress and the way I feel about getting dressed. It’s funny, the one “rule” that always makes think of Rihanna is that one about not wearing a baggy top when wearing something baggy on the bottom, and then I think about outfits of hers like this one and it’s just so…I really don’t want to use a lame word like ‘refreshing’ but it is!

She’s really made herself relevant in the fashion industry because she pulls off shit you would never expect anyone to, and yes it has a lot to do with the fact that she looks like that, but I think it makes her fans feel like they can pull off anything, too. Corny but true!

Like can you just picture how many girls wore men’s boxers to the club in 2014 because of her? Bless.