Turning the Tables: Rihanna Is the 21st Century’s Most Influential Musician

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A report by Jenny Gathright for NPR.

Our thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.

It’s not enough to make list after list. The Turning the Tables project seeks to suggest alternatives to the traditional popular music canon, and to do more than that, too: to stimulate conversation about how hierarchies emerge and endure. This year, Turning the Tables considers how women and non-binary artists are shaping music in our moment, from the pop mainstream to the sinecures of jazz and contemporary classical music. Our list of the 200 Greatest Songs By Women+ offers a soundtrack to a new century. This series of essays takes on another task.

The 25 arguments writers make in these pieces challenge the usual definitions of influence. Some rethink the building legacies of popular artists; others celebrate those who create within subcultures, their innovations rippling outward over time. As always, women forge new pathways in sound; today, they also make waves under the surface of culture by confronting, in their music, the increased fluidity of “woman” itself. What is a woman? It’s a timeless question on the surface, but one deeply engaged with whatever historical moment in which it is asked. Our 25 Most Influential Women Musicians of the 21st Century illuminate its complexities. –Ann Powers


The cover of Rihanna‘s 2016 album ANTI, created by artist Roy Natchum and commissioned by Rihanna, features the singer as a young child with a crown that’s fallen down over her head so that it covers her eyes. She holds a balloon and red paint drips down over her from the top corner of the canvas. Overlaying the entire painting is a poem rendered in Braille, written by the poet Chloe Mitchell in collaboration with Rihanna and Natchum.

“I sometimes fear that I am misunderstood,” it starts. “It is simply because what I want to say, what I need to say, won’t be heard. Heard in a way I so rightfully deserve. What I choose to say is of so much substance that people just won’t understand the depth of my message…”

What does it mean to think of Rihanna, global superstar, as unheard? Her music has soundtracked most of this century, and that kind of ubiquity is easily taken for granted, like air. She released a full-length studio album every single year between 2005 and 2012, save for a one-year break in 2008. Of the 61 Rihanna songs on the Billboard Hot 100, 14 of them were No. 1 hits, and 31 of them were top 10 hits. No album has landed as many No. 1 songs on Billboard‘s Dance Club Songs chart as ANTI, the album Rihanna released in 2016 after an unprecedented (for her) hiatus.

For most of my life, there has been a Rihanna single — or multiple Rihanna singles, or multiple songs defined by a Rihanna hook — playing prominently on Top 40 radio. So it’s not enough to say Rihanna is the air. Rihanna shaped the texture and taste of the air by consistently doing what pop, at its very best, is supposed to do: taking disparate genres — rock, EDM, dancehall, trap and even dubstep — and turning them into something that makes sense to us, to everyone. If she’s not seen as taking musical risks, it’s only because so many of them paid off.

Rihanna is the most important pop artist of the century because of these contributions to music — and her music is beloved. It’s still worth asking, however, how we as an audience can adequately love Rihanna the person.

When Rihanna received the Video Vanguard Award at the 2016 MTV Video Music Awards, Drake introduced her. His speech is memorable for his cute, unsurprising and ultimately distracting faux-confession: “She’s someone I’ve been in love with since I was 22 years old.” Equally instructive, though, are the parts of Drake’s speech that were about Rihanna and not Drake. He mentioned her achievements in music but ultimately asserted that what was “most impressive” was Rihanna the person.

“She succeeds by doing something that no one in this music industry does, which is being herself,” Drake said. “We love the music, which can change styles from album to album, we love the videos, which change their artistic vision from year to year, but most of all, we love the woman, who hasn’t changed since day one.”

Rihanna was gracious in her acceptance speech. She spoke about how her success is never just about her — it’s about Barbados, her family, her fans and “women, black women.” She also went on to thank the directors who went along with her “crazy ideas” — her subtle way of asserting what Drake did not: that she is pop music’s vanguard, and that the work itself is where her prowess lies. Drake’s speech focuses on the product: It was the music that changed styles and the videosthat changed artistic vision. The only thing Rihanna did, according to this syntactical choice, was remain the same.

In her lead essay for the first iteration of Turning the Tables, a list of the 150 greatest albums by women in the pop era, Ann Powers notes that descriptions of greatness are often gendered: “Women are linked to the natural and the timeless, while men innovate and make history. Men build civilizations and create great works, while women animate spaces and connect people with their nurturing souls and alluring energy.”

Those who claim to love Rihanna often say it’s because of her soul, or her energy. Miranda July wrote about this phenomenon in her 2015 profile of the pop icon, where she describes how various people responded when she asked them about Rihanna: “A lesbian art history professor told me that she’s ‘the real deal.’ Others used the words ‘magic’ and ‘epic.’ But when I tried to get anyone to pinpoint things she had said or done — particular interviews or incidents — everyone became lost in inarticulacy.” When July told her Uber driver he was taking her to interview Rihanna, he responded, “You kidding? That’s my girl,” he said. “I love her. She’s so down-to-earth.”

But after meeting Rihanna, words fail July, too. Her final observation of the star is about her soul: “Souls don’t really care about good or bad, right or wrong — they’re just true. Everlasting. It makes you sound dumb to talk about this stuff, which is why no one could tell me exactly what it was about Rihanna. But millions of fans don’t seem to need it explained to them. A soul just knows a soul.”

“My understanding, from the moment she sat down, was that we were in love,” July continues. It is a bold presumption of emotional access.

In a 2012 profile for GQ, Jay Bulger says Rihanna comes across as more authentic than her peers: “She sometimes gets grouped with theatrical pop stars like Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, and Nicki Minaj. But those are one-woman masquerade balls, their real selves hidden behind the next costume change. Rihanna, on the other hand, comes off as wild, weird, unfiltered, a little unhinged, which just makes everyone else go all unhinged.”

The scholar Esther L. Jones has argued that as Rihanna established more and more narrative authority over her public image, she began to author a woman “simultaneously ordinary and exceptional, intimate and distant, known and inaccessible.” Her social media feeds exemplify this: She promotes her wildly successful global fashion brands, but she also loves to post memes. For MTV News, Doreen St. Felix wrote that “a cultivation of lifestyle — her trips back home to Barbados, her tattoos, her laughter, her love of family, her social media presence — in the moment that every other person of her caliber is trying out reclusivity, and the secondary group is trying out diva-hood, makes Rihanna the last rock star.”

It matters that Rihanna comes across as genuine, that her sense of self appears unshaken by celebrity, that she feels accessible to her fans. But this, as Jones and St. Felix are getting at, is not a persona that occurs without effort. Rihanna has been performing what it means to be in the thick of things — not above them, not outside looking in, not past them — for her whole career. That takes emotional and intellectual work, especially when you consider — as Jones does in her essay “‘What’s My Name?’: Reading Rihanna’s Autobiographical Acts” — that the public-private distinction Rihanna had spent years cultivating was shattered in 2009, when Rihanna’s then-boyfriend Chris Brown physically assaulted her just ahead of the Grammys and the photo evidence spread across the Internet.

To really love Rihanna, one must respect that what we so often find lovable about her — her so-called relatability, the way she’s able to de-emphasize the significant social and artistic distance between herself and her fans — is also her work.

“We Found Love,” released two-and-a-half years after Chris Brown attacked Rihanna, is classic dance pop with an edge. It’s meant to sound like joy, but the lyrics are vague enough to account for a whole range of human feeling. In the video, Rihanna chooses darkness. It’s about two people who are not good for each other. There are fights that look unhealthy. There are plenty of drugs. It starts with an opening monologue about a relationship gone wrong. “When it’s over, and it’s gone,” the English actress Agyness Deyn reads, “you almost wish that you could have all that bad stuff back so that you could have the good.”

In a New Yorker profile, director Melina Matsoukas says it was completely unintentional that Rihanna’s on-screen partner in the video looked eerily like Chris Brown — lightskinned, blonde. But she says the plot took inspiration from “[her] terrible love life and obviously [Rihanna’s] terrible love life and every woman’s terrible love life.”

Matsoukas also told The New Yorker‘s Alexis Okeowo that Rihanna was on board: “She was open to taking it there … and with being honest and showing what life really is.”

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Rihanna had been taking it there for a while. “Russian Roulette,” the lead single from her 2009 album Rated R, is about love with life or death stakes, with a video whose imagery comes a bit too close for comfort to police reports from Chris Brown’s physical assault of her. Brown’s assault of Rihanna took place in a car. A speeding car appears in the video multiple times; at once point, it hurtles towards a standing Rihanna.

When asked about the demand that she be a role model, Rihanna told Vogue: “That title was put on me when I was just finding my way, making mistakes in front of the world. I didn’t think it was fair.” The videos for “We Found Love” and “Russian Roulette” are not about looking back on hard moments that you’ve gotten over. They’re about being in the messy present. It’s not clear that this is what people are talking about when they call Rihanna “down-to-earth,” but this too is evidence of the work of being real — dealing with patriarchy and racism and making art through it.

In the video for “S&M,” which Matsoukas also directed, Rihanna wears a dress made of newsprint. She’s immobile, bound up in plastic wrap as her body’s literally covered in media commentary. “Rihanna’s ‘enjoyment’ of the public flagellation with words and accusations is her attempt to speak back to the larger forces of dominance and power, forces that uphold Chris Brown’s assault on her by prolonging it for their own entertainment and profit,” writes scholar Donna Aza Weir-Soley in the paper “From ‘F Love’ to ‘He Is the One’?: Rihanna, Chris Brown and the Danger of Traumatic Bonding.”

As for Rihanna, she told she told Spin about the song: “I don’t think of it in a sexual way, I’m thinking metaphorically … People are going to talk about you, you can’t stop that. You just have to be that strong person and know who you are so that stuff just bounces off.”

On the album Unapologetic, which came out as rumors of Rihanna and Chris Brown’s romantic reunion swirled (they were later confirmed), critic Jessica Hopper wrote for Pitchfork: “She’s quite a distance from the tidy narrative we’d like, the one where she’s learned from her pain and is back to doing diva triumph club stomp in the shadow of Beyoncé. Unapologetic rubs our faces in the inconvenient messy truth of Rihanna’s life which, even if it were done well, would be hard to celebrate as a success.”

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But Unapologetic was also home to “Pour It Up,” the song and video in which Rihanna plays both the dancer and the client in a strip club. It’s a meditation on financial independence and an assertion of control.

Rihanna’s realness is not just about her carefree Instagram posts, or her habit of taking wine to-go. Her realness is popular art that cuts to the hard questions. She stretched the boundaries of genre, of course, but she also demanded that her vast audience grapple with the complexity of her inner life — both when it was empowering and when it was difficult. The worry that often accompanies this kind of bravery is that it won’t be legible to your audience — or that you’ll be misunderstood.

Last year, Jamila Woods, another artist who thinks a lot about authorial control, told me she was thinking about something Sonia Sanchez said: “I shall become, I shall become a collector of me. And put meat on my soul.”

When your ears are always burning, I imagine it must be important to write against the stories you believe others are telling about you. “Sometimes a person looks at me and sees dollars. They see numbers and they see a product,” Rihanna told GQ in that same 2012 profile. “I look at me and see art. If I didn’t like what I was doing, then I would say I was committing slavery.”

My favorite Rihanna moment is the line in “B**** Better Have My Money” where she sings, “Turn up to Rihanna while the whole club f****** wasted.” It’s an acknowledgement that she has the privilege of living in the sonic landscape she created herself — that she is a collector of herself. That line is delivered in the archetypical “Rihanna voice,” which is, as Jayson Greene argued for Pitchfork, the most influential vocal of the past decade in pop.

“Umbrella” was the song that showed me all that a single note, sung on “eh,” could contain. Rihanna sings the word “uuhm-buh-rella” like she invented it: unafraid of emphasis, letting each part of the word travel into the next. Her voice is so engaging that on “Live Your Life,” which came out a year later in 2008, when she sings “live your life” all on the same D, then hovers around the neighborhood of that D for the majority of the hook, it doesn’t feel dumb or boring at all.

Greene wrote of the title lyric in “What’s My Name”: “Who knows how many dozens of times Rihanna practiced that vocal take until she had distilled all of those competing emotions — pleading and playful, weary and sensual, even a little mocking — into three goddamn syllables, looping perfectly.”

I love Rihanna’s voice mostly because I have always heard within it the feeling of mustering, an acknowledgement that being comfortable in our skin is possible with intention and effort. Apparently, she wears a chain with the word “Savage” on her neck, or at least she did for that Vogue interview. “Savage is really about taking complete ownership of how you feel and the choices you make,” she says. “Basically making sure everybody knows the ball is in your court.”

ANTI is this hard-fought confidence embodied. There’s confidence, of course, in the lyrics (see: “Sex With Me” and “Needed Me”). But there’s also confidence in the delivery: Rihanna stretches her voice to its breaking point on songs like “Higher” and “Love on the Brain,” letting it crack in ways we haven’t heard before, or linger in falsetto for longer than we’re used to. In moments like this, when she takes the vocal template she designed to uncharted places, Rihanna becomes, according to Greene, “both the vandal and the monument.”

The question I asked was about whether Rihanna’s audience has ever adequately loved her — whether we’ve given her the kind of love that respects both what she’s created and all the labor that went into creating it. But the answer Rihanna gives, through ANTI, is that Rihanna probably doesn’t care about the question to begin with.

In a promotional video for ANTI, Rihanna is given a crown from a child who we can only assume is that same child on the album cover, a young Rihanna. The whole video leads up to this moment, when Rihanna takes the crown and places it on her head. The moment is a lesson: You can wait — wait for ANTI to get the Grammy it deserved, wait for the world to give the genius of your work its due — or you can crown yourself.

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