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FACES: Rihanna

We explore the pop star's significance in the music world and beyond

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    FACES is Consequence of Sound’s literary magazine. Each volume focuses on an artist whose scope of creativity and cultural impact defies simple categorization. Through a blend of original artwork and a variety of writings, we hope to both shed light upon and celebrate the artists who continually inspire us to put pen to paper.

    I admit to having blindly dismissed a lot of pop music over the years. Just hearing that generic genre label attached to a song, album, or artist was reason enough for me to decline a listen and allocate my attention elsewhere. It’s a snobbish filtering system, but one I’m not alone in using. To me, the term “pop” always conjured images of factories, conveyor belts, and units (not songs) rolling off the line. It signified music being manufactured rather than crafted, consumed not absorbed, and so blatantly conceived, packaged, and promoted as a product that it must be plastic and void of any real artistic authenticity or sincerity. That attitude has left me standing outside (often alone) the frenzy that Rihanna naturally seems to create every couple of years, save for having ignored a few singles in passing on the radio or reading about the Chris Brown saga.

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    Feature artwork by Cap Blackard  (Purchase Prints + More)

    The pity in dismissing a genre en masse isn’t that I’ve missed out on songs that I would surely love. I already have enough songs — more than enough to last a lifetime. No, the shame stems from the assumption that because someone makes a certain type of music, his or her story can’t teach, resonate with, or inspire me. And after reading the following thoughtful essays from Brian Josephs, Lyndsey Havens, and Wren Graves, I realize that Rihanna’s incredible journey has all of that to offer me, even if I won’t be eagerly purchasing her new album, Anti, when it hits shelves.

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    Regardless of how you feel about Rihanna’s music, she’s an artist worth getting to know. Hopefully, these pieces will be an introduction for some of you just as they were for me.

    –Matt Melis
    Senior Editor

    Table of Contents:
    — Finding Love on the Dance Floor with Rihanna by Brian Josephs … Page 2
    — Living the American Dream by Lyndsey Havens … Page 3
    — The Accidental Mirror by Wren Graves … Page 4

    Original artwork by Consequence of Sound Art Director Cap Blackard, Kristin Frenzel, Jacob Livengood, and Steven Fiche.

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    Past Issues:
    FACES: Neil Young
    FACES: Tom Petty
    FACES: Dave Grohl
    FACES: Carrie Brownstein


    Finding Love on the Dance Floor with Rihanna

    By Brian Josephs

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    Feature artwork by Kristin Frenzel  (Purchase Prints + More)

    The years 2010 and 2011 were when we reached peak Rihanna. There were hits on hits. As if by way of hyper-powered cathode tubes, “Rude Boy” maximized island lust and color en route to mainstream ubiquity. That wasn’t her peak — there was “Only Girl (In the World)”; there was “What’s My Name?” and the square root of 69; there was “We Found Love”; there was “S&M”. These songs didn’t just slip into the Hot 100. A lot of them were world-conquering anthems. Rihanna is arguably the last pop artist to consistently bend the zeitgeist to her whim on a hit-by-hit basis.

    But when the Rihanna paeans are being written and the award show tributes are being rehearsed a few decades from now, “We Found Love” (and “Umbrella”, the star maker) is going to be the required reference point. In addition to being her longest-running No. 1 single, “We Found Love” has become one of the best-selling singles of all time. Then there was the video, which inverts the chorus’ “We found love in a hopeless place” into “We’re hopelessly in love.” The triumph turns into oblivion — two lovers prostrate themselves in excess, abuse, and emotional trauma.

    The video is a classic – you don’t piss off that many organizations and provide that much emotional catharsis within four minutes without becoming one. However, you get a whole other light when you take the video out of the equation (as impossible as it may be). The escalating key riff is euphoric, and the hook is an instantly chant-worthy cry. It’s a soap operatic cliche, but Rihanna’s talent has rarely depended on creating witticisms. Rihanna maximizes what’s on that lyrics sheet for resonance — whether we’re talking earworm-like or emotional (or both: ella-ella-ella).

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    And when you drop “We Found Love” in the middle of an EDM trudge on a weekend night, it stands out. Rihanna’s peak years aren’t distant enough to not remember what filled and ultimately encumbered those DJ playlists: schizophrenic, dubstep-influenced hits orchestrated by the likes of Dr. Luke, Max Martin, and Stargate. Some of them work by themselves, but string them together in succession and you get an experience that ranges from bland to blatant recyclables. The irony is how many of them attempt to express the same things “We Found Love” does: a bit of fantasy, an idyllic hook, momentous romance, empowerment, etc.

    Rihanna took the same elements — whizzing synths, that electronic buildup — and flipped it from disengagement to something more interpersonal. Idealistically, technology and digitization are supposed to make doing so easier. It doesn’t. EDM influences too often err toward the ephemeral, zapping whatever soul present for a safe Billboard hit and a check. Technological advances and doo-dads aren’t just a musical risk either. It creates a static between people, and it does so in the most communal areas. Like the club, which is ironically supposed to be an area for socializing.

    You’ve probably seen it: attendees posted on the walls next to their wingmen and wingwomen, yet somehow alone. They look through their phones and scan through Twitter, Facebook, and the like for some sort of escape, detached entertainment or some sort of intangible something. A downfall of technology is how it sells the idea that there’s something out there — whatever is in the mysterious world wide web, but within grasp because it fits within your palm — that’s somehow better than what’s already in existence. The search for those things persists despite the possibility that none of those things are real. Rihanna also lives in fantasy. In fact, it’s one filled with a dangerous level of ecstasy: yellow-filled diamonds, shadows crossing to bring life, “It’s the way I’m feeling I just can’t deny.” It’s a nowness and excitement that cuts through the new age static that expresses a purely person-to-person feeling. The clarity and succinctness of that idea is what makes “We Found Love” galvanizing — and Rihanna hasn’t made a hit that does just that since.

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    So “We Found Love” isn’t great because of how it drops its guard for love. Like that couple’s romance, it’s thrillingly momentous.


    Living the American Dream

    By Lyndsey Havens

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    Feature artwork by Jacob Livengood  (Purchase Prints + More)

    I’ve been asked, “Have you heard this?” countless times. But it’s only when the song that follows has some redeeming quality to it that I can actually remember the exact moment when I first heard it. Listening to one of Rihanna’s earliest hits, “Pon de Replay”, while sitting on a six-hour bus ride to overnight camp was one of those moments.

    I was sitting next to the type of friend who was always introducing me to new artists or songs. We were sharing headphones, bi-podding, when she asked, “Have you heard this?” I hadn’t. I sheepishly responded, “Maybe, I think so,” too young and afraid to admit I might be behind the trend. She played “Pon de Replay” as I subtly glanced down at her iPod to scan the artist’s name. It was the summer of 2006, I was 12 years old, and I had no idea who Rihanna was.

    Before she was known to the world as Rihanna, Robyn Rihanna Fenty left her birthplace of Barbados when she was just 16 years old. She signed her first record deal with Def Jam in 2005, and by August her debut album, Music of the Sun, was climbing the charts. Meanwhile, the album’s hit single, “Pon de Replay”, had reached No. 2 on The Billboard Hot 100. Flashback to that bus ride: I was now listening to “If It’s Lovin’ That You Want”, the second hit single off the album. I was immediately mesmerized by the catchy, up-tempo, Island-influenced beats and Rihanna’s accent. I sat and stewed over the fact that I would have to wait four weeks until I was home and could download more of her music.

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    When I was told Rihanna would be the feature artist for the latest installment of FACES, I wasn’t surprised, but I also didn’t really understand why. As self-doubt set in — maybe it’s because I’m just an intern, I thought, or did I somehow miss her latest album release or headline-worthy moment? — I did a Google search only to be greeted by what I already knew. Rihanna was the musical guest on the season 40 finale of Saturday Night Live and performed two singles, “Bitch Better Have My Money” and “American Oxygen”, off her upcoming album (which has yet to be released). Other search results included her Met Gala gown along with the auto-fill suggestion, “Rihanna and Chris Brown.”

    None of these results, surely not a gown or past relationship, define Rihanna, and they didn’t help me understand why or how she became such an iconic figure in pop-culture. On her latest single, “American Oxygen”, she sings about chasing the American Dream and how her go-getter mentality started at a young age: “Young girl, hustlin’/ On the other side of the ocean/ You can be anything at all/ In America, America,” she sings. The song’s chorus repeats, “We sweat for a nickel and a dime/ Turn it into an empire,” which now, about a decade after her first taste of success, Rihanna has done. In 2014, she ranked eighth on Forbes’ list of The World’s Most Powerful Celebrities with a worth of $48 million. How did this woman who came to America as a girl end up on that list? To me, that’s what makes Rihanna so compelling.

    “American Oxygen” debuted at the March Madness Festival in early April, which Rihanna headlined. A sample of the song had already been used to fade in and out of commercial breaks during the NCAA Final Four tournament, which seems like a bit of a stretch from the American Dream, though still a dream nonetheless. The song is being called a political statement and social commentary, because it largely is, but it’s also an ode to Rihanna. Included in the montage that plays behind her in the song’s music video is a poster that reads: “Nation of Immigrants.” A category Rihanna falls into.

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    While living the American Dream, Rihanna still finds ways to latch on to her Caribbean roots. The concept of the sun is often explicit in her songs, from the title of her debut album to her recent release “Towards the Sun”, included on the soundtrack for the animated film Home. In between the two bookend titles are forgotten reggae-influenced tracks such as “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and “Dem Haters” (off her 2006 album, A Girl Like Me) and more popular tracks like “Umbrella” (from her blatantly titled 2008 album, Good Girl Gone Bad, that marked her initial turn towards edgy) in which Jay-Z sings, “Jay, Rain Man is back with little Ms. Sunshine, Rihanna where you at?” She may have relocated, but little Ms. Sunshine never left.

    And that’s the thing about Rihanna, even after leaving not just her childhood home but her childhood in its entirety behind, she has managed to remain more or less the same — an optimist, an artist, I’ll even throw in feminist. From striving for to reveling in the American Dream, Rihanna has come a long way on her own terms. She hasn’t let an abusive relationship or fashion faux pas derail construction on the career she created for herself.

    On the collaborative track “The Monster”, Eminem sings, “I wanted the fame, but not the cover of Newsweek/ Oh, well, guess beggars, can’t be choosey/ Wanted to receive attention for my music/ Wanted to be left alone in the public. Excuse me/ For wanting my cake and eat it too, and wanting it both ways, ”while Rihanna repeats the song’s hook, “And you think I’m crazy, yeah, you think I’m crazy,” probably because she wants it both ways, too. The crazy part is, I think she has just that.

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    Regardless of why you might know the singer now, whether for her sometimes controversial lyrics (“S&M”, “Bitch Better Have My Money”), her love life, her fashion, or maybe because someone once played you a song of hers on their iPod, her name has become so recognizable that it can be reduced to one syllable: “Ri.” Ri wanted a career as a singer, she has one; she wanted attention for her music, she has it; she wanted to live the American Dream, she sure is. She built herself an empire from the ground up while paparazzi peered in through the windows, and now that Rihanna has made her empire, she wants to live in it.


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