Rihanna is coming to KeyArena Wednesday, completing a cycle of unofficial “grandchildren of Madonna” concerts in the Seattle area over the past few years, including ones by Nicki Minaj, Britney Spears and Katy Perry. For the unfamiliar (all three of you, at this point), in a past life, the 25-year-old Barbadian-American pop star might have been a disco queen, putting out the occasional home run single, with lots of filler in between.
Her career started in the mid-aughts with gospel- and island-inflected tunes, but she struck gold with a combination of pop, R&B, hip-hop and electronic dance music. She really skyrocketed when she started portraying herself in various states of emotional turmoil. Smash single “Umbrella” (2007) was about hard rain/hard times, recent hits “We Found Love” and “Take Care” about nearby doom. She functions in the mainstream as if pitted against the always-positive Beyoncé.
On the heels of her latest album, “Unapologetic,” and in the midst of her “Diamonds” world tour, it would be a welcome break to speak only of the music of Rihanna (who performs with New York City rapper A$AP Rocky). But of course there is her 2009 assault by boyfriend and fellow pop star Chris Brown, who has since only become more a part of her life and music.
The attack was dramatic by any standards. Brown bit, screamed at and hit Rihanna in a moving vehicle. Photos of her injuries appeared online almost immediately afterward — bruises reblogged a million times — and Brown plead guilty to a felony charge. The two continued their romance afterward, goading gossip via their personal Instagram and Twitter accounts, making joint songs, like “Nobody’s Business,” that addressed (and dismissed) the incident. Most recently, they appeared snuggling in the front row at the Grammy Awards. They would have us believe everything is A-OK.
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Despite, or perhaps because of, the controversy about her keeping Brown around, Rihanna is more popular than ever. Her upcoming “Rihanna 777” documentary is anticipated worldwide; she’s a teen idol and an adult favorite; and her music has become a fixture in the booming world of fitness/dance classes like Zumba. When she comes out with a zeitgeist-y rave jam like “We Found Love,” it’s the soundtrack at the gym for the rest of the year.
Right now out-of-control-ness is hot for women in pop. Selena Gomez is going wild on screen in the movie “Spring Breakers,” and Beyoncé is flashing serious id on her new single “Bow Down / I Been On.” And Rihanna’s playing the same game, but in a more real and potentially more consequential way.
Perhaps she should consider her predecessor Tina Turner.
Fifty years ago, Turner made popular music with Ike Turner while he was secretly physically violent to her. Then in 1984 she mounted an independent comeback and had a gigantic hit with “What’s Love Got To Do With It?,” a song whose message was, basically, actions speak louder than words.
Let’s hope Rihanna’s next phase has some of that depth. Because now we, the fans, are in a bind. Should we ignore the messy parts and turn up the music? Or as writer Maura Johnston has argued in The Village Voice, are we complicit in her continuing drama if we pay attention?
Reach Andrew Matson at twitter.com/andrewmatson or firstname.lastname@example.org