Rihanna pauses. She's in Washington, D.C., on the seventh stop of the Anti World Tour, and she is standing as close to the crowd as she can get. There's a five foot moat-like fenced gulf between the singer and her audience, but the center of her stage juts out to cross the divide. She's looking down on her kingdom when she spots something.
"Wait, is that an Anti tattoo?" she exclaims. "Are you for real? Let me see that shit up close."
The camera on the side of the stage zooms in and she is projected onto the screens as she looks at a forearm thrust into her vision.
"That's dope," she says, seeming truly surprised. And then, still crouching with the arm of the tattooed person in her hand, she laughs a little, shakes her head and mutters, "Man, I feel famous and shit."
She stands and faces the 18,000+ crowd—she is actually very famous. On this night, Rihanna has both the number one single in the country, "Work," and the number one album. Refocusing, she says to the side-stage, "We need to get him some backstage passes after the show."
And then she's heading back to the center of the stage for her next number. And this isn't the first time Rihanna's off-hand comments have shown just how down-to-earth she is. A few days ago, when she was performing in Cincinnati, Rihanna let a fan named Terah Jay sing into the mic, and her surprised reaction went viral.
Rihanna doesn't have a script between songs. There are no cute transitions. There are no explanations. This is not a carefully constructed showcase of glitter and power and pop. This is just a woman on stage having a good time. And that is exactly what Rihanna wants you to believe.
When Rihanna first appears to her audience, she isn't on the main stage where she grabs the tattooed arm and performs three-fourths of her set. Instead, she emerges from an entrance in the back of the arena wearing a white hooded jacket that hides her face. She climbs up a set of stairs to a second stage, taller than the main one, and on the opposite side of the arena. It is here that she sings two of her most emotional and personal songs: "Stay" and "Love the Way You Lie."
She sings them from deep inside the hood, her emotions cloaked. Unlike the rest of the show—when Rihanna's face will be projected on two giant screens—there is no camera for this part.
On March 17, 2015, Rihanna told MTV News that the wait for her new album would be worth it because Anti would be "timeless." She promised an album of heartfelt, personal lyrics that would stand up forever. "I find that I get on stage now, I don't want to perform a lot of my songs because they don't feel like me," she said.
It might sound like a PR line crafted to appease anxious fans, but reciting canned replies is not part of Rihanna's persona. It's certainly not the Rihanna we saw during her three-year hiatus. Rihanna wasn't like other pop stars. She was smoking what looked like pot in photos on Instagram. She was lying on a beach instead of attending the VMAs. She was living her life the way she wanted to. It wasn't a performance. It was real.
After "Love the Way You Lie (Part II)" concludes, in an almost unbelievable piece of symbolism, a translucent bridge descends from the ceiling under a spotlight. She leaves behind her older songs (2012 and 2010 respectively), steps off the platform, and closes a small door behind her.
Immediately the tone changes from the sweet, bitter harmonies of the old Rihanna into the grating, snap and crackle of one of her new tracks, "Woo." Her bridge moves to the center of the arena, and she is suspended 10 feet above the crowd, dancing. She holds the mic in her hand. The hood is gone. She is not wearing a harness. She high-steps across the bridge as though it’s a fashion runway. She smiles through the floor at her crowd. She sings one more song on the bridge—"Sex With Me," also from Anti—before it docks on the main stage.
She disembarks, and is delivered in the middle of a totally white stage: White background, white floor, white platforms. It looks like a fresh start. She isn't hiding anymore.
She leans down to pick up a white water bottle, snapping it open with her teeth. Most pop stars don't even drink water in front of the audience, hiding the bottles offstage. Most pop stars would have had the bottle opened for them, at least. But Rihanna isn't most pop stars. And more than anything she's trying prove that on the Anti tour.
In the twenty-first century, critics and fans often accuse pop stars of lacking "authenticity." They aren't "real" enough.
The discussion of authenticity in popular music is, as Sasha Frere-Jones wrote for the New Yorker in 2012, "arrantly stupid." Performing, by its nature, requires artifice. Still, the conversation persists. "The debates that surround authenticity have no relationship to popular music as it’s been practiced for more than a century," Frere-Jones wrote. And yet, the way a pop star constructs her image is constantly analyzed, measured, and scrutinized. Is Taylor Swift's girl squad real? Does Katy Perry write her own music? Was Beyoncé ever really pregnant? Who are these people we've crowned queen? Do we trust them?
(It's worth noting, of course, that when women are judged on their authenticity, that judgement is not only based upon whether their work is honest and true, but also if they seem “real” enough.)
"The fetish for authenticity, and the heated debates about its meaning, are almost always triggered by the industry’s arrival on a scene—and accelerate from there." Jennifer C. Lena, a sociologist who studies music wrote for Pacific Standard Magazine back in 2012. "It is a precious commodity, mined from the musical scenes that are seen to possess it; controlling its definition is a way of controlling value."
Think about the 1990s. Something weird and flannel was happening in Seattle, mixtapes were showing up in Brooklyn and L.A. Hip hop, indie rock, and grunge were all on the popular music charts. These subcultures were obsessed with credibility. The conversation around artists like Tupac Shakur and Kurt Cobain were not just about the music, but also about the concept of "selling out".
By the end of the ‘90s, though, the obsession with "real emotion" and "real people" was fading fast. The charts were dominated by artists who had foregone the illusion of reality for one of perfection. This was the era of Britney Spears, of Destiny's Child, of boy bands, teeny bop, and sugary sweet hooks coated in the new century's pizzazz.
This wasn't just grunge rock taking a shower and combing its hair. The new, turn of the century artists were selling the idea that costume and glitter and construction were not only necessary, but good.
As Ann Powers wrote for the Los Angeles Times about the death of authenticity in 2009: "Authenticity's bound to make a comeback… But after this decade, even the most sincere expressions of self will have to be multiple and complicated."
And now, in the middle of the twenty-first century's second decade, we can see that pendulum swinging back, but in a much more commercialized, much different way.
Rihanna was never underground. She's been a pop star from the very beginning. Her first album, Music of the Sun, debuted at number 10 on the Billboard charts. The lead single, "Pon de Replay," hit number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. Since then, Rihanna has had fourteen singles sit in the number one slot, giving her the third most of any artist in chart history.
Rihanna doesn’t need to be authentic. She could refuse interviews, never post an unstaged Instagram, never have an unscripted line (i.e., be Beyoncé) and still spit out number one hits. Instead she's a woman on stage admitting she adjusted her costume because she "had a wedgie."
Normally, when we talk about "authenticity" in pop stars, it's with a sour taste in our mouth. The subject comes up because we don't like the way Iggy Azalea raps, or the fact that Lana Del Rey changed her name and hair, or we think Taylor Swift's Instagrams seem too posed. But when that word is used in conjunction with Rihanna's name, it's only ever in a positive way. Here's what Jay-Z told Vanity Fair about Rihanna in November 2015 (emphasis mine):
What makes Rihanna special—outside of the music—is that she is someone who is genuinely herself. People connect with her. You are seeing the authentic version of who she is. You can see her scars and her flaws…. She’s gone through things that everyone’s gone through—dysfunctional relationships, things that played out in front of everyone’s eyes—and she’s done a real good job of keeping her life private, but just living her life as a young person … unapologetically.
Pop music once asked consumers to accept that nothing is real. But in 2016, Rihanna is declaring an end to that trend.
After singing "FourFiveSeconds," while kneeling down to touch the hands of her fans like a messiah raised from the dead, Rihanna announced that she had just two more songs. There was no illusion of a never-ending encore, or mystery about how long she'd play. "I say goodbye now," she said as the platform she was standing on raised her up to the height where she had performed "Stay" ninety minutes earlier.
When the last song, "Kiss It Better," finished, there was no grand exit. She didn't disappear into a trap door. She wasn't carried off. She stood at the front of the stage signing a pair of sneakers handed up to her. She walked to the edges of the stage, waving, one arm raised high over her head and one hand over her heart with her mic turned off, her mouth repeating over and over again, "Thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you."
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.