Madison Square Garden
Thursday, August 12
During her lone moment of banter last night, Rihanna took a deep breath, sat down on the edge of the stage and said, “Thank you for making my dream come true.” Which sounds kind of boilerplate. It is. But she wasn’t just referring to selling out Madison Square Garden. Turns out Rihanna’s dream is a little more complicated. And scary. And odd. A dude dressed up like a crash test dummy who pops and locks is involved.
Rihanna’s current worldwide trek is dubbed “The Last Girl on Earth Tour.” As we learn from a series of videos that run throughout the show, the only surviving woman our destroyed planet has to offer is sleeping in a Matrix-like cocoon. “Is this all a dream?” asks a vaguely HAL-like voice during one interlude. So maybe the whole show is taking place in Rihanna’s subconscious. If so, it’s a goofily scary, deeply melodramatic, and comically violent place. It’s also a hell of a lot more enjoyable than Inception.
For the automobile-as-sex song “Shut Up and Drive,” Rihanna took advantage of a burned-out car prop. She leaned on it suggestively, she stood on it forcefully, and, finally, she invited a small, Alice in Wonderland-looking girl to grip a bat and lay into the shell of a vehicle. As the tiny eight-or-nine-year-old thwacked repeatedly against the hood, Rihanna jumped up and down in glee. Irresponsible? Maybe. But the spectacle did fit the show’s hawkish streak. The night’s loudest props included an all-pink tank and two levitating, 20-foot-long machine guns. And because violence would not be half as fun without sex, Rihanna made sure to straddle both war machines. Meanwhile, atom bombs, syringes, and skeletons danced on large screens behind her. When she wasn’t singing about breaking fine china and fighting dudes, she was repping for lethal gun play on “Russian Roulette.” Even the ostensibly uplifting “Umbrella” was backed by images of lava splitting open a crudely CGI’d cityscape. Near the end of the show, Rihanna took to a mini-percussion set and proceeded to beat it with the same passion as her miniature car-crushing new friend. Safe to say: Any Final Female is gonna have some issues.
Like, how do you become the Last Girl in the first place? The concert often felt like a revenge fantasy writ large. The few times she interacted with her male dancers was either to swat them away or–in the case of the aforementioned crash test dummy–to playfully kick him to the ground. During the brooding “Rehab”, Rihanna reclined on a psychiatrist’s chair held together by dismembered mannequin limbs on either side. So much for the Last Guy.
Though her 2009 album Rated R was a downgrade from 2007’s Good Girl Gone Bad, it’s only now that Rihanna’s embarking on her first headlining tour of the U.S. Which leads to a troublesome truth: Would such a big crowd get behind this stunning yet not-very-strong-voiced pop star who can’t really dance if they weren’t aware of that picture and that ex-boyfriend and that horrific incident? This is, after all, is the MTV News headline about Rihanna’s chart-topping domestic abuse duet with Eminem published only yesterday: “Rihanna Fans Are Sure ‘Love The Way You Lie’ Is About Chris Brown.”
During the not so subtle breakup song “Firebomb”, the shoulder-padded star stood on the hood of that same bat-beaten car and sang, “I just wanna set you on fire so I won’t have to burn alone/Then you’ll know where I’m coming from.” Dream, reality, whatever–people think they know Rihanna now, and they’re rooting for her.