Let it be known that Rihanna is the only person to upstage an entire episode of Saturday Night Live — a finale, even! — by doing something as simple as giving the host bunny ears during the curtain call. She pissed people off for “lip-syncing” (or singing along with a backing track, most likely); she pissed people off for performing in front of images pulled from 9-11 footage; she pissed people off for grabbing her crotch the way rappers have done for years upon years to little or no outrage. She managed to do all of that in her eight minutes of stage time on the finale of SNL‘s 40th season, and yet snagging the attention of the viewing public is as much an unintentional reflex for her as breathing or blinking. Crack a smile, give Louis C.K. some bunny ears, and call it a day — oh, and debut some new material off one of the most anticipated albums of 2015 while we’re at it. Sure. Just another night’s work for Rihanna.
With her performance of “Bitch Better Have My Money,” Rihanna approached Kanye West territory: She not only thought outside the SNL box, but built a whole damn new one when she turned the stage into a music video set, more or less, instead of merely singing and dancing on it. Unlike the disappointing sets brought forth by fellow pop princesses Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea earlier this season, Rihanna didn’t just phone in SNL like a contractual obligation or an excuse to break out tired set pieces from her tour: She took the wheel for a brief car chase/kidnapping scene before busting a few moves and snarling her way through the second single from her forthcoming eighth album. Kanye turned the lights out for his Yeezus-centric set a couple seasons back and reworked the stage again for “Wolves” during SNL 40, and RiRi did her friend and producer proud by taking advantage of potential and throwing expectations into a tailspin.
As for the hate the internet is hurling her way (more on that later) for the simplicity of “BBHMM” ’s lyrics: To those of you rolling your eyes and ruing the day that popular music turned “stupid” or simple with repetitive choruses and minimalistic lines, need I remind you that the Beatles beat her to the punch with the chorus to “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” and “Birthday” nearly 50 years prior? And that Queen did it, too, with “Bicycle Race” a decade after that? Cool. Glad we cleared that up.
With “American Oxygen,” Rihanna sang about the “new America” as current and vintage footage of white cops arresting black men rolled behind her. Various snippets from the news surrounded Rihanna, illuminating her in lieu of a spotlight as drug deals, stock exchange tickers, and the smoldering twin towers flickered in the background. Like D’Angelo did earlier this season, Rihanna used her platform to draw attention to current events and the very real social and political unrest we’re presently experiencing in the United States. To invoke painful images from modern American history isn’t to smear the memories of those affected or frame the civil rights violations perpetrated in Ferguson and Baltimore as events along those lines: If anything, it just drives the point home that all of this is related, and that the struggles many face in this country — on economic, social, religious, educational, and professional grounds — share roots in moments we all experience, directly or otherwise. The struggle is constant. The revolution may not be televised, but it’ll be tweeted and uploaded to YouTube accordingly — and that’s likely where Rihanna’s production crew found the images she chose to perform in front of in the first place. “American Oxygen” made for a somber, thought-provoking moment, one that serves as a refreshing and serious shake-up in Rihanna’s typically danceable repertoire.
But god forbid the internet should agree. The Rihanna Navy was out in full effect and tuning in for RiRi’s SNL performance, and though Questlove got a sneak preview and applauded Rihanna after catching a glimpse of her set during rehearsals, you’d think that all she did was grab herself and sing nonsense in front of a newsreel. This is what happens when people turn a blind ear, and tweet while doing so.
On the next page: Twitter reacts to Rihanna’s SNL performance
[If only there were a “QUESTLOVE APPROVES” emoji.
— Questlove Gomez (@questlove) May 17, 2015
DON’T GIVE THEM ANY IDEAS
So when you let the collection agencies call go to voice mail, they’ll leave a clip of Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money.” #SNL
— Leroy Williams Jr. (@LeroyWilliamsJr) May 17, 2015
THAT’S a trip:
watching rihanna’s snl performance on mute accidentally w twin peaks soundtrack on was the most confusing thing ever
— Zoe Bethune (@truprincesslaya) May 17, 2015
The good kind, duh.
what kinds of conversations could louis ck and rihanna have backstage at snl
— Joe Serrato (@joeserrato1) May 17, 2015
— kuston (@kuston) May 17, 2015
Parents Love RiRi:
My dad saw Rihanna perform on SNL and now he keeps saying “bitch better have my money”
— gracie meyer (@graceeemeyer) May 17, 2015
my mom is watching rihanna on SNL and giving me a play-by-play
— James (@jamesjmnz) May 17, 2015
Give this man all the prizes.
— Legend. (@WrittenByTerry) May 17, 2015
I knooow, trying to use your platform to raise awareness for something is a drag, right? [fart noise]
Whatever happened to the happy-go- lucky, dance-happy Rihanna? This one seems to have music with a purpose. #SNL
— Essentially Me (@vnamom) May 17, 2015
The images of the twin towers didn’t sit well with some viewers:
— ChuckBikle (@ChuckBikle) May 17, 2015
@rihanna songs on SNL were the worst songs she ever sang. Also tasteless video of 9/11 during New Americans song.
— Quinn Meyers (@quinnmeyers365) May 17, 2015
— Rich Kelley (@rpmkel) May 17, 2015
Hey @rihanna maybe you don’t show a shot of 9/11 on SNL asshole
— R U LEDDY (@Steve__Sin) May 17, 2015
And the Lip Sync Police came after her with sirens blaring.
— Tyrone Walden (@TyroneWalden) May 17, 2015
Rihanna is a very average lip syncher #snl
— Brandt (@BrandtMisik) May 17, 2015
Is Rihanna even singing? She’s not doing herself any favors by pulling the mic away while vocal still playing. #SNL
— Elizabeth Geli (@elizgeli) May 17, 2015
So @rihanna definitely lip synced on SNL. Is it that hard to A.) sing or B.) remember the 12 words in that song? Pathetic performance.
— Greg Zollo (@GregZollo) May 17, 2015
Pretty sure a lot of people would cry around gunfire, tbh.
Rihanna on SNL “B*t h Better Have My Money” made me laugh! Gunshot sounds? What would she really do if she were really around gunfire? Cry.
— Stradlemonkey (@stradlemonkey) May 17, 2015
Rihanna should’ve received a ticket for not using a hands free device while singing in that car #SNL
— Bradley Sattler (@bradleysattler) May 17, 2015
SNL, musical guest Rihanna. She’s stunning, gifted / sings “Bitch Better Have My Money” & grabs her crotch. Why? Be the class act U can be.
— Tamara Hufford-Wong (@StandUp4Respect) May 17, 2015
And, finally, her sign-off was the highlight for, well, everyone:
To sum up: Rihanna grinding up on Louis C.K. during the goodbye just now was the funniest part of the episode. #SNL
— Jordan (@JordanApps) May 17, 2015
Rihanna putting up bunny ears and fake twerking got the most laughs out of me tonight. #SNL
— ConversationsinaCafe (@djjoycie) May 17, 2015
Rihanna upstaging Louis in the curtain call is everything to me #SNL
— Jenny Henkelman (@jennyhenk) May 17, 2015