I hate the radio. For the first 16 years of my life, my parents drove cars that didn’t have AUX or Bluetooth capabilities. So, as a middle schooler that took too much pride in her indie music knowledge repertoire, I was always subjected to hearing Imagine Dragons‘ newest hit.
However, while I did have a distaste for the second oldest form of mass media, I have to give Big Radio some credit for introducing me to a woman who defined an entire generation: Rihanna. There are few artists whose songs have dominated pop music radio stations: Hearing the song “Cheers (Drink to That)” (2010) makes me nearly feel the texture of the red iPod Nano that I shared with my siblings. Yet, the impact of Rihanna’s career is so much more than its longevity and ability to inspire nostalgia.
In 2009, at what seemed like the height of her career, with three chart-topping albums and a fourth one on the way, her then-boyfriend Chris Brown’s abuse was made public. TMZ’s distribution of photos of her bloodied and bruised face and the subsequent media circus surrounding her relationship with him illustrates the dehumanizing aspects of celebrity. As a function of being an entertainer, one is portrayed as inadvertently consenting to this rabid obsession we have toward celebrities.
Despite this very visible breach of her dignity, Rihanna was able to subvert media narratives that cast her as either an agency-less victim or a sex-crazed girl who was asking for it. In “S&M” (2010), she satirizes the media’s response to her assault. In a scene from the music video, she is seen behind a layer of plastic wrap while gagged journalists scribble in a reporter’s notebook and take pictures of her. The entire video is a clear message that she has reclaimed the sexuality that was robbed as soon as her physical body became a forum for public debate.
Rihanna’s authenticity isn’t Jennifer Lawrence falling at the Oscars or Cory Booker tweeting about sleep and coffee. It is a product of her insistence that we see her as a person. She has the artistic range to deliver a powerful vocal performance on “Needed Me” (2016) and cover Tame Impala on “Same Ol’ Mistakes” (2016), but her impact is so much larger than the sounds that she produces. After spending her formative years in the limelight, Rihanna has taken the assertion that she is not a figurehead for a record label to monetize, but a woman single handedly changing the makeup and fashion industry, much to the chagrin of fans waiting for a ninth album.
In many ways, the passion that fuels everything Rihanna does, from lipsticks to lingerie, helps us conceptualize her as a multi-dimensional woman. For people who have even tangentially followed her career, they have been witness to her refusal to be categorized. The agency over her art and public image has inspired a generation of female artists to reject playing into what is marketable or safe and, instead, pursue their own reality.