A Sorry State: Pop Marketing & Rihanna’s Unapologetic

Provocation for Profit? Assault as a Marketing Accessory? Why the Rihanna PR Machine show sad signs of our times

A week ago, I sat in a tiny red room, around a tiny table, to listen to a record. I wasn’t alone. Will Hodgkinson from The Times, The Independent‘s Andy Gill, and The Mirror‘s Priya Élan were there too. Our bags and our phones had been taken away from us. In their place were four badly-photocopied pictures of a woman hiding her boobs. Her left was obscured with a strategically-placed elbow, her right with the title of her album, scratched in white letters on black.

The next day, a plane took off from Los Angeles, filled with music journalists and fans. From there, it headed to Mexico City, Toronto, Stockholm, Paris and Berlin; it spent last night in London; today it heads to New York. On-board, there’s been champagne and Cognac liberally poured, and diamonds handed out in gift-bags, in case anyone’s forgotten the name of Rihanna’s latest single.

Welcome to the giddy, week-long circus around the release of Rihanna’s Unapologetic, the singer’s seventh album for Def Jam in 7 years. My first reaction to a promotional plane trip taking in seven venues in seven countries in seven nights on a Boeing 777? Now that’s what we call proper rock star flamboyance, excess and glamour. In the middle of a music industry riddled with blandness and bores, what a brilliantly fuck-you thing to do. Never mind the carbon emissions, here’s the Sexy Pistolette! I even understood why you’d pile four newspaper journalists into an album playback together. As a gesture to the music industry, it says, listen: this album will help a rickety ship stay afloat. This music is precious, unleakable – although it did leak, of course, over the weekend.

And as music journalists couldn’t have done it, you wonder how it did – but it got Rihanna internet traffic booming, which is what everyone wanted. And then you stand back from the noise, and you look at what’s there.

Rihanna is the closest figure the modern record business has to 80s Madonna (Lady Gaga, however huge, is too wilfully weird; she also goes on too many chatshows and has a sense of humour). Like Madge in her imperial period, Rihanna uses her incredible body to shock and provoke, and releases an album a year, packed with expertly constructed pop. Lots of the songs work, too. I never tire of hearing the once-ubiquitous ‘Umbrella’, the Soft Cell-sampling ‘SOS’, the raw-and ready ‘Russian Roulette’ or last year’s Calvin Harris-produced ‘We Found Love’, with its ecstasy-fuelled, rushing bridge.

But once you look beyond Rihanna herself, any substance is hard to find. Of course there’s no substance there, the haters will go: you’re talking about pop music. Mainstream tracks may be all about quick hits, sharp hooks and easy emotional pulls, but I’d argue that pop’s qualities of escapism and fantasy often have virtue (although that’s admittedly another article). Also, demanding substance of pop stars is a pretty silly game. Women in pop are asked to be role models all too often, as if they’re preachers or politicians, and this annoys me because men in similar positions aren’t asked to do the same.

But what concerns me more about Rihanna goes further than that. I worry about how the simple momentum of provocation, without consideration for its consequences, isn’t being questioned as the marketing machine grinds onwards.

Two mornings every week, I teach at a London university. Last year, I asked a few of my female students, in their late teens and early 20s, what they thought of Rihanna and Chris Brown recording together again. I asked some more the same question this year, and many of them thought it was fine. Ri-Ri had forgiven him, and they had moved on.

Then I asked female friends of my own age, and a few older than me. They couldn’t fathom why a woman who had been beaten up by her boyfriend would gloss over the issue so publicly. In private, yes, possibly; in public, not so much.

It’s easy, of course, to cast judgement on people’s private lives. It’s also easy to imagine Rihanna’s irritation at being tagged, forever, as a victim of domestic violence. What’s much tougher to get around is the way in which Chris Brown’s assault, before the 2009 Grammys, seems to be publicity fuel. Brown already has famous form on this front, despite apologising on YouTube clips and lucrative talkshows – wearing a chain bearing the word “Oops!” a few months after the incident, and more recently, showing off a tattoo on his neck of a woman with a badly bruised face.

It doesn’t matter if the image is of Rihanna either, as the man hath protested. It’s not just an image of violence as glamour, inked into the skin. It’s the memory of an assault as a fashion accessory.

And knowing so many people don’t think that there’s anything wrong with this – young women, especially – troubles me beyond measure.

Hearing the album last week was a troubling experience, too. Sonically, there’s interesting stuff going on throughout Unapologetic, although every dubstep drop, clashing drum and sound effect seemed to be turned up to 11. This is presumably to shake the listener out of complacency in our oversaturated

age. Unapologetic wants to get you fuckers listening. Now. And. To. Ri-Ri.

Lyrically, the songs switch between heated, sexual stuff and dark, woozy worriment. Fans will know there’s nothing new here. On 2009’s Rated R, which approached the then-recent incident involving Brown with interesting results, we were also given the fresh-as-hell ‘Rude Boy’, asking us to get it up. 2010’s whip-loving ‘S&M’ and 2011’s ‘Cockiness (Love It)’ (“suck my cockiness… swallow your pride down”) upped the sauciness levels, while now we have ‘Jump’, which invites us to ride Rihanna’s pony. These funny euphemisms would sound fresh if they weren’t delivered with such dead-eyed seriousness – this is sex as disengaged performance, not as a powerful statement. Azealia Banks has shown how euphemisms can be dispensed with and sex described with filthier, more shocking and more positive results. Rihanna simply asks her man why he still calls her name when he has sex with other girls.

For Rihanna, sex is power, although this power seems to be about a need to raise her own ego. Call me old-fashioned, but that doesn’t sound particularly empowering.

The lowlight of last week’s playback, however, was ‘Nobody’s Business’. A duet between Rihanna and her ex-boyfriend – or is he? – it’s a perky, light affair.

“Always be my boy,” Rihanna sings, “I’ll always be your girl”. In the second verse, the roles reverse, and Brown repeats her words. If we’re talking in banal, logical terms, Rihanna comes first; this could suggest her trying to control the situation or own the scandal on her own terms.

But then a lyric arrives for which there is no doubt on what’s going on. “Every touch is infectious,” it goes, “let’s make love in this Lexus.” Here’s a reminder of flesh contacting flesh in a car, and what happened three years ago against a passenger door. A few tracks later, ‘No Love Allowed’ is even more pointed. “I was flying ’til you knocked me to the floor,” Rihanna’s vocal soars.

You wonder if anyone suggested lyrics like these were a bad idea. You wonder if anyone’s made sure that Rihanna is OK.

The contents of Unapologetic are effectively trolling the public. The incident between Rihanna and Brown, and the wider issue it represents, is being reduced to a series of shock-tactic soundbites (with a few lines neatly sampled from Michael Jackson’s ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’). It’s nobody’s business, they sing, but we’ll tell you all about it anyway, wind you up in the process, and get good publicity material from an issue as trifling as – oh – physical violence against a woman.

This also reveals how the internet often works in the most terrible way. In terms of online popularity, page hits are king. As a result, provocative subjects and statements that prompt instant reactions – and finger-clicks – take precedence. They form the bedrock of comment-board-driven editorial planning, in a world where comments themselves barely get moderated. Debates on weighty subjects on TV and radio are also now all about polarised positions. (As a sidenote, I was asked to be part of a debate about Madonna on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour last year, but was excused after talking to a researcher because I didn’t simply love or hate Madonna.) This twisted, provocative logic, in which extreme positions and statements are everything, is festering inside our culture, and infecting it too. It’s even driving pop songs, and the debates around them.

I know that subjects that appall and excite people have always driven content, but nowadays the quantity of opinion-makers that will rally around a subject is more important to the web than the quality of what’s being said. And yes, I see the irony in writing this piece to try and bring something else to the argument. At least the internet also provides the right to reply.

Talking of the importance of quantity or quality, the press release for Unapologetic is also all about statistics. It shows us Rihanna as a generator of units, however meaningless they may be. It reads as follows: Rihanna – the “#1 Person On Facebook” with over 62 million Likes – has sold over 37 million albums and 146 million digital tracks worldwide, and currently holds the record as the top-selling digital artist of all time. The recipient of six Grammy Awards® and seven Billboard Music Awards, she was named the world’s #1 social media star by Forbes, with over 2.9 billion views on YouTube/VEVO, the most ever for any female artist, and over 26 million Twitter followers.

“Likes”, “views” and “followers” are unreal, illusory things; they don’t suggest deep engagement with anything of value. By value, incidentally, I mean something human, emotional or even moral, not a value with noughts on the end.

But these are the values being driven in prime-time pop. On shows like The X Factor, the ability to perform a feat like a machine is applauded mechanically (you worked that note – well done!). When chart stars play their latest single on the programme, their appearance is preceded with upper-case slogans full of numerical sales figures (100 MILLION DOWNLOADS IN 100 COUNTRIES!). Even a chart geek like me thinks that’s going too far.

But sadly, the 777 tour could be seen in the same way. The more you look at it, it’s less of a sparky idea based on a very lucky number, but a flashy presentation of a record label spreadsheet.

Back at the album playback with Will, Andy and Priya, I was surprised at the blurry photocopies of the tracklistings given to us. OK, their quality made no practical difference to our reviews, but given the money being splashed elsewhere, I’d thought the press material would have had a bit of polish. We only got the song titles, too – no information about the producers, co-writers, or players. But then again, here we all were, lumped together, listening to an album just the once. What we actually thought of the music, in any depth, really didn’t matter.

I’ve got no complaints about the publicists themselves on the day, incidentally. They brought us croissants and coffee, and were apologetic about the need to take our belongings. Also, we were told we could play any tracks we wanted to again. But with four people in the room, how could that be practical? We couldn’t listen, or engage, with the record in any individual way. Our only purpose there, I felt, was to generate content – any content – and keep the Rihanna name on the internet, circling high in the air.

Back on the 777 plane, quality control seemed similarly lacking. Popjustice’s Michael Cragg – in his hilarious daily blog for the website – said that the binders given to the press looked like they’d been “done in Staples”. The chains that came with the diamonds were pieces of string, stuck to flimsy circles of gold. Press conferences promised to journalists also haven’t happened as yet, prompting calls of “Save Our Jobs!” through economy class. Today, some wag has also printed missing posters of Rihanna for distribution to the press through the plane. It’s all stuff that keeps Rihanna’s name whirling virtually, so the team behind her probably aren’t bothered, and the stories being written by the journalists themselves matter even less.

Off the plane, however, corporate sponsorship has been awake and alert. On stage, Rihanna has also been getting crowds to chant the names of the tour funders: HTC, River Island and Budweiser. Plug, plug, plug, check, check, cheque. And yesterday, on album release day, Rihanna turned on the Christmas lights at east London’s Westfield shopping centre. A source told The Sun: “Rihanna’s thrilled… She knows it’s a big deal.”

“A big deal” – peel it back, and it’s such a gloriously literal phrase. It’s also one apparently worth £5 million. Even more depressing is the fact that the world’s biggest female pop star sounds utterly beholden to the task at hand – pressing a button in a soulless mall in Stratford.

And last night at The Forum, Rihanna came on stage late again, for the sixth time in six nights. Of course, this is what you expect from huge stars. They aren’t punctual clockers-in. They’re our era’s flighty Marie Antoinettes. But when fans are shouting “Get on the fucking stage”, you wonder if a star would really keep on being late if she cared about her audience. And would a fan really say something like that to a star they really loved?

Something has also changed in that fan-to-artist dynamic: those roles are just being enacted, not genuinely inhabited. Maybe these illusory relationships have affected things too – in this world, we broadcast to each other, rather than properly connecting. Rihanna’s apparently not even bothering with her fans – her #navy – on the plane. Connection via hashtag is fine, of course, especially if you put that hashtag on your album cover. But real engagement isn’t the business.

What is the business, for Rihanna, is giving out free phones from the stage. She’s been doing this every night, hollering as she hands out a “unique” HTC. Just think about this act by itself and you feel pop’s flamboyance, excess and glamour all slipping away. Rihanna’s not embodying any brand in a subtle, sophisticated way. She’s not expanding the pleasures of pop’s escapism, or its realms of dizzy fantasy. She’s a megastar giving out product – literally – from her million-dollar market stall.

But this is where we are. We live in a world in which the push to make money suggests the only path to many pop fans for freedom. A world in which when I interviewed Tulisa a few months ago for Q magazine, she said she wanted to make as much money as possible, and then disappear, so that people would miss her. This is a world in which The X Factor process is defined on the screen as a means of social mobility. And a world in which you can hear Unapologetic, the work of a 24-year-old going through the money-making mechanically.

“Just going through the motions, I can’t even get the emotions to come,” Rihanna sings on ‘What Now’. However good the tunes are around her, everything else suggests sad signs for our times.

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