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Rihanna’s victim-diva complex

Six months ago Rihanna looked like she was losing it, and now she looks to be in complete control.

I never thought I’d say this but she makes it look so easy. I came to Twickenham, home of rugby, expecting to see a shell of a woman mouthing to a backing track and operated, like a marionette, by her sponsors. I get a slinky, laconic diva strolling casually through a set that any of the little girls in the audience could pull off, if they practised enough in front of the mirror.

Fact is, Rihanna’s shows are pretty easy in comparison to some stadium tours: brilliantly, refreshingly easy. In the past few years I’ve watched Lady Gaga stand atop a fibreglass castle hyperventilating into her mic; I’ve watched Taylor Swift dressed as a cavewoman, beating drums and standing under a water cannon; I’ve watched Justin Bieber puke on stage and I’ve seen Beyoncé engage in athletics that produced facial contortions so shocking to her, she banned photographers from future gigs.

Two weeks ago to the day Beyoncé played the same Twickenham stage to generally positive reviews that located much of her power in the remarkable energy of her performance. Then there’s Rihanna, with a “guide vocalist” on stage for the dub/reggaetinged opening section, who allows her to drop out of singing whenever she fancies it. (A guide vocalist is quite common these days – the point is that Rihanna doesn’t even pretend to be singing, just sways side to side and has a little rest, which is both fantastically cocky and very relaxing to watch.)

There is dancing but there are no hydraulics or high wires. There are costume changes (Wonder Woman, ballgown, tinfoil “disco” coat) but each outfit is simply the decoration on a set list carefully managed to crank up physical exertion at a reasonable rate, leaving the challenges to the latter half of her show and allowing her to remain – who’d have thought it! – connected to her audience at all times. “My dad, my brothers, my mum and my aunts are right here,” she says. “It’s the first time they have seen me play a stadium. You want to make my mother cry? Say my name after three. One, two, three . . .” 55,000 people scream Rihanna.

This is not the Rihanna of the 777 promotional tour last November. Remember – she flew around seven countries in seven days on a private plane packed with journalists, many of whom had been promised face-time, none of whom got it, in a stunt that seemed designed to illustrate the complete redundancy of the traditional music media. I saw her Berlin show. Backstage, even the band seemed nervous: she’d been three hours late on stage every night – would she come out from her dressing room at all? (This was a kind of tromp-l’oeil boudoir fashioned from curtains and scattered with pink lilies, hung within the concrete underbelly of the club).

I had no particular interest in Rihanna, and no expections either way, but it was thoroughly uncomfortable watching her sashay on stage at 1am, dead-eyed, and motor through a handful of tracks with stage patter that extended to: “I’m going to do the next song now”. She was on autopilot – she is, by her own admission, a great stoner – but she still remembered to hand out a free cellphone at the right point in the gig.

Watching her, you couldn’t help but imagine a dystopian future in which the pop star was no longer required to be made of flesh and just a machine would do, playing a backing track and lobbing out “product” in the manner of an automated tennis ball launcher.

HTC, River Island and others bankrolled that £3.8m tour. A music business analyst friend of mine wondered whether the 777’s “controlled mayhem” might have been just what her sponsors wanted: nothing that happened – or didn’t happen – would be bad publicity and Rihanna’s rock and roll behaviour gave the relatively dull brands a kind of vicarious “edge”. But no one knew whether she was really coping, underneath the tough exterior. The victim tag has hung on Rihanna for some time.

In 2009, Rihanna was beaten up by her boyfriend Chris Brown. The police leaked horrific photos of her face after the attack, there was a restraining order – then a few months later she went back and forgave him. There was an outcry, many people saying she had let her fans down in returning to the relationship, failing in her “duty” as a role model. Whatever you feel about that particular argument, it was hard to watch what happened next. During the 777 tour she released an album, Unapologetic, which made the attack one of its main “creative” themes, boasting a duet with Brown called “Nobody’s Business” and another song (“No Love Allowed”) which ran, “Your love hit me to the core, I was fine ‘til you knocked me to the floor”. Her songwriting team knew that the real-life violence would give the record a unique kind of thrill, a bit like the musical equivalent of a snuff movie.

It was a move almost too cynical to get your head round, and Rihanna remains a dark and divisive character because of the way she “made use” of what happened to her. When Beyoncé or Gaga stomp on stage in their teutonic underwear it is seen as a symbol of their sexual confidence. When Rihanna does it, she’s showing young girls how to exploit themselves. My friend remarks that the poster for the Twickenham gig – no clothes, one arm pushed behind her head – makes her look like a sex traffic victim. Then a woman behind me, who’s come to the gig with her two young children, shouts to her friend, “You know the funny thing? They say it’s so risqué but I was watching Wham in the Eighties with George Michael in his tiny shorts and Andrew Ridgely giving it all that, and it was no different!” But it is a bit different, because whenever we watch Rihanna we are bearing in mind private problems that, 30 years ago, may never have become common knowledge at all.

I cannot see the “dark” figure on stage tonight. Her sexuality is, to my eyes, a rather stately and elegant thing at this particular appearance – that rock solid confidence; her slow, stalking movements and wry smile; her refusal to involve herself in punishing dance routines. Judging by the genetic makeup of the audience, it is a sexuality that appeals very much to women – “empowering” may be too easy a word, but it’s happily onanistic, like a teenager looking in the mirror. The only uncomfortable moments of the show are the ballads contrived to narrate her personal story: by 10pm she’s down the runway in an evening dress – the guide vocalist has knocked off for the night – giving it all for the line “I don’t need proof /I’m torn apart and numb/What you did to me was a crime” (“Cold Case Love”).

At one point, she suggests that these ambiguous lyrics are aimed at “the people in love’s complicated group – and I am one of those people”. And for some strange reason that’s the only bit of the show that really gets my goat, possibly because it’s one idea that any intelligent 14-year-old really would be susceptible to – that love cannot be real unless it is bloody hard work.

She is at her most powerful when she’s singing complete nonsense: “What’s on ma chain” (from “Phresh Out The Runway”) or “Come and put your name on it/it’s not even my birthday” (“Birthday Cake”). At these moments she projects the bizarre, rubbery, cosmic confidence of a megastar and is liberated from any connection with her own life. Famous people cannot be expected to reflect back the ideals we project on to them. Because of the messed up world they inhabit, it’s often the most frivolous things they offer that have the most value. I’m pretty sure that if you asked the girls here tonight, most of them would be able to make the distinction. Fact is, six months ago Rihanna looked like she was losing it, and tonight she is in control.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 24 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Mr Scotland