Love her or hate her, Rihanna certainly knows how drop a good pop single.
And that is now an indisputable fact — yesterday, Billboard announced that Rihanna has set the record for the most singles to hit #1 on the Pop Songs radio airplay chart.
The milestone is impressive, but not technically a surprise; Rihanna has released an album almost every year since 2005, pumping out a steady string of club-ready, radio-hogging hits that are hard to ignore. What’s remarkable, however, is that Rihanna has managed to solidify her status as a modern American pop music star without offering much of a voice, and little more in the way of performance.
A slick chameleon
To put it bluntly — she’s no Beyoncé. Or Adele. Or Mariah or Whitney. And while neither Madonna, Janet nor Britney had soaring voices, they all produced spectacular stage performances to justify their spots in pop stardom.
Rihanna’s success, on the other hand, is largely dependent on chameleon-like styling and slick promotion, along with an army (#navy?) of writers and producers to create interchangeable party anthems. There’s no distinct flavor to Rihanna’s songs; rather, Jonah Weiner at Slate dubbed her “a one-hit wonder several dozen times over.”
Also remarkable is how little Rihanna appears in some of her number ones. On two of the songs on the Billboard list (“Live Your Life” and “Love the Way You Lie”), Rihanna is only singing the hooks. And in last year’s hit “We Found Love,” Rihanna is silent for more than a full minute while the beat loops.
A hit machine that’s terribly catchy
Rihanna’s music isn’t terrible, per se — it’s just incredibly catchy. And it’s not unreasonable to imagine that her music was engineered specifically with that purpose. Take a pretty island girl with a rebel image, mix in a few dance tracks, and you have a hit-machine primed and ready to produce.
The real durability test of Rihanna’s discography requires looking years into the future and asking: “Would I play this at a wedding 20 years from now?” (Because, let’s be honest — that’s where all the best number ones end up, on a wedding DJ’s playlist).
Let’s use this Future Wedding Reception Test and determine whether we’ll still be excited about a Rihanna hit in a decade or two:
“S.O.S” – This was Rihanna’s first #1 hit, but it’s entirely possible to forget the song ever existed. Even now, playing the song only makes one long for Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love,” which “S.O.S.” samples heavily. Doesn’t pass the Wedding Reception Test.
“Disturbia” – This is a dark hit that could probably put in the same box as Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me.” It’s more suited for a 2033 Halloween party or haunted house than our hypothetical future wedding reception. Doesn’t pass the test.
“S&M” – How a song about bondage and masochism reached the top of the radio airplay charts remains puzzling. Suffice it to say, someone will find references to whips and chains a little jarring, if not downright unacceptable. Doesn’t pass the test.
“Rude Boy” – Maybe I’m partial to this song because I come from a Caribbean family. Many agree that Rihanna is at her best when she references her Bajan roots, sings with a lilt and gives a little slow wind. “Rude Boy” is the most successful among her reggae-influenced songs, and its over-sexiness is tempered by a feel-good dance beat. We’ll say it passes the test.
“Only Girl (In The World)” – Here, Rihanna steps into the electrodance arena and delivers a song that belongs in the club just as much as it belongs in a late-evening reception. It’s very “dancey” and not terribly suggestive, making it friendly for family audiences of the future. Passes the Wedding Reception Test.
“We Found Love” – This one is a no-brainer. It was hard to escape this song last year, and no matter where you were, the thumping electronic beat and anthem-like hook triggered involuntary dancing. Plus, the hopeful lyrics make it a feel-good, jump-around track (even if the accompanying video could be, at times, unsettling). Not only does “We Found Love” pass our Imaginary Wedding Reception Test, but it’s also one of the few Rihanna songs that will undeniably endure well into the future.
All music isn’t ‘timeless’
It’s not entirely fair to expect Rihanna’s music to become timeless — it is, after all, called “pop” music for a reason.
But since pop music does reflect our tastes and sensibility of any given time, here’s to hoping that 20 years from now, Rihanna’s greatest hits will elicit more nostalgia than embarrassment.
Because, let’s be honest — we still have to grapple with the fact that our number one hit in 1997 was Will Smith’s “Men In Black.”
You can find Veronica Miller musing and ranting on Twitter @veronicamarche.