Rihanna’s Super Bowl Halftime Show Was A Visit From Above
There will be no new album. There will be no tour, either. Rihanna says she’s “excited” to release new music but that she has no updates on what that new music will be, when it will arrive. Don’t hold your breath. Back when she was the most consistent hitmaker in all of pop music, Rihanna would reliably crank out a new album full of monster singles once a year. But last night, when Rihanna returned to the stage — or to the floating space-platforms that did the work of a stage — she sang nothing new. She didn’t sing anything from the past five years because she barely has any music from the past five years. Instead, Rihanna made a different type of announcement.
Rihanna is pregnant. Again. The moment that her performance ended, a rep confirmed what the world saw. Rihanna and A$AP Rocky had their first child last year, and now there’s another one on the way. Don’t expect Rihanna to rush out of the house again anytime soon. She is at a different point of her life. She’s already amassed one of the most diamond-plated discographies of this century, and she’s made more money than any one person could possibly ever spend. Rihanna’s long absence has only added to her already-considerable mystique, and last night’s performance will be a one-of-one, a brief moment of visibility before the silence resumes.
People had questions. Didn’t Rihanna once say that she’d never agree to work with the NFL? Why, yes, she did. In a 2019 Vogue cover story, Rihanna confirmed that she’d turned down a previous invitation to play the Super Bowl in the wake of the league’s treatment of Colin Kaepernick and other the players who took a knee during the National Anthem: “I couldn’t dare do that. For what? Who gains from that? Not my people. I just couldn’t be a sellout. I couldn’t be an enabler. There’s things within that organization that I do not agree with at all, and I was not about to go and be of service to them in any way.” So what changed? Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, the company that manages Rihanna, has been producing Halftime Shows for years now, and Rihanna presumably had the option to return whenever she wanted. She chose now. Why? Why perform, when she didn’t even have anything new to promote?
We don’t really have an answer to that question, but it seems to be this: Rihanna performed because she felt like it. In a press scrum a few months ago, Rihanna said, “It was a challenge that I welcomed. It was a stage bigger than anything I’ve ever done. If I’m going to leave my baby, I’m going to leave my baby for something special. I was willing to do it. It was now or never for me.” Rihanna liked the challenge of a performance with a massive scope, and she knew that she’d have an even harder time leaving two babies behind, so she did it. Rihanna’s performance certainly had sponsors and business considerations and all the other shit that comes along with a massive global broadcast, but the performance had no greater reason for existing. Rihanna doesn’t especially need to sell anything to anyone, so this was spectacle for the sake of spectacle.
And it really was spectacle. I’ve seen a lot of people saying they were bored by last night’s show, and that shit leaves me baffled. Rihanna didn’t do a lot of the obvious gestures that we have come to associate with things like Super Bowl Halftime Shows. There were no surprise guest stars, no costume changes, no moment where a million extras ran out on the field and waved flags around or whatever. Instead, we got vivid, breathtaking, instantly memorable imagery. The first shot alone was an all-timer: A tight close-up on Rihanna, Mona Lisa smiling and doing the Kubrick stare, as lights glowed indistinctly behind her. And then the reveal — a grand zoom-out that showed Rihanna on a levitating platform, vertiginously high above the field, with dancers in blinding-white high-fashion hazmat suits arrayed on other platforms, It was a sci-fi vision, immaculately realized.
In a Wired interview today, production designer Bruce Rodgers said that those levitating stages had a practical reason for flying around like that. Tore-up grass has been a big problem in the NFL lately, with players getting injured because of shoddily maintained fields. Nobody wanted Rihanna’s show to interfere with the game’s second half, so instead of touching down on the field, she flew above it. Those floating stages owed an obvious debt to that last Kanye West tour, but the entire undertaking was a lot more sweeping and majestic than any idea that Kanye could’ve ever realized. The sheer precision at work is enough to boggle the mind — all those stages all dispersing and interlocking in perfect time. The engineering itself was beautiful. And then there was Rihanna.
What do people want from Rihanna? It’s worth asking. The criticisms of last night’s show suggest that a whole lot of people just don’t understand how Rihanna works. Her choreography was minimal. She would wander into elaborate dance routines, hit a few steps with everyone behind her, and then go back to standing still. Nevermind that Rihanna was pregnant and suspended on these flying platforms; Rihanna has never been an athletic dancer. That’s not what she does. Overpowering vocals aren’t what she does, either. Some people have gotten performatively upset about Rihanna’s lip-syncing, even though I’m fairly certain that she was singing live over pre-recorded tracks. Again, that’s always been how she does things. You don’t go to a Rihanna show because you want her to sing the paint off the ceiling. You go because she has presence.
There are great actors, and there are movie stars. A movie star might be able to give a tearful monologue on cue. A movie star might be able to disappear into a role and make you forget who you’re watching. If movie stars can do that, that’s great, but that’s a bonus. Movie stars simply have to hold the screen. They have to compel you, to draw your attention, simply by existing. Rihanna has that movie-star charisma. She can do more by hitting a stinkface as her platform descends than, say, previous Super Bowl performer Adam Levine could do by ripping his shirt off amidst jets of flame. Rihanna doesn’t have to do much, so she didn’t do much. I first watched last night’s Halftime Show in a crowded bar full of friends, and nobody looked away from the screen when Rihanna was on. That’s stardom.
And then there were the songs. Rihanna’s entire Halftime Show was over in less than 14 minutes, and she just barely fit in bits and pieces of 12 different songs. That doesn’t even cover the basics of her vast catalog of hits. You could plot out a plausible Halftime Show setlist of monster anthems that Rihanna didn’t perform last night: “Don’t Stop The Music,” “What’s My Name,” “Needed Me,” “Pon De Replay,” “Man Down,” “SOS,” “Shut Up And Drive,” “Lemon,” “Disturbia,” “Stay,” “FourFiveSeconds,” “California King Bed,” “This Is What You Came For,” “Take Care,” the big Eminem songs. Last night, Rihanna had no time for anything that didn’t hit like an absolute anthem.
Just a few months ago, Rihanna came back with “Lift Me Up,” her big Black Panther: Wakanda Forever single. That song debuted at #2, and it’s up for an Oscar, but it’s pretty boring, and I think Rihanna knows it. So now “Lift Me Up” has already been written out of her history. Instead, Rihanna kicked off last night’s set with “Bitch Better Have My Money,” a tough and defiant banger about a bitch who better have her money. That song wasn’t even a huge hit, but it’s a near-perfect vehicle for Rihanna’s particular uncaring coolness, and it set the tone.
Last night’s set was heavy on EDM bangers. “Where Have You Been,” “Only Girl (In The World),” and “We Found Love” were back-to-back-to-back followed by a thumping rework of “Rude Boy” that had Riri grabbing her junk and also doing what I can only describe as a sniff-my-fart dance move. That booming pop-house style isn’t exactly current, but it sounds vast and epic in a stadium context. The same is true of the moment, later on, when Rihanna did two straight tracks with powerful and obvious Kanye West associations — first Kanye’s own “All Of The Lights,” then Jay-Z’s “Run This Town.”
Kanye West and Jay-Z obviously did not share Rihanna’s stage for either of those songs. (No Drake, either. You had to look fast to see the one other famous-ish person up there: Nuno Bettencourt, formerly the guy from Extreme, who’s been Rihanna’s guitarist for many years now. Looking good, Nuno!) Jay-Z was right there, watching from the side of the field. Kanye West was presumably watching from his underground asshole bunker, possibly with Roger Stone and George Zimmerman and that couple who pointed the guns at the protesters in St. Louis. (I’m just guessing here.)
It’s worth wondering what Rihanna meant by giving prominent placement to those Kanye tracks. Was she saluting an old friend who’s now in a bad way? Was she reclaiming those songs from him? Rihanna hasn’t told us, and she probably never will. But I have my own ideas. I think Rihanna sang “All Of The Lights” because it sounds fucking awesome in a stadium. And it does sound fucking awesome in a stadium.
Rihanna’s entire set last night was finely calibrated for maximum goosebump. The direction was impeccable — the camera flying among all those flying platforms, the cables forming their own hypnotic geometric patterns. The dancers, working in precise lockstep, seemed to move as one organism. (Imagine being one of those dancers. Imagine laying on your back on a flying coffee table, 50 feet above Rihanna, humping the air.) The color palette was simple and evocative — Rihanna in red, the dancers all in white. Even the fireworks looked better than most fireworks.
Last night’s set included both “We Found Love” and “Umbrella,” two of this century’s most totemic pop songs. Both of them would’ve made for obvious openers or closers, but Rihanna didn’t go with the obvious. Instead, she hopped around in her catalog. She didn’t do anything from before “Umbrella,” so the set didn’t even touch on her ascent. Instead, she only sang songs from the decade-long stretch of time when she was a globally dominant star. Taken together, those songs told a story. In that decade, Rihanna adapted to shifting sounds and ideas, but she always sounded like herself. Her songs were a vehicle for her persona, and her persona was a vehicle for her songs. We might have to wait years before we get any new Rihanna songs, but that persona will endure.
Rihanna’s halftime set can be viewed in full at Apple Music.