Editor’s note: This article should be read while listening to “Man Down.”
The Verizon Center in Chinatown, Washington, D.C. was abuzz Tuesday night. You could already feel the energy pulsing through the streets as you exited the metro. Though it can only be assumed that she was in a dressing room somewhere inside the building, Rihanna’s aura was everywhere. Girls pranced through the streets in pointy high heels and daring thigh-high boots, flaunting their original style in streetwear brands like Supreme, Stussy and Vetements and donning skin-tight body suits that left little to the imagination. The streets of D.C., typically so demure that they tread the line between classic and boring, were transformed into runways for the Rihanna Navy — the name given to the star’s loyal fan base.
Inside, the crowd eagerly waited for the show to start. From parents attending with their teen daughters to groups of college friends there to dance the night away with their “squads,” fans of all ages and backgrounds were visibly excited as they watched Rihanna’s crew prep the minimally decorated stage. With the exception of a large, clear plastic tarp hanging from the ceiling behind the band, the white stage was completely bare. At first, that simplicity seemed a bit strange considering Rihanna is, arguably, the biggest star in the world, but it all made sense eventually.
And then, there she was.
As the lights dimmed overhead and folks rushed to their seats from the aisles, the sound of Rihanna’s “Stay” softly began to play through the speakers of the arena. All eyes were focused on the main stage, but to everybody’s surprise a light shone brightly on a tiny stage on the opposite side of the floor. Like a hazy dream slowly transforming into the reality of day, Rihanna climbed a flight of stairs and, perched atop her platform, began to sing that heartbreaking ballad. When it comes to arena shows, a lot of stars opt to descend onto the stage from above, as if they are being dropped into the crowd from a higher place. But not Rihanna. Rihanna doesn’t descend, Rihanna ascends. A subtle reminder that she is a woman well aware of her position within the pop universe. This is Rihanna’s world, and we’re all just lucky enough to be able to watch her play in it.
For the rest of the night, Rihanna performed a musical feast comprising of each phase of her extensive musical career. From the provocative tone of “Sex with Me” to the island sounds of “Man Down” to the EDM vibes of “We Found Love,” it was amazing to hear the breadth of her music catalog all in one go. Much like the pop giants who came before her — Madonna, Cher, Prince, David Bowie and Michael Jackson, just to name a few — Rihanna has managed to constantly reinvent herself, pushing the boundaries of what “pop” even means. As the crowd cheered and danced to hit after hit after hit, it was like witnessing a spiritual gathering. 20,000 people were connected, in this moment, under the shinning light of one of the biggest stars.
If artists like Beyoncé represent a classic, “you can have it all” brand of feminism where women have husbands, children, powerful jobs and an amazing 401K in their name, Rihanna represents a different kind of feminism, one that Millennial women are particularly drawn to.
RiRi represents DGAF feminism (that’s “Don’t Give a Fuck” in case you’re behind the times). She represents a kind of feminism where women are free to behave as they please, even if it means being a little bit irresponsible. She represents the fierce individuality of being unapologetically single and embracing your career and power. She represents ignoring tired, old social constructs of how women are supposed to behave and rejects the notion that women ought to be polite and suppress their sexuality. She represents a feminism rooted in the fundamental belief that you, and only you, are responsible for your own happiness. And you can feel every ounce of her badass feminism as she curses and dabs on stage; as she struts around in a custom, glittering Armani jumpsuit; as she chastises an audience member for teasing her with a blunt. She didn’t need a huge stage, or a dozen back up dancers, or ten outfit changes to command the attention of a sold-out arena. A quick peek at her Instagram account lets you know that Rihanna does whatever she wants, whenever she wants. Nobody calls the shots for her. This is a woman completely in control of her life, of her destiny.
And that’s what makes Rihanna so special. She has transcended the typical notion of what it means to be a pop star. Her image isn’t a carefully curated amalgamation of what the public wants, rather, the public follows her lead. She doesn’t mold herself to the cultural landscape, she’s the one planting the seeds.
In the amazing words of the star herself from a 2013 Glamour interview: “They’re gonna keep knocking away until all this comes crashing down. But I’m not gonna ever crash. I’m in control.” Yes you are, Rihanna, and that’s why we love you.