The best thing the Onion has run lately wasn’t its selection of Kim Jong Un as 2012's "sexiest man alive," or "Everything a Goddamn Ordeal in Area Family." It was "The 9 Most SCANDALOUS Rihanna photos,” an odd little gem of criticism. The headline, of course, is one the Huffington Post or any number of outlets would have run verbatim in pursuit of pageviews, as were the captions. “He-llo Ms. Fenty! Rihanna nearly slipping out of her dress at the VMAs,” read one. “We would be remiss were we not to include the infamous leaked photos of Ri-Ri following her assault,” the last slide concluded. But the payoff was that there were no photos of Rihanna. The slideshow was instead illustrated with a series of liquid-free plastic cups—empty vessels, in other words.
As long as there have been pop stars, they have served as the repository for our feelings about sex and decorum. Not to mention a chance for us to ogle something pretty (or "SCANDALOUS"). But the aforementioned assault—at the hands of then-boyfriend, now-something Chris Brown—and her decision to very publicly forgive her reliably awful abuser has raised the stakes for the 24-year-old Rihanna. “Brown's insistent existence is so mind-bogglingly repugnant that I can’t think of anything to do but quietly fume, try to ignore him, and hope not to develop unhealthy (for me) and paternalistic feelings about his pop star victim/girlfriend Rihanna,” Kat Stoeffel wrote on the Cut. “Unapologetic rubs our faces in the inconvenient, messy truth of Rihanna's life which, even if it were done well, would be hard to celebrate as a success,” decrees the Pitchfork review of her new album. Everyone, from the New York Times to Oprah, is concerned about Rihanna’s choices. This, to her, seems almost the worst part of it all. “It happened to me in front of the world. I was embarrassed, humiliated…” she told Oprah in a weepy, honest-seeming interview. “Everything I knew switched in a night, and I couldn’t control that.”
To be a young female pop star in 2012, after all, demands a precisely calibrated relationship with control. With the occasional rare exception, you must appear to be at least a little bit out of control to get attention. (See: Ke$ha.) You cannot actually be out of control. (See: Spears, Britney.) You must be the living equivalent of your music: an ode and exhortation to wild abandon that is, in fact, carefully contained and engineered by a proven set of conventions. Rihanna is—deliberately, and against the will of her management at first—years away from her original, teenage image: a freshfaced dancehall queen who, as a Jay-Z protégée, drew more than her fair share of comparisons to Beyoncé. Instead, she’s refashioned herself as a “glam punk goddess” who likes to play with our notions of what being in command means. (“I have to be in control in every other aspect of my life, so I feel like in a relationship, like I wanted to be able to take a step back and have somebody else take the lead,” she told GQ in response to a question about her sexual predilections. It became the bloggable bit of the interview.)
This precisely calibrated version of control also happens to share an awful lot with the one demanded these days of young women who aren’t pop stars: the thing uniting the previously unparelled achievements of girls in the classroom and workplace with our supposedly new frontiers in drinking and emotion-free fucking is an allegiance to focused, in-it-to-win-it toughness above all. It’s little wonder that Rihanna has found such consistent success at the top of the charts and has become the most digitally downloaded artist in history.
Not only is she a paragon of the work-hard play-hard mentality that has become more the province of young women everywhere than Ivy League fraternity bros—Rihanna puts out at least an album a year, and also spends an awful lot of time on yachts and rolling blunts, per BadGirlRiRi’s Instagram—but she’s excellent at managing it. Consider the recent episode of the 777 tour, in which the star invited a group of journalists and fans aboard her jet for a weeklong worldwide concert tour, with the promise of wild times and gonzo copy. She made a brief appearance early on, for shots of both the tequila and Twitpic variety, then sequestered herself from the crowd to nurse an apparently ailing voice.
The onetime teenage army cadet has made a swaggering hardness (no, really) the most important part of her public persona, and even her craft. “Throw it up, pour it out … I still got my money,” she repeats like an incantation on her latest album. “Say my name, let me know I’m in control,” is her version of a “Loveeee Song.” “Shut up and drive,” she commanded years ago. The imperative and the possessive are what her lyrics, and persona, turn on. And she’s fully inhabited them: As the Times’ Jon Caramanica put it, her voice has been “cured into a weapon of emotional chill and strategic indifference. It’s decidedly unfriendly, made to give orders. It matters way more than anything she might say.” Except that what Rihanna has been saying lately, in interviews and on her albums and during her very public crusade to remind us that she’s forgiven Brown (even if we haven’t), is that she’s not, in fact, indifferent at all. “I've been ignoring this big lump in my throat/I shouldn't be crying/Tears were for the weaker days/I'm stronger now or so I say/But something's missing,” she sings on a new ballad, a contemplative update to Spears’s unfortunate declaration a decade ago that she was "stronger than yesterday."
This is perhaps the secret to Rihanna’s appeal. She’s singing the feelings of the girls who don’t like to admit they have feelings: emo music that feels like anything but. Those feelings are just, as she explains on her unfortunately catchy duet with Brown, “Nobody’s Business.” Or, more accurately, she knows we’ll speculate on them plenty (and invites it), but she’s figured out just what kind of casing to store them in: diamond-hard. “No one seems to understand better than Chris Brown and Rihanna that the line between desire and disgust is very thin,” Slate's Amanda Marcotte wrote of their collaboration. “She may be speaking her heart or she may simply be putting on a show.” That such speculations even exists about whether her forgiveness—not uncommon among domestic abuse victims—could just be a ploy means that, if nothing else, she's been enormously successful in keeping a barrier between her real self and the world even while making that real self an object of international fascination.
“You seem like you’re living the life of our dreams,” Oprah said during an interview with the pop star last summer. Rihanna looked down demurely. She carefully edited the sentence. “Umm, I’m living the life of my dreams.”