It’s like being pelted with pornographic candy. Rihanna tumbles out of a giant hamster ball onto a stage hyperactive with cavorting day-glo dancers and thrusting hydraulic platforms. Her skimpy blue dress is soon off, revealing a bikini as immodest as it is lurid.
The 23-year-old Barbadian singer recently became similarly undressed in a field in Northern Ireland during a promotional video shoot. Rihanna had her first international hit at age 17 and has since released five albums with combined sales of more than 20 million. She’s also known for her comely looks. The field’s God-fearing farmer, though, remained unimpressed. Rihanna was ordered to promptly re-robe and get off his land.
No such complaints are being heard on Rihanna’s 99-date tour which continues around Europe over the next few months, including many events at London’s O2 Arena (until Dec. 22.)
Rihanna’s concerts prove that sex sells. Throughout the 90 minutes of her O2 gigs, she bumps and grinds, grabs her crotch, and rocks, waggles and rolls her under-dressed posterior.
Her microphone crassly dangles between her legs. She makes Madonna look like a virgin. Madonna, though, maintains a commanding charisma. Rihanna is small in the middle of her stage and seems unconvinced by the endless raunch. One wonders about her welfare -- not the ideal reaction in a pop concert.
The music too is as brazen and plastic as a cheap sex toy. The sound quality is poor. Rihanna’s voice is swaddled in reverb while the music is busy with too many instrumentalists (nobody needs two keytars played at the same time).
Nevertheless, songs like “Only Girl (in the World),” the soaring “Love the Way You Lie” and the mighty “Umbrella” still hit the spot. A perfect mix of sleek R’n’B, high voltage electro and crunchy rock guitars, each is a devastatingly effective piece of modern pop engineering.
Rihanna is happiest, her performance at its best, when she returns to her dancehall roots. The stripped-down beats of “Rude Boy” put a spark into her singing and a tease into her wiggle. It is a welcome relief from the tiresomely sexual spectacle.
Rihanna next plays the O2 tomorrow, with other dates this month in France, Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Norway and Sweden. The tour also visits Switzerland, the Netherlands and Ireland.
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(Robert Heller is a music critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)