Rihanna is the artist of now. Nielsen Soundscan recently crowned her the biggest-selling digital artist of all time with 47.5 million digital downloads sold since 2004. As impressive a feat as that is, the time of the digital artist has been relatively short. Rihanna may be a pop queen now, but it is still questionable whether she will have a long career. Rihanna has cultivated an image that is so of the moment, it is hard to picture what she will be doing next year, let alone ten years from now. Does she have what it takes to have longevity in the music industry?
Rihanna has all the makings of diva. But she hasn’t shown the vision needed to maintain a lasting career. With all the tattoos, Twitter rants, and blunt-smoking paparazzi shots, you get the feeling she’s focused on living in the now – just like any other 24 year old. But, if she wants the longevity of pop divas before her, she needs to decide what she will be remembered for. Otherwise, she will fade from our memory just like any other trend.
If there were a template for Rihanna to follow to last in pop music it would have to be Madonna – a pop dance diva with a constantly evolving image and a penchant for the daring. When Madonna first came on the scene, no one expected her to last. But, once Madonna had our attention, she simply refused to give it up. If Rihanna’s raucous Twitter feed is any indication of her temperament, we can assume she won’t fade away quietly either. She would do well to take a few lessons from a veteran if she intends to stick around.
Rihanna doesn’t shy away from controversy. Both Rihanna and Madonna have been popular targets for organizations dedicated to preserving the country’s morality. But Madonna’s risks usually had higher stakes. No one is encouraging Rihanna to make out with Black Jesus and dance in front of burning crosses in her video. But, she could try to make risky artistic choices that aren’t dictated by the latest trend.
Rihanna shares Madonna’s talent for reinvention. She debuted as a dancehall teenybopper (“Music of the Sun”), matured gracefully into a hip-hop, pop diva (“Good Girl Gone Bad”), and seamlessly shifted into a harder rock star image (“Hard”) before becoming the colorful club kid meets sex goddess we know her as today. Each of her albums features perfectly crafted pop songs and expert imaging that reflect the musical and style trends of the day. But Rihanna isn’t known for originating trends so much as catching them early and executing them really well.
Madonna is able to transcend the trends she takes on even when she jumps on the bandwagon late. She has a point of view, something Rihanna is lacking. Rihanna embodies different images so thoroughly that she gets lost in them. Critics have often complained that she comes off as icy and blank. But, lately it seems Rihanna has opened up. She has been decidedly less styled to perfection and her brash, risque interviews may be signs that she is relaxing her filter for the public. Or pretty rebel may just be her latest incarnation. Time will tell.
Cortney Cleveland is a public relations practitioner and freelance culture & business writer working in New York City. You can follow her on Twitter @CleveInTheCity.