Rihanna’s Super Bowl Performance Reflected Her Strengths and Her Weaknesses, And They All Work In Her Favor

Rihanna's made building a career look easy. But her Super Bowl performance reflected a series of hard choices that made her a successful pop star.

Rihanna Super Bowl Performance Review

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Rihanna Super Bowl Performance Review

I remember years ago, in 2006 to be exact, I watched Rihanna on Punk’d, a madcap show on MTV hosted by Ashton Kutcher that pranked celebrities. Almost 20 years later, I still think about a specific moment in that episode, when a burly actor accused Rihanna and her friend of stealing from two young street performers. “Do you know how hard it is to be a singer?” he asked. Rihanna placed her hand on her heart and said, “I know.” She then proceeded to open up a CD holder she was carrying, and when a police officer questioned what she was doing, she responded, “I was actually just going to give them my album. I’m an artist.”

There was a conviction in her tone, and I always thought her use of the word “artist” over “singer” or “performer” was telling. This was the “SOS” era, when Rihanna wore Hervé Léger dresses like her peers and hadn’t carved out a distinct visual identity for herself. She had released her first album, Music of the Sun, which debuted at number 10 on the US Billboard 200, and she was already on to her second project, A Girl Like Me, released in 2006, which peaked at number 5 on the Billboard 200 chart. We were getting to know this young lady, a Def Jam signee who had everything to lose or gain. But even at that early stage of her career, she knew who she was and what she wanted to be. That intrigued me—and clearly many others. 

One of the most appealing things about Rihanna is her sense of knowing—that quiet and cool confidence that draws people in. It’s hard to be that beautiful and still feel relatable, but Rihanna’s achieved that with her celebrity. Maybe it’s because she’s always known who she is—a Black girl from Barbados with a story she touched on beautifully in the Apple Music commercial that dropped before her Super Bowl performance. And because of her solidly defined identity, she’s made decisions guided by that. She knows what to say yes to and what to reject. What songs to hop on. What brands to wear or work with. Who to pay homage to. The list goes on. And yes, you can attribute that to being smart or having certain resources, but what it essentially comes down to is having taste and vision, which is intangible and rare. 

Rihanna Super bowl LVII Halftime Performance

People underestimate the power of taste and vision. Or they just don’t think about it because we like to remove agency from artists who aren’t holding a guitar or operating a soundboard, especially women pop artists like Rihanna. But I’ve always been impressed with her choices, which catapulted her from offering her album to street performers on that Punk’d episode to the Super Bowl stage last night, where she glided through the string of hits she’s released over the last 18 years. We take for granted how she could have easily ridden off into oblivion, like most artists, after she released her first or second album. But she had the foresight to map out her career, build her team, and then deliver, consistently. These are HER choices. Choices that can feel cool when watching from afar or observing in the moment, but while looking at her Super Bowl performance, those choices felt even more impressive and hugely meaningful. 

When you become a global commodity like Rihanna, you are constantly presented with options, ideas, and pitches that are rooted in how your value can benefit others and not always yourself. That’s why her opening the show up with “Bitch Better Have My Money” felt like a pointed choice. In 2019 she told Vogueshe wouldn’t perform at the Super Bowl because of the NFL’s treatment of Colin Kaepernick. She hasn’t spoken publicly about what caused the change of heart—I’m sure her label Roc Nation’s deal with the league didn’t hurt—but Rihanna did utilize the occasion to sell Fenty Super Bowl merch, and she touched up her makeup with a Fenty beauty compact during the performance, essentially turning their platform into her own. 

In fact, I saw a lot of smart choices in that performance. It was her choice to tap Willo Perron, who she works with on most of her performances, to design those levitating stages, which were minimal yet grand, visually presenting her as THE ONE amongst many. It was her choice to work with Jahleel Weaver, her longtime stylist who dressed her in the red Loewe flight suit and Alaia coats with Maison Margiela x Salomon sneakers—foregoing the typical leotards and sequins we usually see at the Super Bowl. The moment was the culmination of a long timeline of intentional and well-thought fashion/stylistic choices: In 2007, it was her choice to make an aesthetic pivot when she released Good Girl Gone Bad, changing the trajectory of her career with stylist Mariel Haenn for an edgier look (and a game-changing haircut from Ursula Stephens). She then made another shift in 2011 when she tapped Mel Ottenberg to elevate her fashion even more for the “Loud” tour and beyond. And finally, it was her choice to work with choreographer Parris Gloebel, whose quirky and fluid choreography perfectly accentuated Rihanna’s natural movements.

Rihanna wearing custom Loewe for Super Bowl

Was she low energy? Yes. At times she looked a little vacant and as if she was going through the motions rather than fully feeling them in the moment. Her being pregnant while performing on stage made history—it was the first for a Super Bowl headliner—but I wish she was more definitive about it so we didn’t spend the whole performance speculating. I’m not going to use her uninterested disposition on stage as a moment to posit “soft life” as the internet has. Twitter has turned her unbothered demeanor during a historic Super Bowl performance into a source of inspiration. And I get it. She spent almost eight years straight giving us album after album, tour after tour, and hit after hit only to then revive an athletic brand, Puma, and then build her own beauty and lingerie empire. She deserves a break. But that lack of spunk on stage was also a reflection of her choices—her choice to take a sabbatical from music to focus on business and family. When you’ve taken that much time off from being a performer, and you are pregnant, it’s hard to get back on the saddle. So I kind of understand. But if you watch her VMA performances from 2016, that’s the energy I expected and wanted.

But overall, my expectations don’t matter. Rihanna’s weaknesses are her strengths. She’s masterfully built a brand and career that leans into cool and pulls away from perfection. It never looks like she’s working too hard, which is also a choice. But as I looked at her performance last night, it’s impossible to not see the sacrifice, strategy, and unrelenting drive that goes into being her and becoming one of the most successful pop stars ever. And it’s hard to ignore the stellar catalog full of commercially successful music that doesn’t sound generic. A  huge feat. Everything looks cool with Rihanna because she’s always known who she is and what she represents. So feeling like her performance was underwhelming is fine, but Rihanna as a person, brand, and entity is anything but.

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