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Review: Rihanna demonstrates the seductive art of pop stardom

Posted 12:44pm on Saturday, Jul. 09, 2011

At bottom, all concerts are, quite literally, one-night stands.

Few artists in recent memory embrace and exploit that fact more fully and aggressively than multi-platinum performer Rihanna (born Robyn Fenty), whose set at the American Airlines Center was plagued with problems Friday. Before she ever set foot in Texas, much anticipated opening act Cee Lo Green dropped off the remainder of the "Loud" tour two weeks ago, citing "scheduling conflicts." Rihanna arrived in Dallas an hour late, owing to bad weather in New York City, and eventually, her performance was cut short by a small fire above the stage near a lighting truss.

But up until that moment, Rihanna -- remarkably, singing live and backed by a five-piece band, two back-up singers and eight dancers -- kept the pedal to the metal, doling out hit after hit in an almost confrontational way. In a pop music moment dominated by car-crash spectacle (Lady Gaga, Ke$ha) and relatively little genuine sexiness, Rihanna's bare-all approach feels even more raw and less nuanced than she likely intends.

Stepping out onto her intricate, lavishly designed stage (video screens of all sizes abounded, as well as a turntable that elevated its occupants and a slender conveyor belt built into the stage's apron), it wasn't long before the Barbados native had shed her trench-coat to reveal a spangled, two-piece outfit that left nothing to the imagination.

Many competing facets of sexuality were evident: Toughness, femininity, flirtatiousness, kink, domination -- Rihanna even seduced herself in an interstitial video prior to her cover of Prince's salacious classic Darling Nikki. She bends the boundaries between men and women freely (during Skin, the singer pulled a female audience member onto the stage and proceeded to give her a spectacularly rough lap dance) and doesn't attempt to make any sort of commentary.

Instead, it often feels like Rihanna is attempting to please as many fans as possible; call it a shotgun approach to turning everyone on. That it was all packaged so sleekly, a lavish arena spectacle that often felt emotionally distant, was all the more disconcerting, even taking into account the usual, expected pop star facade.

Rihanna's surface application of tough imagery was a recurring theme throughout her aborted set. At one point, Rihanna was straddling an over-sized pink-camouflaged cannon -- phallic and violent -- during Hard, but it was just a prop, as was the video loop imagery of grenades exploding, plane dropping bombs and rifles firing off endless rounds. There was nary a sly wink to be seen.

The estimated crowd of 12,500 ate it all up, of course, with shrieks of joy, hastily raised iPhones capturing snapshots and dancing in the aisles. But the knife's-edge balancing act between sexy and vicious, loving and hurtful raises the specter of domestic violence in Rihanna's past (her February 2009 incident with ex-boyfriend Chris Brown) and leads one to wonder: In lieu of therapy, is she just working out her issues in plain view? Sifting through the pain caused by others, recasting (and re-claiming) her sexuality to be used as enticement or punishment as she sees fit? She gave no clear answers.

Equally jarring was her abrupt transition to torch singer, after a dozen songs of relatively terse sentiment. The ballad portion -- Unfaithful, Hate That I Love You and California King Bed, which ended the night -- felt like a put-on after watching her writhe and strut her way through hits like Only Girl (in the World) and Breaking Dishes. Clad in a canary-yellow ball gown (with, naturally, a thigh-high slit and boots laced up to her knees), Rihanna looked for all the world like a renowned diva, simply sharing her gift with adoring fans.

The truth is probably somewhere in between. There's no denying the enthusiasm with which Rihanna attacks her songs, and her "Loud" tour bears all the hallmarks of a well-funded, carefully groomed pop star built to move units. But this fling didn't feel as though it could transition into a more stable, long-lasting relationship. It was "fun," only in that the room was on the same wavelength and a set list stacked with hits will never, ever disappoint the fickle Dallas crowd (which promptly sat down for every non-radio hit Rihanna performed).

Can a one-night stand be as much enjoyable as finding someone to appreciate, flaws and all, with both sides learning to lower their guard? It's debatable, but after the speed-dating session Dallas experienced, it's tough to tell where the play-acting ends and the real Rihanna begins.

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