A new study in the scientific journal Evolutionary Psychology reveals that 92 per cent of the songs in the US top 10 in 2009 were about sex. In the words of those wacky funsters at Evolutionary Psychology, almost all of the 174 hit singles carried “reproductive messages” of some sort. OK, so it’s not the most startling discovery in the history of science, but still: 92 per cent. That’s a lot of songs about sex. Which leads us, via minuscule costumes and suggestive stage routines, to Rihanna’s “Loud” tour, which reached London on Wednesday.
The singer from Barbados has become famous not so much for what she wears as for how little she wears. What variety of scantiness would she sport for her entrance at the O2 Arena? The answer was an electric blue baby-doll minidress, accessorised with fluorescent pink high heel boots. The mode of entrance was a large see-through sphere that moved towards the audience, Rihanna posing within it before stepping out on stage. No doubt the boffins at Evolutionary Psychology would say it resembled a giant ovary.
Her opening songs were brash and breathless. “Only Girl (In the World)” and “Disturbia” were hammering dance-pop, “Shut up and Drive” sped by to big guitar riffs and a cute grungy chorus. Lights flashed, images flickered and backing dancers cavorted in fluorescent outfits. True to the tour’s name, the music was loud: Rihanna, a functional rather than impressive singer, had to fight to make herself heard.
Her attention-grabbing tactics aren’t novel. Madonna yoked together themes of sexual display and female empowerment over 20 years ago. All that’s changed since then is the brazenness of the display, and Rihanna, operating in competition with Lady Gaga, has to employ a very high level of brazenness to keep up. Hence the bikini she stripped down to by the second song. And hence too the S&M-themed routine that saw her get up to risqué stage business with several female backing dancers while singing a superbly slinky version of Prince’s “Darling Nikki”.
In lesser hands this might have been so much erotic schlock. But Rihanna brings a deeper charge to her material. For a pop star of her magnitude of fame she’s unusually drawn to the darker side of sexuality, which seems to stem from the notorious occasion in 2009 when her former boyfriend, pop star Chris Brown, beat her up. Since then her songs have acquired a harder edge. The number before the S&M section was “Man Down”, in which the singer reverted to the reggae of her native Caribbean to sing about shooting a man dead. Hip-hop girl-power anthem “Raining Men” was given a none-too-subtle subtext by Rihanna singing “Boom bye bye” while sitting on a pink artillery gun.
The mood calmed down in the second half with the singer appearing in a classy yellow gown and moving into ballad mode. Her singing became ornate; the focus shifted to emotions. Yet even here you could detect a murky undercurrent, as with the ambivalent sentiments of “Hate That I Love You”. At least 92 per cent of her songs are about sex, yes – but there’s much more going on in them than “reproductive messages”.