It’s official, everyone … RiRi is back. In a nostalgic and dazzlingly minimal performance, Rihanna made her return to music at the Super Bowl LVII halftime show earlier this month. The performance was highly anticipated, as it marked the first time in seven years that Rihanna would perform a solo stage. The halftime show has long been a tradition of the NFL Super Bowl, and has come a long way from its humble beginnings as a small production of the University of Arizona Marching Band. Now the halftime show has become a symbolic marriage of two important sects of American culture: football and music.
Rihanna, standing on a platform hanging sixty feet in the air, opened her thirteen-minute set with her 2015 song “Bitch Better Have My Money” in a striking red clothing ensemble. This was much to the delight of her fans who expressed concerns on social media that she may open with her newest single “Lift Me Up.” She then seamlessly transitioned into a mash-up of “Where Have You Been,” “Only Girl (In the World),” and “We Found Love.”
Next, and my personal favorite part, was a Brazilian Funk Remix of her hit “Rude Boy” that was sure to make you wish you were at a club instead of on your couch. The “Rude Boy” remix also brought the first big choreography section of Rihanna’s set, though it had been preceded by some truly stunning visuals, courtesy of a barrage of dancers clad in white puffer-jackets. Rihanna then brought a calmer side to her set with stripped versions of “Work” and “Wild Thoughts,” before transitioning into a remix of her songs “Birthday Cake,” “Pour It Up,” and “Numb.” Following a skillful product placement of her Fenty Beauty makeup line, Rihanna had an “old but gold” moment with “All of the Lights,” “Run This Town,” and her iconic 2007 hit “Umbrella.” Finally, she wrapped herself in a full-length red puffer — a tribute to her late friend and fashion editor Andre Leon Talley — and gave an intimate closing performance with her smash-hit “Diamonds.”
It’s safe to say that Rihanna’s performance broke the internet almost as soon as she closed her set. Social media erupted with a range of reactions, some of them critical, some of them full of praise, and some of them speculative of whether or not Rihanna is pregnant again (spoiler alert: she is). On one side of the internet, many were in awe of the performance. Viewers praised her set-list, wardrobe, production design and were overall happy to see Rihanna onstage again. Like myself, many felt that the performance was like a trip down memory lane, as Rihanna took us through her greatest hits. Across social media platforms, the back-up dancers and sign language interpreter Justina Miles were also praised.
Just as many internet-users expressed that they were disappointed with the performance overall. Many of the songs performed in the set included features of other artists, including Drake, Jay-Z and DJ Khalid. But Rihanna decided to perform solo for every track, which was to the dismay of many who expected her to have at least one guest performance. In addition to not having any guest performers, the set also omitted some notable hits such as “Pon De Replay,” “S&M,” and “What’s My Name.” I must say that even my friends and I felt that the “S&M” tease during “We Found Love” was slightly cruel. Rihanna’s decision to forego the element of spectacle that previous halftime performers have utilized was also under scrutiny.
I found the critical reception to be unwarranted, considering that Rihanna’s performance was objectively good. If an artist gave a performance of that caliber at their own concert, it would be lauded all over the internet. But America has such high standards for halftime shows that even a performance as good as Rihanna’s can be put on the chopping block. The New Yorker called the performance an “anti-spectacle,” but I disagree. Rihanna and the NFL knew the full extent of the cultural significance of Rihanna being the halftime headliner. The fact that Rihanna took the stage for the first time in seven years was a spectacle in and of itself.
The performance didn’t need to be an exorbitant display in order to be impactful. Rihanna kept her performance minimal with steady vocals, high energy, and outstanding musical composition while also maintaining elements of an extravagant performance. I also think that the criticism is neglecting the fact that Rihanna is pregnant and what that means in relation to stamina and endurance. Pregnancy takes a significant toll on the body. In fact, in a study published in the journal Science Advances, researchers discovered that pregnant women reach the same levels of endurance as extreme athletes but at lower-intensity rates. And while this extra exertion of energy does result in a lack of stamina, this wasn’t reflected in Rihanna’s performance.
Of course there is much to be said about the remaining criticism of the performance: her set, the length of the performance, the lack of artist collaborations. Overall, I think that the criticism of this performance just speaks to a mindset of women in entertainment owing the public their constantly reinventing themselves and bringing something new to the table with each performance. For example, Justin Timberlake’s 2018 halftime performance was not particularly extravagant, but it hasn’t faced nearly as much criticism as Rihanna’s performance. To those sentiments I say: Rihanna doesn’t owe us anything. For me, the performance was like a journey through my life. I was able to trace each song that Rihanna performed to a specific defining phase of my life. As I and the rest of this generation grew up, Rihanna and her music were always there in the background – on our car radios, on our party rotations, on our overly curated Spotify playlists. The fact that Rihanna did a full set of her greatest hits and still had enough hits for an entirely different set just shows how much she’s given us over the course of her career. Rihanna doesn’t owe us more than what she gave us, and she gave us a lot. I think this is a moment when America needs to redefine what qualifies as a good halftime performance. Because if suspending yourself in the air on a platform as fireworks go off above your head doesn’t qualify as a good halftime performance, then what does?