Rihanna, Beyoncé, and Late Capitalist Culture

Beyoncé and Rihanna at the launch of Tidal in March 2015
“I love Kylie, she’s the anti-Madonna. Self-knowledge is a truly beautiful thing and Kylie knows herself inside out. She is what she is and there is no attempt to make quasi-intellectual statements to substantiate it.”
— Rufus Wainwright on Kylie Minogue, 2006

If there was any lasting takeaway from the 2016 VMAs, it is that we are now, perhaps more than ever, living in an age where “divas” define the landscape of pop music. Of the evening’s ten performances, seven were by solo female artists — four separate appearances from Rihanna, one epic set by Beyoncé, and shorter numbers by Ariana Grande and Britney Spears. It’s hard to imagine a more comprehensive or illuminating tour through the last twenty years of pop music. Here were acts like Beyoncé and Britney, who emerged in the late 90s, sharing the stage with artists like Ariana, who became her own cultural force only within the last few years.

The show was also a fascinating look at the contrasting ways in which pop musicians market themselves, and the narratives that they offer to the public at large. The performances by Rihanna and Beyoncé are emblematic of these divergent strategies. Over the course of her four acts that punctuated the evening, Rihanna often sang only fragments of the lyrics from each of her songs. As she drew the mic away from her face, a backing track would instantly take over for her. She was often singing live, but it was clear that her vocal performance was not foremost on her mind. She spent more time gyrating through a series of sensual twerks and dance moves than she did belting out her hits.

In contrast, Beyoncé’s 15-minute extravaganza never hesitated to remind you that she was singing. And not just singing — the performance was a nonstop barrage of intense choreography, pyrotechnics, costume changes, and editorial camera work. In terms of performance style and attitude, these two women could not be more different. Where Rihanna seemed spontaneous, nonchalant, and relaxed, Beyoncé was determined, focused, and brimming with a tightly-controlled energy.

It is interesting to consider what these performances might signify for this particular moment in the history of pop music, and for the history of cultural production under late capitalism more generally. In Rihanna’s case, her casualness indicated a certain knowing awareness about the source of her own fame and appeal. She has never been seen as a particularly gifted vocal talent: on the contrary, she has built her empire mainly on a series of sonically-innovative hits that rely more on their production than on the qualities of her voice. She seemed to be reminding us of this fact in the moments where she stopped singing to shimmy across the stage. It was here that the omnipresent beats of songs like “We Found Love” and “Where Have You Been” took over, a subtle cue that her chart-toppers were built as much at the mixing board as they were in the recording booth. At the same time, Rihanna has also carefully cultivated a reputation as a style icon and a paragon of a certain “I-don’t-give-a-fuck” attitude towards life. We don’t expect Rihanna to deliver a knock-down, drag-out Beyoncé-style performance because that has never been who she is as a cultural entity. Her appearance at the VMAs, then, was deeply self-aware. “I’m selling you an attitude,” she reminded us time and again, “and you’re buying into it.”

If Rihanna was cognizant of the “smoke screens” that surround her own career, of the ways in which her legacy as a musician has been profoundly intertwined with branding and self-promotion, Beyoncé was keen to emphasize her prowess as a performer in the most traditional sense. The set included portions of almost every song from her most recent album Lemonade, along with multiple stages, a phalanx of backup dancers, and several high-energy dance interludes. It was an incessant reminder of her vocal presence and dancing abilities, as well as the high-concept tendencies of her two most recent albums. Where Rihanna billed herself as a work of art in her own right, Beyoncé relied on a more straightforward approach, emphasizing her “real” talents as a musician and performer. It would be simple to end the analysis here — to describe Rihanna as a kind of self-referential, postmodern icon, and Beyoncé as a traditionalist whose work stands in contrast to her younger counterpart.

And yet.

Beyoncé’s Lemonade, for all of its critical success, remains almost curiously absent from the contemporary cultural landscape. Although every song on the album briefly appeared on the Billboard Hot 100 upon its release, Lemonade only produced three singles, only one of which (“Formation”) managed to crack the chart’s top 10. In his review of the album for the New York Times, Jon Pareles notes the way in which Beyoncé manages to dominate the contemporary music industry while simultaneously removing herself from it:

“Lemonade is the kind of album that a star like Beyoncé (as well as, lately, Rihanna) can release in the streaming era because she’s already guaranteed attention for her every utterance. The album is not beholden to radio formats or presold by a single; fans are likely to explore the whole album, streaming every track and hearing how far afield — a brass band, stomping blues-rock, ultraslow avant-R&B — Beyoncé is willing to go.”

Importantly, Pareles mentions Rihanna as the only other contemporary pop artist who can command the market in a similar manner. Her album Anti, released in January of this year, was also a radical departure from her earlier pop-oriented sound, and seemed to have little concern for producing radio-friendly hit singles. And yet the album’s lead track “Work” topped the charts for nine weeks. Evidently, her producers and management were keen to create at least one song that would become aurally omnipresent for months after its release. Anti could leave the world of radio and Billboard mostly behind, but there would still have to be some product, a tangible hit that would solidify the album’s cultural presence. For Beyoncé, even this small gesture towards commercial marketability no longer seems necessary. When your legend is as great as hers, even an album with few singles and no bona-fide hits is a force to be reckoned with.

In a certain sense, it is Beyoncé who more clearly embodies the simulacral and spectacular qualities of late capitalist experience. For in creating an album that would barely register on the radio or music charts, yet still command the full attention of the entire nation and sell out arenas around the world, she must surely realize that, more than anything else, she is selling the concept that is “Beyoncé” — the idea of “fierceness,” of mystery and secrecy, of indomitable cultural fascination and persuasion. Though Lemonade was certainly a carefully-crafted and conceptually groundbreaking album (and accompanying film), it almost seemed to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Its role was to maintain Beyoncé’s position as cultural cipher, a figure of intrigue and projection onto which our society can transfer its most heightened fantasies of fame and success. There is a bit of disconnect, then, between Beyoncé the pop-cultural figure and the woman who performed at the VMAs last night. Where one is the ultimate capitalist product, a proverbial “soft sell” of attitudes and images that are nebulous and largely unattainable, the other is the “realest” performer, whose success and fame rest on her ability to effectively command a stage. Beyoncé seems not to be aware of the discrepancy at play here. If she hadn’t owned the VMAs for 15 minutes last night, would her fans have even cared? Once you have reached the level where your very existence becomes a commodity to be marketed and sold, what is the point of even performing at all?

It is this realization that Rihanna seems to grasp more readily and easily than Beyoncé. Why devote yourself to an exhausting, vocally-taxing performance when a sassy, offhanded bend-and-snap will work just as well? In a world where your Instagram is as important as your record sales, what is the point of singing, anyway? Of all the divas who figure prominently in the contemporary cultural landscape, none know themselves, and what they have to offer, better than Rihanna.

The divide between these two performers raises questions about the value and direction of cultural production under late capitalism in the early 21st century. Does Rihanna’s winking, knowing performance constitute a critical act, one that shines a revealing light on contemporary modes of celebrity and music-making? Or is it merely cynicism, a performance so cognizant of its own superfluousness that it mocks the very idea of performance itself? Can Beyoncé still lay claim to “the real” when her own engine of self-promotion remains so deeply intertwined with capitalist methods of spectacle production? Whose performance, in the end, is more valuable, more important to the present moment? Should pop artists of 2016 embrace and gesture towards their own implication within systems of capitalist reification, or is it better instead to preserve a space for “genuine,” “traditional” performance, even if such claims to the real may no longer be valid? What, ultimately, is the value of self-awareness in pop music, and does it offer a viable strategy to create works of meaning in a world where culture and capital are always inextricably intertwined?