On paper, pop stars are in the business of selling tunes and gig tickets. In fact, we all know they really sell an unattainable idea of fabulousness, as established by the star system of old Hollywood.
Transposed across the entertainment industry into pop, the concept of fabulousness has only grown more potent and ludicrous in the 21st century, reaching a funny kind of apex tonight.
Rihanna – one of the most successful stars currently operating – is promoting her seventh album, Unapologetic, a record so full of issues it could repopulate abandoned newsstands. Tonight's bijou gig is the sixth of seven, played on seven consecutive nights, in seven countries, all connected by one Boeing 777 flight stuffed with journalists, bloggers, super-fans, entourage and, notionally, Robyn Fenty herself. It is billed as a week of on-board decadence, redolent, perhaps, of the airborne antics of Led Zeppelin in the 70s; a promotional junket so nutzoid it takes the breath away.
Actually, though, Flight 777 merely gives the illusion of proximate partying while supplying only bad food (like German "meat chips") and tedium. The exhaust fumes have almost certainly ripped a hole in the ozone layer too small to fit the corporate ego of those behind it.
Judging by the tsunami of tweets, blogs and reportage that has emerged from the cabin, Rihanna is usually hiding away, nursing a cough, while hacks are forced to streak for their own entertainment. You conclude Team RiRi only ever intended to punish writers through overcrowding, sleep deprivation and psychological torture. All this, you assume, to detract attention from the fact that Unapologetic finds Rihanna duetting with Chris Brown, her former partner, convicted of her assault in 2009. Presumably, this is what she is unapologetic about.
The gigs are intimate, for a star who fits stadia. They haven't all been amazing, though they seem to be improving as they go along. Aside from Diamonds, Unapologetic's lead-out single, the new album gets scant airtime. It's the same ad libs every night, according to those souls embedded in the seventh circle of Hell (where Dante would file Chris Brown, incidentally). Rihanna kept Berlin waiting for two hours after cutting short her Paris set. Tonight's set, on album release day, provides a curious display of brand-thanking and swaggering starriness, interspersed with some great big hits. She leaves out even more huge hits: What's My Name, Cheers, Rude Boi.
Those remaining great big hits, roughly 20 of them, are played by a rock band whose cartoon guitarist, Extreme's Nuno Bettencourt (vest, tattoos, long hair, ugly licks), has come straight from the 20th century, and rawk central casting. Bettencourt lends an unwanted meatiness to Rihanna's sleek, aerated, cigs-and-champagne canon. The opening metal chug of Cockiness is not what you require from an audience with the unknowable, enigmatic Rihanna.
There are more complaints. By the end of song two, Birthday Cake, the two men in front of me with very big smartphones are bemoaning the fact that, as the main tour sponsors, they aren't getting any "exposure". They start beaming soon enough, when Rihanna praises a new model smartphone a couple of songs later, and gives one away.
Things improve for Man Down, one of Rihanna's more intriguing songs, in which her Caribbean roots are made plain, rather than airbrushed. Only Girl, meanwhile, is a magnificent stab of rave R&B, the unstoppable mutant genre that's taken over pop; Rihanna laughs and prances and appears to be enjoying herself. Towards the end, it's as though someone has hit fast-forward, and snippets of Rihanna guest vocals are mashed together in a hit-run that few other stars can match: Umbrella gets an ecstatic singalong.
Two excellent backing vocalists in black baseball caps do much of the heavy vocal lifting tonight, allowing Rihanna to strut imperiously, her Madonna-like torpedo bra accentuating a flappy white pyjama ensemble. Apart from the ballads, Unfaithful and Take a Bow, Rihanna's singing sometimes consists merely of interjecting. Nobody here much minds that. It is enough that Rihanna is in the same place as her songs, being fabulous, with a Boeing 777 waiting on the nearest airstrip to Kentish Town.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © M. Keefe