Rihanna Keeps the 'Diamonds In the Sky' Cliche Burning, Dimly

An abridged history of pop culture's reliance on a treacly, centuries-old metaphor

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There are, in fact, diamonds in the sky. In 1981, for example, Smithsonian researchers wrecked their sawtooth blades when they tried to cut through an iron meteorite and hit a deposit of what was then the hardest material known to man. And last year, scientists found what they believe to be a planet made entirely of diamonds, 4,000 light years away from our own.

But the "diamonds in the sky" that Rihanna sings about on her brand-new single "Diamonds" belong to a more earthly category: the cliche. Sky-affixed diamonds have been showing up in songs for centuries now, evolving from what once was a metaphorical description for stars—which themselves are a hack's symbolic standby—into an evocative but empty phrase all its own. In the term's history, it's been subverted and stretched, giving rise to some excellent, enduring work. But Rihanna's recycling of the trope for the chorus ("Shine bright tonight / you and I / we're beautiful / like diamonds in the sky") of the first single off her as-of-yet-untitled seventh album is a prime example of pop's ability to coast on dead poetry into eternity.

If my few minutes of brain-wracking and Googling are right (feel free to correct me here!), the metaphor's big artistic debut came with "The Star," the 1806 nursery rhyme by sisters Ann and Jane Taylor, set to an old French melody. Maybe you've heard it? "Twinkle twinkle, little star / How I wonder what you are / Up above the world so high / Like a diamond in the sky..."

John Lennon, inspired by a little girl's drawing—and not by LSD (maybe)—seized on the surreality of the phrase for "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds." Hearing the song, it doesn't sound like diamonds are standing in for stars. They're something weirder and more intense, like kaleidescope eyes or marmalade skies.

Kanye West's 2005 hit "Diamonds From Sierra Leone" provided a masterclass in making cliche new. He questioned rap's historical obsession with gems as conspicuous-consumption end-all while also using them as an rallying cry: "Throw your diamonds in the sky if you feel the vibe." Whenever concertgoers oblige by raising up Jay-Z's diamond-shaped hand signal, it feels aspirational: In a chorus's length, a stadium of stars are born.

Rihanna, though, is up to nothing so clever as Lennon or West on "Diamonds." Which, sure, isn't that much of a surprise: She and the songwriting machine behind her have never existed for lyrical innovation. Still, a lot of Rihanna's hits have still had some speck of writerly color in them, whether in the trying-very-hard bondage themes of "S&M" or in the new-cliche-minting chorus of "Umbrella." Even the laconic head rush of "We Found Love," her last No. 1. single, described its "diamonds in the sky" as "yellow."

Here, though, she's just equating a romance to something sparkly, eternal, and visible. The headline moment is when she says she now "choose[s] to be happy." Sure, fine, that's nice. As far as pop ballads go, "Diamonds" stands as another achievement in catchiness for songwriters StarGate, Sia, and Benny Blanco: After one listen, the rat-tat-tat subchorus of "shine-BRIGHT-like-a-DI-MUND" will be on loop in your head even if you have no other recollection of what the song sounds like. In an idea world, its blandness would bury the diamond-in-the-sky pop metaphor, but the truth is that a symbol like this—as with fireworks, hearts, and guns—is, uh, forever.

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Spencer Kornhaber is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he edits the Entertainment channel. More

Before coming to The Atlantic, he worked as an editor for AOL's Patch.com and as a staff writer at Village Voice Media's OC Weekly. He has also written for Spin, The AV Club, RollingStone.com, Field & Stream, and The Orange County Register.

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