The Sleek Truth in Rihanna’s Halftime Show
Her performance was all heat, no-nonsense.
Red and white—conveying fire and blankness—were such perfect colors for Rihanna to strobe at us tonight. Over 18 years in the spotlight, the singer has left no doubt that she’s a woman of depth and range, with wild fascinations and gut-held convictions and a rich personal life. But by now, we should understand that she’s never going to show us all of that—because no artist ever could, and because she’s not going to bullshit us otherwise. Rihanna will instead give us blazing-hot surfaces. She’ll insist that attitude and fashion are enough, because they can be, because this is pop.
So no one should be surprised by what her Super Bowl performance was: an act of radical minimalism, seasoned with lovable humanity. It was austere yet scruffy, flat yet real. Some halftime performers have dazzled through exertion. Some have done so by sending messages. Many have failed, or at least flailed, in the process. But Rihanna wanted us mesmerized by the thing itself, by the images and the sounds, and she largely succeeded. Plus, she graciously implied a bonbon of personal revelation: She’s pregnant again!
The show started abruptly, with the camera close on her face and the queasy beat of “Bitch Better Have My Money” lurching to life. The disorientation fit with where she was: up in the air, on one of the many suspended platforms that would ascend and descend throughout the show, arranging themselves as stairs or championship pedestals. High-flying feats are always cool, and while other halftime shows have featured levitating-superhero illusions, Rihanna opted for industrial-chic honesty. The platforms aligned all of the action onto one vertical plane, drawing attention to the performance’s fundamental nature as a screen event happening in a stadium.
After letting our eyes adjust to the circus, Rihanna did something important: She put one hand behind her head and bared her teeth, like a demon on a trucker’s windshield. Thank goodness she brought her sharpest weapons, her facial expressions, into battle. She rolled her eyes and smirked. She powdered her face (a business plug so shameless, it circled into being noble) and touched her crotch (dare you be offended by the miracle of life?). These moments told us not to take anything we were seeing too seriously. When she seemed to be just barely trying to hit the choreography, or duetting with a backing track, that’s because she was. Irony and insouciance can be distancing qualities in a performance, but here they were a kind of earnestness.
The pops of personality and shrugs of imperfection were also vital because they broke up a pageant of precision. Rihanna’s dancers, modeling the innovative use of hooded puffers as crop tops, wobbled and swayed as one organism. When Rihanna sang, she did so clearly and strongly as the set list pounded through a selection of anthemic hits: “We Found Love,” “Umbrella,” Ye’s “All of the Lights.” The continuity was numbing at times, especially due to the predominance of EDM pop and midtempo sing-alongs. But when the strident rhythm was interrupted by something lithe and syncopated —“Work,” “Wild Thoughts,” “Pour It Up”—it gave Rihanna’s nuclear-cleanup crew a fun chance to register the change with their bodies.
Strictly speaking, the show didn’t meet the expectations that had made it the most anticipated halftime performance of all time. Once one of the most prolific working hitmakers, Rihanna put her music career mostly on mute after 2016’s Anti, and nothing about this Super Bowl suggests she’s hurrying into a new chapter. But she gave us what made so many people love her in the first place, including dignity where so much of mass culture offers only desperation. The show’s most moving moment came at the end, when the music had stopped, and she thanked the audience, looked around, and smiled. Rihanna was high in the air, and she felt as close to us as she’ll ever be.