Rihanna Recovery: Seven Things I Learned on the 777 Tour
It’s been a week since Rihanna’s 777 Tour ended and it looks like everyone got what they wanted: Rihanna’s seventh studio album, “Unapologetic,” entered the U.S. charts at No. 1 this week, giving the pop superstar her first chart topper. The 150 journalists/bloggers embedded on the plane with her got a lifetime of bragging rights that they survived a chaotic week with the disappearing diva.
I covered the tour for MSN.com and I am a 777 survivor. By now, anyone who had any interest in Rihanna has already heard the tales of her relentless tardiness, as well as the streaker and the revolt on the flight from Berlin to London after we had no Rihanna sighting for five days. We also rebelled because we were exhausted: every flight was delayed anywhere from four to six hours. Rihanna must be the only artist in the world that can turn a 7-hour flight from London to New Rok into a 16-hour door-to-door ordeal Perhaps united by our trauma, one of the journalists on the trip started a Facebook page for all of us that has now been joined by members of her team, some of the fans who were on the plane with us, and even some of the amazing Delta flight crew who manned the charter for the week.
With a little hindsight and a lot of sleep, here are my final observations about Rihanna gleaned from the experience.
1. Rihanna has that undefinable quality that makes her a star. After spending a week with her, I still can’t put my finger on it, it’s just there. She doesn’t write her own songs, she isn’t a particularly scintillating performer, but there is something compelling about her that draws people into her orbit. They are obsessed not just with her music, but her attitude, fashion choices and lifestyle. I’m not sure she has staying power like Madonna and some of her antics don’t wear well, but for the moment, Rihanna’s star continues to ascend. What that says about the current state of pop music is a topic for another post.
2. Rihanna is constitutionally incapable of going on stage, or seeming anywhere, on time. Even when she had several hundred people waiting, Rihanna went on between 2 1/2 to 4 1/2 hours after the doors opened for each concert. Yes, only amateurs believe an act is going on around the time the doors open, but these were all private shows for concert winners, so going on an hour after doors opened seemed enough of a wait. As I can attest, crowds start to get a little surly after the four-hour mark has passed. Even when she had a inviolable curfew, she couldn’t do it: In Paris, she had to cut 20 minutes out of her hour-long show because she couldn’t get her ass on stage in time to do the full hour before the curfew. She was an hour late for a tree-lighting ceremony in London.
3. She is very good with her fans: As contradictory to No. 2 as that may seem, she has a connection with the Rihanna Navy that feels real and genuine. After we took off from Los Angeles on Nov. 14 and headed to the first show in Mexico City, she passed through the plane twice to say hi and she personally invited a number of the 30 or so contest winners on the plane. Plus, as we waited for our bags in Toronto --Rihanna included-- she was unfailingly polite to folks who wanted a photo--until her security crew put a halt to that.
4. Nothing good can come of seeing an act seven times in seven days: With the exception of one or two songs, Rihanna’s set was the same every night, including most of the “ad libs.” This next part is a little bit cruel, I admit. Before performing “What’s My Name,” she’d say, “What did you say? Did somebody call my name?” I swear to you that neither I, nor any of my colleagues, ever heard anyone call out her name. We started asking each other, “What did you say? Did somebody call my name?” as a joke and the night of the revolt, some folks said it very loudly, certainly loudly enough for Rihanna to hear way up in her first class cabin. She dropped the song from the set list for the rest of the promo tour. Coincidence?
5. She wears well: “Unapologetic” is her seventh album in seven years and in that time, she has pumped out an unending stream of well-crafted singles, more than 20 of which have gone into the top 10. There seems to be absolutely no burn-out at radio on Rihanna, which is remarkable. There is no other artist active today who can churn out singles at such a rate and have the same level of success. Each song does its thing and then gets out of the way for the next. Radio fatigue is bound to set in at some point, but there’s no sign of that.
6. Touring is hard: Yes, the scrubs were back in coach and that meant that for the four red-eye flights we were vertical, while Rihanna was horizontal. And, yes, this kind of touring is extreme, but the truth is even when you’re on a charter flight and you’re staying at five-star hotels, there’s a certain amount of wear and tear that starts almost immediately, as well as a bunker mentality. Nuno Bettencourt, Rihanna’s guitarist, said that touring by bus was much easier than what we were doing and I’m sure it is given that there is less schlepping, but it’s still exhausting.
7. Rihanna may be headed for trouble: This is solely subjective and I’m not basing this on anything other than my own observations. The label tried to get her to hold press conferences (as the journalists had been promised) on the plane, the manager supposedly tried to cajole her and we got nothing but two quick ones at the beginning and end. The journalists were bussed to the club early every night and just parked there, often waiting for hours, because the label admitted they had no idea what time she’d actually go on... When you have that much power and that much seemingly disregard for everyone else around you and you are only 24, that is a bad combo platter. Since the tour ended, Rihanna has given interviews saying she couldn’t party on the plane with us because she needed sleep. She didn’t need sleep when she was hitting parties at 3:30 a.m. Plus, and I cannot stress this enough, we did not need to “party” with Rihanna, we needed access and quotes. She could have accomplished that with a five-minute press conference each flight. She can blame her lack of time spent with the press on whatever she wants, but it was a bit like inviting guests over for dinner and then other than saying hi, ignoring them the rest of the evening. She may be “Unapologetic,” but much of the press is still waiting for an apology.