For fans who grew up with Rihanna’s music, her long-awaited Super Bowl halftime show was nothing short of majestic. She’d been gone for seven long years, during which generations who once youthfully bopped to ‘Rude Boy’ grew into adults navigating rising the costs of living fresh from surviving a pandemic. For us, Rihanna provided the perfect dose of throwback to times that were better, because, quite simply, we were younger.
But the magic of her set, and the emotions it brought, has been eclipsed by discussions of Riri’s pregnancy. It took Jon Caramanica in the New York Times two sentences into his review of Rihanna’s halftime show to write that “it was, as pregnancy reveals go, not quite on the theatrical level of Beyoncé’s belly rub at the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards,” referring to how Bey broke the news of her pregnancy with Blue Ivy. On Twitter, a photo of Beyoncé’s gravity-defying chair tilt, achieved while pregnant with twins Rumi and Sir at the 2017 Grammys, went viral on Twitter hours after Rihanna finished her performance, with some Twitter posters suggesting that the Barbados megastar could have upped her game.
“It was her first gig in almost a decade, and it was the Super Bowl, and she was pregnant. Only Rihanna can make a comeback like that”
This attempt at discoursing a pregnancy reveal is infuriating for many reasons; Rihanna’s setlist was near-perfect. She successfully crammed in 17 years of hits into 13 minutes (this author would’ve substituted DJ Khaled’s ‘Wild Thoughts’ and Kanye’s ‘All of the Lights’ for solo Riri classics ‘Pon da Reply’ and some more time on ‘S&M’, but these are minor details). And if we do want to talk about gravity-defying stunts, she did all this on a moving platform suspended metres above the air. It was her first gig in almost a decade, and it was the Super Bowl, and she was pregnant. Only Rihanna can make a comeback like that.
On a separate note, Beyoncé also performed an amazing Super Bowl set in 2013, which Rihanna studied to prepare for her own. Yes, two artists, neither needing to be better than the other, with totally different careers, and totally different shows, inspiring one another! While Bey went for surprise guest-invites with Destiny’s Child and amped up mega-stadium energy, Rihanna went for an intimate feeling. Despite the hoards of white-suited dancers doing Parris Goebel’s choreography across multi-height stages, we were only looking at Rihanna, and Rihanna was only looking at us. The common factor between the two artists is that they both nailed it in totally different ways.
“Sadly, it’s normalised for society to compare women of colour. By comparing them, we are essentially making them compete”
The fact that Rihanna’s show had a pregnancy reveal was a plus, something joyful, not something that should be a point of comparison to detract from her performance. She’s doing something that no one else knows how to do, the first pregnant woman to headline the world’s most-watched stage, and people have the audacity to criticise her for it? Shut up!
Of course, sadly, it’s normalised for society to compare women, especially women of colour. By comparing them, we are essentially making them compete. The NFL itself was guilty of adding fuel to this narrative in 2020 when they offered Jennifer Lopez and Shakira a joint headline packaged with a neat ‘Latina’ bow. Beyond speaking Spanish, one as a first language and the other as a second language, the two artists had never collaborated, don’t share the same musical spaces, and grew up worlds apart – in the Bronx and in Barranquilla. But the Super Bowl still forced them to reduce their respective 20-year-spanning careers into seven minutes each. While the show was hugely successful, pairing them together inevitably meant that “who did better?” questions dominated discussions, competing them against each other rather than celebrating them as artists.
“If these are the rules of the sporting world, then there are extra special rules that apply for Black women and women of colour”
Considering that the halftime show sandwiches music between a sporting event, perhaps it’s worth remembering that the Super Bowl stage is conceived in a world of competition. But I can’t remember when anyone compared Maroon 5 and Coldplay’s respective halftime shows, in 2019 and 2016, like they’ve done with Rihanna and Beyoncé. If these are the rules of the sporting world, then there are extra special rules that apply for Black women and women of colour. And if this means we’re ranking how women choose to reveal their pregnancies, then it’s really time to question what the hell we’re even discussing in the first place.
Riri, you shone bright like a diamond. Your set took us to truly happier places. And we’re so happy for you and your news.
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