I’ll never forget the first concert I ever saw at the Oakland Arena: Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation tour, which played for four consecutive nights in Oakland. The year was 1990, it was a family outing, and I, at age 14 and in possession of not one but two Dead Kennedys tapes, had already started to loudly condemn what I viewed as manufactured, pre-packaged pop music.
So you’d think I’d have joined those ripping apart the tour’s biggest scandal. Despite its massive critical and commercial success, the ‘Rhythm Nation’ tour was dogged by accusations of lip-syncing. Janet Jackson, the critics asserted, couldn’t possibly be dancing so furiously — she was out of breath between each song — and simultaneously singing so perfectly. Milli Vanilli, remember, were in the midst of a similar scandal, and Janet briefly became a punching bag for the music industry’s move, post-Thriller, toward showmanship over talent.
My parents were disappointed about the lip-syncing, but strangely, I wasn’t convinced it was such a betrayal. I still loved the show, and distinctly remember walking through the parking lot to our family station wagon in a daze; to this day I think of it as an induction. Into what, I’m not sure. I already knew that I prized authenticity, like all disillusioned 14-year-olds, but in 1990, for perhaps the first time, I found that I didn’t mind a little inauthenticity too.
Which brings me to Rihanna and her Anti tour, which came to the Oakland Arena last Saturday — almost 26 years to the day after Janet Jackson sold out four nights at the same venue. Rihanna’s tour has been criticized for being “cold,” which misses the allure of her brand of cool detachment, and for being derivative, wardrobe-wise, of Kanye’s Yeezy Season 3 line (which, yeah, still looks like burlap sacks). But add to the pile: Rihanna isn’t exactly singing through the entire show.
A lot has happened in the past 26 years, not the least of which is the public’s growing acceptance for lip-syncing. Put 30,000 fans in a stadium these days, and they won’t bat an eye that the star on stage might be using a backing track. When Rihanna blatantly lip-synced approximately one-eighth of “We Found Love” on Saturday night, and spent the other 87 percent of the song meandering around the microphone or simply standing there and letting her pre-recorded vocals play, did anyone run to the box office outside to demand their money back? In 2016? Of course not.
Part of that was due to the spectacle of the show, as crazed as it was. At one point, giant alien whales inflated and then deflated for no apparent reason while two men in bronze-sequined kitten costumes prowled around the stage. Still another set change involved a giant malfunctioning washing machine spewing soapy foam down a panel of plastic sheeting hung from the ceiling. Twenty years from now, I thought to myself, this tour will either be hailed as ahead of its time, or a ridiculous time capsule of the mid-2010s.
Another more important part of it was due to Rihanna’s earthy, inescapably real vocals on songs like “Diamonds”; the retro-soul burner “Love on the Brain” (above); or show opener “Stay,” dramatically sung alone atop a large platform near the back of the arena. When she chose to sing, Rihanna and her power of interpretation appeared capable of tingling even the most stubborn spine.
But if we’re really being honest, audiences have been accepting and even demanding of inauthentic performances for decades. After Coleman Hawkins’ 1939 recording of “Body & Soul” became a worldwide hit, the saxophonist, famed for his improvised solo, was constantly asked to recreate the same exact solo night after night. (He famously declined.) The same was true for others like Louis Armstrong, whose flights of fancy on the 1928 recording of “West End Blues” became expected in cubs and theaters, authentic jazz improvisation be damned.
How many times have you heard someone complain, “I went to see so-and-so, and it was okay, but he changed all the songs around and they didn’t sound like they do on the record!” We crave constancy; we would be confused if we went to an author appearance and instead of reading from their latest book, they stood at the microphone and orally composed a new novel. So many hip-hop artists rap over backing tracks because in a loud, bass-heavy live setting, they’d be forced to yell to be heard, missing the nuance in their recordings that constitutes their style. EDM acts may be simply standing at a table and mimicking the technical moves of DJing in real time, but that hasn’t stopped them from selling out huge halls, or kept packed Las Vegas nightclubs from paying them obscene amounts of money.
All these things went through my head as Rihanna sang roughly half of the vocals on “Consideration,” the lead-off track on Anti, or when I found myself scrutinizing her vocals on “Desperado,” “Same Old Mistakes” and “Kiss it Better.” If there’s an album this year that’s more slow-burning, I haven’t found it. And in a way, Anti mirrors the public’s own slowly-changing perception, since Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation tour, of lip-syncing. It feels like treason on first listen, and slowly becomes more and more acceptable, then deeply rewarding, and then revelatory — like a dazzling way of obscuring the truth.