Shrooming at the rihanna show: a glimpse of heaven
The last time I took psychedelic mushrooms, I was walking the perimeter of a huge, forested park that shouldered up to the ocean. I was with a friend, meandering down a trail that led past a pond about 100 yards from the shore.
“A pond next to an ocean,” my friend observed, her eyes wet from a long episode of laughter. “Little redundant, don’t you think?”
Because all mushroom experiences are a Möbius strip of things you’d never connect all of a sudden making endless, stupid sense, I hearkened back to this moment as I ground what quantifies as a microdose between my teeth in an arena bathroom stall before taking my seat among thousands at Rihanna’s Anti Tour stop in Seattle. I’m not so sure I needed to do any psychedelics in order to access a high dose of elation, because I knew this show was already enough to take me there — if it was any prediction, Anti the record took me, if not fully there, then at least to the nearest convenient intersection, like a three-star Uber driver. I remained undeterred and decided to get closer. Tonight, I would get that five-star service.
A pond of psilocybin planted next to an ocean of feeling? Sure, a bit much, but some landscape architect decided the redundancy was fit for the park, so why would the same principle not apply for the design of my own emotional topography? I rested my case; the mushies settled in, and I took my seat.
NOTE TO MY EDITORS: If the above portion is too explicit, we could just start off by saying, like, “The author may or may not have taken a small dose of mushrooms before the show, MTV does not condone,” etc. lol just a thought! You know better than I.
People ferried drinks back to their aisles, with boyfriends’ arms slung around waists and girlfriends gingerly holding acrylic-manicured hands while descending stairs, as we all prepped in our own ways for Rih to take the stage. I watched some of the most beautiful women I have seen in my life strut past my seat, sporting the catsuits and crop tops of my dreams; I fell in love 12 times, wondering what their apartments looked like, if they were carpeted, if they had fold-out couches in their living rooms, if these women would take me with them as a pet and show me how to be gorgeous. I saw a man in the floor seats who stuck out because of a glinting plastic crown resting atop his head over the hood of his red sweatshirt. I immediately teared up a little bit. Even in a sea of folding chairs of red felt and black metal, I thought, you can still make one your throne. I spent a moment quietly moved by the thought before bursting out laughing, not just from the pure joy of a throb in my serotonin receptors, but also from a bite of self-awareness that, in my purest form, I have the mind of a wacky, tenderhearted Montessori instructor in Tevas. (I double-checked my feet just to make sure, and was relieved to see I was still wearing black boots.)
In the dingy arena lighting before Rihanna took to her stage, the all-white set looked ominously unremarkable, not unlike an office that just went through a move, emptied of furniture and with remnants of packing materials remaining in random corners. What looked like a white vinyl tablecloth blanketed the risers, while deflated, jumbo-size bubble wrap was strewn in the corners. I was confused in imagining how it would come to life. As I settled more into my mushy feelings — that place where childhood images become easily available like the cheap point-of-sale goodies in the cashier line at the supermarket that you toss into your basket — it started to look more like the set in the beginning of the Pixar intro. You know, where the lamp hops out with that pattern of squeaks, and then becomes the letter ‘I’ in the Pixar logo before the movie starts? I can assure you that if there was any presence of a silver lamp on that stage that I could find, I would have lost my damn mind. I was almost on the edge of considering that Rihanna herself was going to come out hopping in all silver, with some sort of headlamp type of gear, just to fuck with me. Thank god she didn’t. I mean, Ms. Fenty still fucked with me PLENTY, but in better ways, more magical ones, ways I’m still trying to digest … much like the mushrooms, which literally caused me a solid day’s worth of indigestion (this has led me to believe that enlightenment runs on farts, and you know what, I’m OK with that).
The Anti Tour opens with “Stay” and follows it with “Woo” and “Sex With Me.” This is so that, to the best of my understanding, Rihanna can kill you first and then give you sexy CPR right off the bat, so that the rest of the show has you gasping for air and praising her for, quite literally, giving you life. She entered through the back of the arena, striding up to a white, elevated podium wearing a face-obscuring hooded cape that revealed nothing of her form but the lower-ass cutouts of her pants. When “Stay” segued into “Woo,” a floating, transparent catwalk descended diagonally from the ceiling, upon which Rihanna strutted back and forth with huge, commanding steps. “Sex With Me” had her finally discard the coat as the catwalk glided in the air toward the stage in the front of the arena, the dancers and band in place to receive her. The catwalk was her Bridge of DGAF. From the back of the room during the begging croons of “Stay,” she was transported first from the groveling position of begging a lover to not abandon her, to then realizing she don’t really care about you no mo’, to fully going in on sexual self-exaltation. It was in the completion of that trilogy that she finally reached the arena’s stage. Her love for her own sex delivered her and I tagged along, clutching my heart.
At this point, I couldn’t shake the fresh memory of a line in an Ellen Willis essay about Janis Joplin that I read on a plane a few hours before. Willis was writing about Joplin’s romantic pain committed by men, that engine of anguish that propelled her most compelling work. She said it was almost cruel to watch men adore it, knowing that they represented the root of her suffering. To this, Willis wrote, “Janis’s response — to sing harder, get higher, be worshiped more — was rebellious, acquiescent, bewildered all at once.” She then described the deeper meaning of the Sexual Revolution in Joplin’s context, in which “women endowed the idea of sexual liberation with immense symbolic importance; it became charged with all the secret energy of an as yet suppressed larger rebellion.” How Rihanna in that moment completed the harder, higher, and more worshipped trifecta resonated through every corner of the room, almost in direct sequence with the order of the set’s opening. She loved hardest in “Stay,” ascended above it in “Woo,” then gave us her body to worship in “Sex With Me.” Her rebellion is, too, her liberation, and she was so free on that catwalk above the crowd. The show had barely begun, and she already had me all hopped up on that secret energy.
The crowd pivoted to face the stage Rihanna had just descended upon, which now made total visual sense. This was a blank canvas, as solid hues of colored lighting washed over each surface like that one default screensaver on Macs that’s really chill and soothing. As I began to see Rihtopia, I also began to think of technology. The white cubism, the slim planes, the washes of pure RGB, the throbbing of light … hold up, I figured it out: This set is deffffinitely an Apple commercial. Yep. The dancers weren’t black silhouettes trying to sell me an iPod, but the whole thing was doing a bang-up job of making me think about the confines of capitalism and deep shit of that nature. If we were going to be stuck in this whitewashed cubicle digital age, I thought, why not take its money, grind on it, and saturate it with vibes of vibrancy? SHOW ME, RIH.
As she twirled her airplaning arms during “Bitch Better Have My Money,” I realized, as she demanded her pay without conceit, that Rihanna is the freest woman in the world. Not just on this stage, but in this capitalist, plastic era of impending doom and social death. She was fucking it up good, with radiating color and the movements of her perfectly self-realized body. It became even more obvious in that performance that Rih is queen of the Universe of Gettin’ It: She is rich, she is immaculate, she is adored and full of answers. Maybe I’ve spent too much time in San Francisco, but you know how the major truism of the tech world is that they think they’re all making this century this idealized, streamlined gilded age, without realizing how much cultural doom they’re instigating with their gentrification and their Google Glass and their messenger bags? Yo, instead of that, what I witnessed at Rihanna is what Steve Jobs was going for with his Silicon Valley–brand, warped-ass tech utopia bullshit. It was a realvision among wired white rectangles. Rihanna just spit-shone turds of innovation platitudes into feminine brilliance. She just elevated up your iPod commercial, ghost of Jobs! You know why? Because it’s women who complete the idealistic fantasies of men. Always. Of course. Siri, what’s good?!
Anyway, more on these answers that Rihanna has — because that shit uplifts. It was as clear as dawn to me that this show was about to get biblical, as her stage settings began to look more like the capital-C Creation of Rihanna’s world. Every time there was a set change, I would think, “And on the second day, God created this perfect ass and its anthem for radical affluence …” My notes progressively illustrate me interpreting her first as a pastor, then a princess, then a priest (after finally remembering the word … “what’s it called, a prayerman?”), until I finally admit that she’s just a straight-up god. What Rihanna did in showing me her universe was unlock the Get It Prophecies. It’s not just telling me how to get it, but showing me what is mine — nay, ours — to get in the first place. As someone just uncovering what there is to be acquired in this lifetime (hello! I’m 23, female, single, and ready to mingle with the deepest vibrations of the universe!), I let Rihanna tabulate the rewards of life to me while using her body to demonstrate. Most perceptions of nirvana or enlightenment or whatever recount some sort of out-of-body experience that signifies its depth of connection; Rihanna was showing me how she possessed her form so fully that her freedom was inside her physicality, and I could stop looking outside of mine for my happiness. I felt my feet become light and the immediate space around my body throb and then hug me in a little, like a blood pressure reader compressing the space around me. That’s when I really knew she was on some god shit, and that had me checking my pulse.
Her set design changes soon took us out of the blank whiteness and down through darker underworlds, like the swirling caramel monochromatism during “Desperado,” which signified to me some sort of psychic underbelly, a space of dirty work, a place she went to deal with the consequences that earned her freedom. Then it dove into oceanic sequences, where huge inflatables breathed and swayed around the set, backgrounded in aqua with Rainbow Fish-style shimmers of lightness piercing through, during her tropical, dancehall-informed set of tracks which include her chorus from “Take Care” as well as “Work.” I even thought it was a nice touch, affirming my perception of this part of the set as the Under the Sea act, that themmms in “Work” sounded not unlike whale songs. So thoughtful, Rih, you even considered what the ocean sounded like in your world creation blueprint! How brilliant. Our god is an awesome god.
Alongside a costume change into a drapey beige robe with suit pants and a glossy, gold lingerie leotard (lingerayotard?), the set projections turned to an oil-slick rainbow, and the Jumbotron projected Rihanna in a triptych of three incremental angles of her face — because if I wasn’t convinced that she was my savior yet, she had to go and rep the image of a Trinity just to really drill it in. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I realized that Rihanna not only had the answers to the good life, but the key to my brain, unlocking the compartment called “Favorite Aesthetics, Section: Sexy Gold Accessories and Psychedelic Patterns,” and made a whole set out of them. God made the world in her vision, but we’ve most definitely been pinning to the same mood boards. It was inspiring. Truly, how did Rih know what it looks like to feel?! I felt like I had just gotten eighth row tickets to the creation of the world, and this girl just got to the part where she invents all the colors. Rihanna performed “Needed Me” in this context, my anti-Manic Pixie Dream Girl anthem, one so important to me as a recovering child of too-precious mid-2000s indie rock. It was breakup gospel — have you heard the good news? I’m better off now! I wanted to download every image that passed as a GIF with the sassy subtitles. I wanted a ZIP file of all these feelings coursing through me. It was better than nature, and better than the Internet. COMBINED.
I got the vibe that she was about to wrap, so I steeled myself for the descent. “FourFiveSeconds” felt like the closing scene of Godspell; I was ready to go ascend to heaven and be her angel apostle right about then, but we still had a couple to go before the finale. “These are my two favorite songs off the album,” Rihanna told us, before launching into “Love on the Brain.” Predictably, this is when the levees of my tear ducts broke in a hurricane of feelings, and all that cry-water devastated my face. A backdrop of falling soap bubble clusters began to cascade down like the most elegant frat-house foam party as she went into “Kiss It Better.” Despite the default level of ecstasy promised by my chosen experience, I got a jolt of a very certain euphoria. It was a preview. It was what I could only perceive as a love that I haven’t had yet, but that Rihanna had, and was showing me — a brilliant sense of life that is to unfold. The prophecy of Gettin’ It was raining its truth down on me! However, speaking of rain: Back in February, when I was sharing my initial Anti thoughts with friends upon our first listens, one of them remarked that “Kiss It Better” sounded like a Prince song, which made me gasp in the glee of that truth, and adore it all the more. In a way that gives me goosebumps now, “Kiss It Better” seems like Rihanna’s answer to “Purple Rain.” No one meant to cause any pain here, but that couldn’t stop me from feeling a full circle of love and heartbreak all at once, feeling like I might someday encounter what kind of sticky, magic messes await. For now, I got to taste a drip, courtesy of Rih’s generous cascade of bittersweetness.
Rihanna’s whole selfhood is already a heightened sensory experience — she’s probably literally higher than everyone else, but she feels more, too, and her show was a sensual triumph. I use pedestaled idols like her to glimpse the potent possibilities of fully becoming myself; usually observing such powerhouses merely pass as momentary flickers of how and what I can be. But in this experience, and into the next day, I feel like I leveled up in life. If Rih is a pastor, her clergy’s relationship to her is one slightly of worship, but also of igniting self-elevation. I felt the lasting echoes of her vibes sssh any of my passing self-doubts, because she took me there. Right there, to its doorstep. Why would I ever go back? Five stars. Would ride again.