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Why Rihanna Matters

Rihanna turns 29 today. 2-9. Remember that bare-bellied girl who arrived out of nowhere with “Pon De Replay” way back in… 2005. She’s grown now… barely! She still showing up at awards just for the kiki, as she did last Sunday at the 59th Grammys, with a diamond-encrusted flask no less.

More like the Jammies!

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Rihanna is my exact same age. Well, I’m two months older, being born on the butt-end of 1987, but we grew up together. Sure, I’m not as sexy, stylish, poised, or in the same galaxy when it comes to wealth and fame, but I feel a kinship with her.

Rihanna is special, and I think she would be special even if she had stayed in Barbados and never become Intergalactic Hitmaking Sensation Rihanna™. She is electric without trying, and doesn’t take the fame game as deathly serious as some of her peers. She’ll often drop music, skip the promotion thing, and still go top 10. Instead, you’ll find her on Instagram, posting charming selfies (oxymoron? She may be the only person on Earth who makes them work) and other snapshots from her lavish life. To be young, black, beautiful, and loaded…

How did Rihanna, a little girl from the island of Barbados, make it this far? Why have we allowed her to? She’s the one pop icon the public hasn’t built up just to tear down. There’s a certain confidence we have in her, a certain level of calm with her. Is this due to her authenticity and earthy charisma? Perhaps she’s just less threatening, more inspirational than aspirational, as most American cultural figures tend to inflame or gnaw at our insecurities.

She may also just be more likable: she’s completely disarming and genuine in a way that is antithetical to modern celebrity. Remember when she got on a random London train and chatted with fans, or ran and jumped into an adoring sea of them? She (literally) isn’t untouchable.

Sure, Beyonce gets all the glory (and she is a force to be reckoned with), but Rihanna doesn’t want it anyway.  She is self-possessed in a way that perhaps Beyonce and others aren’t: she doesn’t demand you worship her, only that you have a good time when with her. Tellingly, her music is more eclectic and purely enjoyable than many of her peers’. She traverses sounds, often within the same cultural moment. In 2013, she released the gorgeous piano ballad “Stay”, followed by a trap record, “Pour It Up”, proving that she is one of the few music stars with clout on pop and urban radios. On her eighth and best album Anti, she gives us a grungy opener like “Consideration”, followed by the majestic “James Joint/Kiss It Better”, and her #1 hit “Work”, which blurs the lines between dancehall and electronica. The Motown-inflected ballad “Love On the Brain”, might just hit the top 10 on the Billboard chart this week, a nice birthday gift indeed.

Rihanna is gold in an era of trash: a celebrity worth celebrating, and maybe even deifying, even if she doesn’t want the pedestal – just the money, clothes, endless weed re-up, and following that comes with it. Rihanna matters for many reasons, but perhaps most because she reminds us to live life as if no one is watching, pay our haters dust, and keep it moving.

Live your life, girl, as fearlessly and fiercely as we all should.

 

Living the Life Unwell

“Anxiety”, “Depression”, “Substance Abuse”, “PTSD”. Whatever it can be attributed to, for much of my life, I’ve been mentally and emotionally volatile. To be honest, I feel mentally ill on any given day, if only because I compare myself to other, more normal people, people who appear unscathed by trauma, “happy”, “carefree”. But even people who have lived fairly rough lives seem more emotionally stable than me. What gives?

It’s hard to know what people think – or know – about mental illness, because we still, well, we just don’t talk about it. Attempting to do so often elicits blank stares, languorous silence on the other end of the line, a feeling of unease. Perhaps this is because it reminds people of their own woes for a brief moment, but more likely, it’s because they’ve been made “uncomfortable.” We’re living in an era (hopefully a brief one), in which people go out of their way to avoid gazing inward. We celebrate and extol the exterior – while the inside rots.

Living with mental disorder, “real” or “imagined”, diagnosed or known to be true, is confounding, upsetting, and profoundly isolating. Sometimes, you wonder to yourself, “Why is it so hard for me to smile?” And then you remember, oh yeah, depression. Other times, you think, “Why is it so hard for me to relax? Why am I always so agitated, ill at-ease?” Oh yeah, the anxiety. This is why it is futile to compare yourself to those other, more normal people. You may never be there… and it’s not your fault.

What does it take to get better? I sometimes wonder if I can even “get better”… and if it’s even worth the effort. Finding a therapist that is actually half-way decent, being able to afford it, either through insurance or out-of-pocket, trying to get a prescription. All I could be assed to do so far is quit drinking and go to the gym a couple times a week, if that. Which is better than nothing, but nowhere close enough to the actual work that needs to be done. To get better, one would have to truly look at themselves, and into themselves, perhaps for the first time. To challenge everything you think you know about yourself, others, and the world, is to dismantle all of your notions. To completely reevaluate your worldview, and change your reality. Scary stuff. It’s not surprising we avoid this confrontation for as long as possible, in some cases, our whole lives.

You can get real comfortable with your neuroses. Hell, you can get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

When I look at most people, they just seem so empty, as if they’ve never been touched by trauma or even real problems their entire lives. As if their only concern is what to order for lunch, or what TV show they’re going to watch when they get home. They seem to lack an inner life (impossible), or to live almost obscenely for the “outer life” – essentially what we call “living”. Maybe they are just “happy”. I think, is that what I’m supposed to be like? Are they “living right”? Why am I so angry? Why can I barely look at people, never mind speak to them? Why can’t I be like them? Why do they accept so easily what I can’t?

I know how painful and disorienting being anxious, and resentful, and lonely, and sad all the time is. I know what it’s like to be treated like a leper, or to be looked at with reproach and disdain, because “they” can’t quite figure out what your problem is (as if you only had one). I know what it’s like to barely feel human, between the disconnection and the slow withdrawal. You begin to feel like human detritus, tossed to the side of the road, left to watch more deserving people (the normals) lead “happy” and “fulfilling” lives.

But you can only be trash if you throw your life away. And I suspect that most of us haven’t done that – and we won’t.

Footnote:
Anxiety = mental masturbation with no release.*
Depression = Shit-stained glasses that make the world seem a bleak and hopeless place (well, even more so). A cassette tape that plays on a loop in your head telling you you’re worthless, broken, and unlovable and always will be.
Substance abuse = the way you silence all the noise and doubt.
PTSD = all of the above, usually.
*Hey, you’ve gotta laugh, or you just might kill yourself 😉
**These are simplifications of course.