T: Rihanna, thank you for talking with me today.
R: My pleasure, Tom. It’s nice to have this conversational break.
T: I agree. So, lets begin with the obvious. You’re omnipresent in the pop culturescape: it seems that every few weeks one hears your voice on a new song, and your image is everywhere—on TV, in the pages of magazines, on billboards, and so on. One has to ask: Is there a real you behind all the mediated reproductions of you?
R: Well Tom, when I started out in music as a teenager in the Barbados, I wanted to be discovered and “make it” like any other aspiring pop star. Back then, there was a real me. But that soon changed. Once I was discovered, the music industry transformed me into a desire-machine, a voice for hire to sell music and market products to you, the listener.
T: Interesting. I have written before on desiring machines.
R: To answer your question about whether or not there’s a real me: my sense of self these days has been subsumed into the desiring-machine that is the popular music industry.
T: I appreciate your candidness—few performers would reveal so much about the mechanics of the business in which they work. Now, if you don’t mind, I would love to turn now to your voice, since it’s your voice that we hear everywhere.
T: To start, your voice is odd. I say that because while there’s something appealing about it, it also has a kind of emptiness. In fact, one critic described it as having a “dead-eyed quality.” Your voice doesn’t seem to signify anything or anyone; it doesn’t even seem attached to anything or anyone. It’s almost as if it doesn’t even belong to you. Do you know what I mean?
R: Sure. But remember, people seem to be able to find emotion in my voice even though, as you say, sometimes it seems as if there’s no there there. Sure, my voice could be said to have an empty quality. I’ve thought about this, and started reading up on what various writers have said about voice in general.
T: That sounds fascinating! What did you learn about voice?
R: Well, it turns out that there’s an extensive literature on the topic. For example, the French critic Roland Barthes has a piece, written in the nineteen seventies, called “The Grain Of The Voice” in which he explores the voice’s timbral aspect. Barthes says “the grain is the body in the voice as it sings.” I found this a beautiful formulation and I like idea that our voices encapsulate the rest of our bodies.
T: Yes me too.
R: Barthes also says that the voice is not personal or original, though at the same time it’s always individual.
T: A lot to think through in his work, for sure.
R: Yeah. Other critics have written about the role of the singing voice in operatic contexts and how it constructs desire.
T: That’s interesting, though opera isn’t your scene.
R: Well, no it isn’t. But I do think there are continuities between opera and pop.
T: Such as?
R: Well, one continuity is the notion of being a diva. The more I think about my career the more I understand myself as a kind of diva, and that my voice might somehow sonically construct this sense of diva-ness.
T: The diva as desiring machine! Fascinating!
R: It is! The take away from this is that now I have renewed appreciation for myself as a performer who constructs desire and voices sentiments for consumption on a massive scale.
T: In that sense, maybe the empty quality of your voice has a point, then?
R: Right. And besides, if it wasn’t me, it would be someone else’s voice, right? Plus, it’s fun. Pop music is fun—an experience of pleasure that sounds the ever-expiring moment.
T: Well put. And the money…?
R: …It’s good. Remember, for a few years there, back when people were downloading music rather than streaming it? I had, literally, millions of downloads!
T: True. But tell me, Rihanna, when people criticize your voice, or your perceived lack of stage presence, how do you respond?
R: I don’t worry about it because I know that on a basic level, the sheer presence of my voice on all those songs circulating around is presence enough. In a way, I inhabit anyone who cares enough to listen and remember one of my songs. You may find my voice lacking in affect, but it still affects you as you listen and project your own narratives onto its sound. And so in this way I think my voice works on a quite subliminal level.
T: Popular music is fascinating that way, isn’t it?
R: Yes, Tom, yes it is. We pop singer-divas may come and go, but our knowledge is real: we understand how to voice the musical moment, how to connect listeners to their own experiences through shared song.
T: Well said. Thanks again for taking the time, Rihanna.