June 30, 2011
@ Oracle Arena
Better than: Having an actual seizure. I think.
There was very little doubt -- after watching a gaggle of high school girls in sequined tube tops and six-inch stilettos almost throw down in broad daylight inside the Oakland Coliseum BART station -- that the night would be an entertaining one. But the religious protesters camped outside the will call line at Oracle Arena really sealed the deal.
"Do you come to every show here, or did you come out especially for Rihanna?" I asked a middle-aged guy in a red "JESUS SAVES" baseball cap, who had just muttered, helpfully, "Put some clothes on" at a different group of stiletto-and-vinyl-clad teens.
He considered this thoughtfully for a minute. "We're here for most things, really," he said, in a slightly conspiratorial tone. "It's not about the show, it's about -- there's usually at least one person here who could use our message. I mean ... we were here for Sesame Street Live."
Time will tell whether any of Rihanna's devotees were converted to born-again Christianity last night. The Church of Seizure-Inducing Graphics and Lingerie as Outerwear, for one, gave them some serious competition.
For two straight hours last night, the roughly 11,000 people packing the Oracle Arena displayed what could reasonably be described as religious fervor for their fiery-haired idol -- despite her making them wait almost an hour after J. Cole finished his set. Which was memorable itself mainly because of the line "Oakland, let me see you put your diamonds in the air!" (sure, okay) and the fact that he was not, in fact, original tour opener Cee-Lo. (I overheard two groups trying to get refunds as a result in the 15 minutes before the show started.) [Ed Note -- Cee Lo left the tour due to "scheduling conflicts" one week after calling a Minneapolis music critic gay on Twitter.]
When Ri-Ri (sorry) did emerge in a red-tinged haze, it became clear that very little of what was happening onstage for the rest of the night would actually be heard, in the sense that you usually like to hear music. Rihanna has pipes; with the exception of a few moments ("Take a Bow," one of the few songs where she wasn't one of 15 people onstage), you really couldn't tell from this show.
Not that anyone seemed to mind. A sign posted just past the security line warned that tonight's Rihanna experience "might include pyrotechnics," and as it turns out, they were not fucking around. What the set lacked in aural nuance, it more than compensated for with sheer visual assault: featuring about a dozen costume changes, a sizable team of backup dancers, a moving-sidewalk portion of the stage, strobe lights, a piano suspended in the air, '80s hair-metal electric guitar solos, bursts of purple smoke and glittery confetti, a Sheila E. tribute drum solo, cross-dressing, crotch shots, futuristic pillow fights, and props like a half-crushed convertible and giant pink tank -- not to mention six pod-shaped screens capturing every flex of her thigh muscles -- the night was something like Cirque du Soleil meets Showgirls meets Prince-themed drag show meets, um, what's the term for a really flashy S&M party but with people dressed like crash test dummies?
"Sexy crash test dummies" was the motif at one point. No kidding. Other visual reference points, in no particular order: early-era TLC outfits, The Fifth Element, The Matrix, The Jetsons, Dance Dance Revolution, the opening credits to Clarissa Explains it All, the primary color-coordinated dudes from Gabba Gabba Hey (if they were supposed to be sexy), everything Madonna has ever done, Space Mountain.