Is Rihanna the Perfect Pop Star? (Spoiler Alert: She Damn Well Is)

Rihanna isn’t a perfect pop star because she’s a perfect person. Instead, it’s her imperfections—her humanness—that make her an entertainer worthy of our adulation

A photo-illustration of Rihanna, with a halo around her head

Earlier this week, we learned that Rihanna is probably dating someone. Specifically, she may be dating a man named Hassan Jameel with whom she was spotted making out with in a pool a few days ago. And that’s great, and they’re great, and I don’t really care about the specifics of their relationship because if Rihanna is happy, I am happy. Happiness is the least any of us can feel for a perfect pop star like Robyn Rihanna Fenty. Because that’s what she is.

Before news broke of the romance, Rihanna was making headlines for her approach to politics. Using Twitter to reach out directly to world leaders, she asked that they commit to #FundEducation, a movement spawned by the Global Partnership for Education initiative, for which she’s an ambassador. But Rihanna’s passion for philanthropy has been years in the making. In the winter, Harvard honoured the singer with its Humanitarian of the Year Award, and five years before that, she founded the Clara Lionel Foundation, which offers financial support for educational and health programs across the world. Which is an extension of a larger theme that defines Rihanna: her selflessness and accessibility is authentic. She doesn’t aspire to be a figurehead.

Thanks to social media, accessibility has become a currency. Where mystique and amazement once defined our relationship to famous people (see: the rise of “Stars! They’re Just Like Us!”), the tendency to see celebrities as untouchable beings was replaced by our 140-character proximity to them. Twitter allows fans to interact directly with the people they love, while Instagram and Snapchat makes viewers feel like active participants in their lives. So thanks to this, stars don’t feel as unattainable anymore—they feel like our cool friends.

Rihanna has taken a different approach. She most definitely and obviously exists in the velvet rope sect of our universe, but her arm of accessibility is constant: she hangs out on the street with a glass of wine in hand, uses interviews to convey the authentic frustration of living under a microscope, tweets scripture, and recently used her DMs to offer relationship advice to a struggling fan. And because of this, Rihanna has never had to sell the idea that she was Just Like Us on social media;  instead she demonstrates it through regular acts of authentic humanness.

And humans are complicated. They’re messy and difficult, but Rihanna has never put herself above being one—which adds even more clout to her music. Whether by clapping back at body shamers or singing candidly about love, heartbreak, sex and boss-ability (see: “Bitch Better Have My Money”), she celebrates the full spectrum of emotions, making it feel powerful when we celebrate them too. And in that realm she’s not alone: Beyonce’s discography proudly boasts songs rooted in sweeping emotional complexity. But where Bey’s image seems largely controlled, Rihanna’s pop-star persona is that of a person. Specifically one who does what she wants.

But that execution is easier said than done, particularly since Rihanna’s been consistent in her approach to self and resisted the push to rebrand, despite reinvention has been one of music’s biggest trends this year. So where artists like Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus have largely abandoned their pasts, Rihanna is acting as an amalgamation of selves: she has never apologized for the choices made in her youth (where Cyrus disavowed the “Wrecking Ball” video), nor has she used her activism as part of a re-brand (unlike Perry, who touted the merits of “purposeful pop” for Witness). Her fashion sense is consistently incomparable (her Met Gala choices stay on-theme while also paying homage to the designers), and she’s avoided petty pop feuds that breed lackluster singles. (Sorry everyone, but “Bad Blood” is so bad.)

Add to this Rihanna’s live shows, her voice and the fact that she and Lupita Nyong’o used their influence to transform a meme into a movie, and her bankability as a pop star is unparalleled. To be truly Unapologetic is to be free, and while Rihanna still abides by some norms (read: she releases albums, singles, and music videos on a consistent schedule), she maintains her individuality by insisting on a particular level of quality: after all, she took four years to write and record ANTI. Her music is art, and she gives a shit about it. And then we reap the benefits.

So Rihanna isn’t a perfect pop star because she’s a perfect person. Ironically, it’s her imperfections—her humanness—that make her an entertainer worthy of our adulation. Like most pop stars, she performs, crusades for causes, and strives to maintain a distinct sense of self. But she refuses to exist as a brand; to curate her life as a living Instagram in hopes of perpetuating the myth of perfection. (Here’s looking at you, Swift.) And that’s what catapults her above her peers. She is exactly who she needs to be, and makes us feel like we can do the same.

More from Anne:
Anne T. Donahue: Why Can’t Wonder Woman Just Be a Movie, not a Movement?
Anne T. Donahue on Consent and Bachelor in Paradise
Anne T. Donahue on the Problem with “Girlboss” & “Boss Babe”