Is Rihanna in full flight or just a car crash waiting to happen?
Riri cuts a controversial figure – even her mother is sick of her antics... so is she set to do a Britney and crash out of the A-list or will she work hard on her pop princess longevity, like Madonna?
Pop stars have long been at the helm of their own off-stage soap operas. In fact, you barely earn your stripes as a pop star these days without a handful of colourful scandals and dramas to your name. With that in mind, Rihanna's place in the pop pantheon is very much assured. With the music A-list going to ever more extreme and outlandish measures to get noticed (Lady Gaga and your meat dress, I'm looking at you), the Barbadian beauty has broken free of the identikit R&B pack with aplomb.
Yet in recent times, Rihanna's pop music – successful and well loved though it is – has taken a backseat to her increasingly compelling offstage life. Currently, the global superstar is one of the most Googled artists ever ... and while she is certainly omnipresent, her life is a cacophony of controversy and confusion.
Consider the evidence: a penchant for semi-naked Twitpics, an on-off relationship with Chris Brown (who famously assaulted her at a pre-Grammy Awards party four years ago) and a love of divilment in general has turned Rihanna Fenty into a controversial figure.
Rarely a day goes by where the public aren't subjected to a raunchy helping of the superstar. Even her own mother has seemingly had enough.
Speaking to Elle Magazine, the 25-year-old admitted that her mother had given her a stern talking to about her endless stream of naughty pics. "She called me two days ago and reeled me in about two pictures put up on Instagram," revealed Rihanna. "She went crazy on me. I was embarrassed. I felt like I got my ass whipped in front of my class at school." Quite what Mammy Fenty made of the Instagram shot posted days later of RiRi wearing nothing but knickers, boots and a garter remains anyone's guess.
At the risk of annoying her own mother, Rihanna's love of controversy is no doubt a well-thought out strategy.
"Rihanna's attitude is a big part of her appeal to young fans," observes Michelle McMahon, editor of her.ie. "She gives off a real 'I couldn't care less' vibe. It's quite refreshing in one way, because most pop stars are moulded by PR people and are super clean-cut, but Rihanna's not afraid of being bold. If you go by the maxim that there's no such thing as bad publicity, she's doing something right because people are still talking about her day after day. Alas, despite having a cracker of a voice, no one is ever talking about her music. The Instagram feed is kind of cheap looking. It takes away from talent ... and she's talented."
Last summer, things in Rihanna-land reached a rather compelling nadir when she staged a €4m plane stunt on her 777 tour. The plane was to take the singer and 150 journalists to seven countries in seven days for seven shows. Ambitious by anyone's standard, yet the trip is now hailed as one of the biggest and priciest mistakes in recent pop history. Chaos ensued as Rihanna reportedly kept her distance from the assembled journalists on the chartered flight. And it doesn't take Louis Walsh to tell you hacking off 150 music journalists isn't the best way to get good publicity.
"Why would you subject fans and journalists to this and why would you want them to witness the harsh realities of celebrity life?" wrote one of the 'lucky' journos. Um, quite.
Some have hailed the exercise as a PR triumph, of course, and observed that the behemoth that is the Rihanna PR machine is very much a sign of our times. Still, sometimes the wheels fall off even the most well-oiled machines.
Dr Kimberley Allen, of Manchester Metropolitan University, who along with her colleagues Dr Heather Mendick and Dr Laura Harvey is researching into young people and celebrity, has a theory as to Rihanna's ongoing appeal.
"I think what is remarkable and noteworthy about Rihanna is her ubiquity, the centrality of her relationship to Brown to her celebrity image, and the role of social media in this," she observes. "Celebrity maintains its desirability and power through generating intrigue and interest among the audience, particularly a desire to get behind the public face of the star, to locate the 'real', private persona behind the celebrity brand or image. Rihanna – or at least those around her – is extremely savvy in generating this interest through a complex inter-weaving of her personal and public self through her songs and other outputs including her Instagram feed."
Even this week, the plot has thickened further: Rihanna was forced to cancel shows in New York, Baltimore and Boston on her current world tour, citing illness.
"#Boston this is the hardest thing for me to deal with! I feel like we've been waiting on this day forever, and I'm hurt that I let you down," she tweeted.
It's almost impossible to predict what might happen next in Rihanna's career, but one question still begs to be answered. Is this a heady career in full flight ... or a car crash pile-up waiting to happen? Where to for pop's most ubiquitous wild child from here? Because at this juncture, it really can go either way.
It seems that Rihanna has one of two options; she can become the next Britney Spears, and crash out of the A-list in spectacular fashion as the weight of global superstardom takes its toll. Alternatively, she can follow the Madonna mould and parlay her shock factor and ubiquity into a long-term business model.
In terms of business savvy, Rihanna is certainly showing potential. Her 777 tour, funded by HTC, River Island and Budweiser, was by all accounts a non stop plug-a-thon. Rihanna even gave out free HTC phones from the stage.
Jude Rogers, a journalism lecturer at London's Metropolitan University, summed it up thus on music website The Quietus: "Just think about this act by itself, and you feel all pop's flamboyance, excess, glamour... it's all slipping away. Rihanna's not embodying any brand in a subtle, sophisticated way. She's not expanding the pleasures of pop's escapism, or its realms of dizzy fantasy. She's a megastar giving out product – literally – from her million-dollar market stall."
Rihanna's new clothing line for River Island certainly mainlines right into her target demographic of young women. Last week, one fan got more than she bargained for when she was interrupted in the changing room of a London branch of River Island by the singer herself. As publicity stunts go, it's a curious one. Rihanna is clearly bridging the gap between herself and her loyal fans, just as she does on Twitter. Yet ... well, can you imagine Madonna at her career zenith doing something similar?
"It's a big coup for River Island to have her on board, and I suspect that the 'pared-back' image we're seeing right now is partly to do with this deal," says McMahon. "You can't really go into a PR event half naked and rocking a Mohawk. Still, I don't think it will last. Rihanna is all about changing up her image."
When it comes to her carefully crafted (and ever-changing public image), it's hard not to acknowledge Rihanna's ongoing romance with Chris Brown, thought to be one of the most compelling in recent memory. Despite that infamous bust-up four years ago, the pair are back in each other's arms and guesting on each other's records ... and aren't bothered by the possibility of a public backlash.
"As 'the public' we feel we get glimpses of her 'real', private self – the ups and downs, trials and tribulations, of her relationship with Brown not just through candid interviews, but also via the public's access to her Instragram pictures," notes Dr Allen. "Also her songs – including those with him (Nobody's Business) and album names (Unapologetic) – explicitly invite us to read certain things in to their relationship, her decisions to stay with him, her 'don't give a damn' attitude and so on.
"These private and public outputs are not separate but are (knowingly or not) all part of her brand – a brand that generates intrigue and debate, feelings of respect by some (for refusing judgment from the public, for being a strong woman, etc) and, elsewhere, judgement and disappointment by others," she adds.
"In many ways, these morally charged discussions about Rihanna's celebrity are fascinating in what they say about female sexuality, 'choice' and agency in the contemporary, seemingly 'post-feminist' age, and, in particular, it tells us something about society's understandings of gender violence and sexual inequality...
"In our research with young people, we've witnessed heated debates about her 'private' conduct as much as her talent. These discussions illustrate the complexity of her image, but also speak to how celebrities operate as an important resource for young people to say something more broadly about their own and others' moral conduct."
In the immediate future, Rihanna has to negotiate some choppy terrain; namely, that pencil-fine line between being everywhere and being overexposed.
While Rihanna is certainly showing business know-how, some insiders are bracing themselves for a downward spiral.