Empty Packaging: Rihanna Disappoints in Tel Aviv

Megastar sang only when she felt like it, otherwise letting recordings and background vocals take over while she twerked in slow motion.

The guy next to me was happy. The last time he was in the Golden Ring (the area close to the stage), during a Madonna concert, everyone around him was gay, and he, the only straight guy, was apparently also the only fat guy among a crowd of hunks. Last night at the Rihanna concert, by contrast, the atmosphere was that of a family vacation in Eilat.

After a warm-up act by the DJ duo GTA, which managed to horrify the crowd with contemporary covers of Ibiza hits from the '90s, came a long wait. Even the Rihanna-style letter "R," protruding from a crown worn by one of her more serious fans, began looking like a flower wilting in the sun. It was 10 P.M., after people started booing, by the time Rihanna came onstage.

She opened with "Phresh Out the Runway" in a rave rock sound, accompanied by live musicians and electronic playback. From time to time she sighed "Tel Aviv," sounding a bit like a temptress and a bit like a singer trying to recall what city she was in this night. When she reached "Talk That Talk," it became obvious that "live" was not the most appropriate adjective for this show. From here on Rihanna sang only when she felt like it, complemented the rest of the time by her own recorded self and background vocals. Instead of singing she preferred twerking in slow motion, her legs spread, though mostly she seemed exhausted and functioning on automatic pilot. Her band, which introduced an aggressive rock edge into some of the songs, and the singer-dancer ensemble that accompanied her, did work hard, though, to enliven the atmosphere on stage.

Unease in crowd becomes palpable

When she began singing "Numb," which she had originally performed with Eminem, the surrounding screens filled with images of the singer shrouded in smoke while the guitarist on stage played a Guns-N'-Roses-style solo. Onstage, flames of fire blazed and Rihanna held her crotch in a scene recalling a ritual ceremony by an ancient priestess, but in a variant adapted to the consumer culture.

"You Da One" was sung as a solo, while "Man Down" opened with reggae sounds and the words "Wanted by the FBI" appearing on the screens alongside police mug shots of the singer. At this point people began wondering, "Isn't she going to sing?" When the next song was also "performed" by Rihanna's recorded voice, the sense of unease among fans who had paid hundreds of shekels per ticket, if not more, became palpable.

Rihanna asked the crowd if they wanted to fool around with her, before singing the anthem that took the fun out of sadism, "S&M." While she was singing about her love of whips and chains and the smell of sex in the air, a mom in the crowd raised her redhead boy to her shoulders so he could see better and joined Rihanna in the chorus.

Later the megastar moved on to the sing-along stage with her biggest hit, "Umbrella." The audience woke up, cooperated and even opened some umbrellas. The last part was more like a party, including medleys of some of Rihanna's favorite hits familiar from countless Israeli weddings, which perked up the crowd, and the song "Diamonds," which managed to obliterate whatever sparkle the concert might have offered.

The crowd's behavior at the end of the encore reflected the shallowness of the Hayarkon Park experience. It did not pause for a minute, as sometimes happens after a good show, but rather descended wildly on the exits in a futile attempt to avoid heavy traffic. The shortened concert (compared to the other concerts on the current tour), the late start, the unchanged outfit (the audience missed, for example, a particularly symbolic moment in which Rihanna wears a dress made of dollar bills) – all these, in addition to Rihanna's unwillingness or inability to sing a large portion of the songs, turned what should have been a spectacle of the most successful performer in the world today, into that of a young singer unable to fulfill the requirements of an industry that employs her services. The tens of thousands of fans who came to see her did not get what was promised. Nothing but packaging, and mostly a fascinating glimpse of the great emptiness behind it.

Daniel Tchetchik