To promote her new album, Unapologetic, Rihanna has set off on an ambitious globetrotting tour that will hit seven countries in seven days. Rolling Stone contributor Jeff Rosenthal is on the plane with a small army of fans and assistants, and an extravagant amount of champagne.
This morning was another long one. We left our London hotel at 3 a.m., getting to the airport an hour later. As these things go, we finally took off a little before 11. For those eight hours, with darkened eyes and pallid faces, we smiled. We re-enacted Rihanna’s dance moves: an MTV cameraman doing the best rendition of her jelly-leg routine from “Cockiness (Love It),” Def Jam’s Gabe Tesoriero surprising us all with his version of her, uh, lap-patting “Birthday Cake.” We recited her onstage banter word for word, tightening her script until it broke: the introduction to “What’s My Name?” goes, as Rihanna said in just about every city, “My name isn’t oh-na-na. It’s Rihanna!” Someone started a rumor that one of the passengers was a child actor from Jurassic Park. Since we hadn’t seen her on the plane in days, an on-air personality from Canada’s MuchMusic printed up a missing poster that depicted Rihanna, looking for answers while walking up and down the aisle. A writer fell asleep while typing, his entire screen filled with a series of j’s and k’s. Twenty people surrounded him and laughed.
A day earlier, the entirety of the plane had risen up as one, journalists starting jokey chants of “Save our jobs!” and “Just one quote!” (Fans, kept to the back section of the plane, joined in with a spoofed-up version of one of her songs: “Where have you been?/ Cause I never see you out/ Are you hiding from me/ On our flight?”) It was all an effort to lure Rihanna out of her private quarters, to be able to write about something other than the fact that we all had nothing to write about. She never came out, and the bad press continued. (She ended her London show by screaming, “Haters are liars!” It’s something she’s said often, but never before on this trip. It seemed directed at the journalists that she herself had invited.)
Today, an hour before landing in Newark, we were alerted to “get our cameras ready” for “a special performance.” The world waited in wonder. Soon after, Nuno Bettencourt (her guitarist, one of the members of the Eighties band Extreme) came out. Would Rihanna join him? No. Instead, we listened with jaws slack as he, Rihanna’s bassist and DJ Reflex sang hits of yesteryear: Lenny Kravitz’s “Fly Away,” a song by Journey, another by Bon Jovi. It was a lovely gesture – these guys did nothing wrong, except pretend to know the lyrics – but why wouldn’t Rihanna at least show her face, to acknowledge our presence (or even hers)?
The landing gear descended. Everyone was told to return to their seat; I had never left mine. And then a strange figure darkened the door of first class. She walked out with shades on, making her way down the aisle. There was less enthusiasm from her, less from us; we weren’t the same people we were six days ago, when we first boarded the plane. No champagne showers; many of us were hungry and tired, a huddled and disinterested mass. It was almost like Rihanna didn’t (or doesn’t) know of anything beyond her seat: with a smile that curled up and out, she said, “I would fuckin’ do this again!” She continued on this too-little-too-late tour, noting that if she hadn’t had to take care of her voice, she would have acted differently with us. “Usually I go, go and go. And this time I had to sleep,” she continued. “Usually I would be back here partying my balls off for ya’ll but I really had to pay attention and take care of my health because I’m on the plane all the time.” She’d been out all night in at least three cities, buying lingerie in Paris, hanging out with Brooklyn Decker in Toronto. But she never had three minutes to see us.
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The pilot once again asked everyone to sit; instead, a gaggle of photographers and writers and fans smothered her with bodies and questions. “What surprises are you bringing to your show tonight?” “What was your favorite city of the tour?” “When are you next playing Ireland?” (Her first answer was, “Oh man, tonight is gonna be the shit.” While I didn’t hear the answer to the others, I’m sure they were equally illuminating.) A writer wondered if we would all die, what with the entire mass of passengers rushing up to the front of the plane, and an annoyed flight attendant said that – while the plane was too big for that to happen – people needed to sit down or else we’d need to divert landing. We had three minutes to land, and people were still standing on seats for some reason. Rihanna finally went back to her section, saying that people were “acting bad.” The last of the reckless had sat down, sparing us all a grand jury hearing.
With just moments to spare, people sat down in their seats. It made me realize why no one would ever get access to her: because many of these supposed professionals weren’t mature enough to treat her like a person, and she most certainly wasn’t interested in treating any of us like people either.
As we deplaned, the fresh air of Newark’s airport filling our faces, a flight attendant said, “You’re free!” Free at last, free at last. Thank God almighty, we are free at last.