Lady Gaga’s brand is too faux-arty and specific to encourage imitators. Katy Perry’s is too candy-coated, too reliant on schtick. But Rihanna’s dead-eyed, dancehall-tinged electro-pop is an empty suit anyone can try on.
What else was a girl like Selena Gomez, a thoroughly adorable graduate of the Disney Channel Tween Princess Finishing School supposed to do? Burdened/unburdened with no real identity of her own — at least until she began dating Justin Bieber — she was defined by who she wasn’t, the girl who wasn’t Miley Cyrus or Demi Lovato.
“Stars Dance,” 21-year-old Gomez’s first solo album (she recorded three with her old band, the Scene), may only deepen her identity crisis in the long run, but for now it’s the pop cultural motherlode, the gift you never knew you wanted: songs about Justin Bieber sung by someone imitating Rihanna.
It’s the best of a recent fleet of albums, mixtapes and singles that feast on Rihanna’s scraps with varying levels of obviousness. Gomez herself has described it as a “baby dubstep” offering influenced by Skrillex and Britney Spears, which is a discouraging way to describe an album that’s actually quite good. An exercise in just the right combination of Twitter-baiting sad songs, homogenized, screw-it-let’s-dance dubstep and stiff-upper-lip breakup anthems, it gets almost all of the surface aspects right.
The dance songs (including the Rihanna-in-Bollywood first single “Come & Get It” and the mindlessly infectious “B.E.A.T.,”) are irresistible. To anyone currently scouring the lyrics of the sad songs for real-life Bieber-ian subtext: Don’t feel bad. That’s why these songs exist. The most blatant offender, “Love Will Remember” once began with a voicemail message from someone who sounds a whole lot like Bieber extravagantly praising Gomez, who apparently isn’t above a little triumphalism. The voicemail segment was cut from the album version, reducing the song to a generic weepie (“We lit the whole world up/Before we blew it up”), the “Didn’t We Almost Have It All” of songs about surly Canadian monkey abandoners.
“Stars Dance” opens with “Birthday,” a stomping musical pep rally that pays homage to Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl.” It’s great, idiosyncratic and ultimately depressing, because the rest of “Stars Dance” sounds nothing like it. The farther away from Rihanna-isms “Stars Dance” stays, the better it fares. Its worst track, the tepid dancehall banger “Like a Champion,” in which Gomez sings about “diamonds in the sky” in a faux-island accent, reaches new levels of awful.
Gomez isn’t the worst of Rihanna’s many imitators, though she is the most overt. And she seems unaware that the traits she borrows from Rihanna aren’t the ones worth imitating. So instead of RiRi’s breezy confidence, merciless cool and unapologetically acquisitive sexuality, Gomez offers flat affect, stuttery syllable-swallowing and emotional vacancy, the things that don’t even work when Rihanna does them.
Halfway through the season, 2013 is already shaping up as the Summer Of The Rihannabes. Even Miley Cyrus’s molasses-slow “We Can’t Stop” was, like Gomez’s “Come & Get It,” reportedly intended for, and rejected by, Rihanna. Most of the Rihannabes are less famous than Cyrus and Gomez — midlevel R&B princesses who have been nibbling at the margins for a while now, flirting with various personas while looking for a suitable host personality.
Former R&B singer/model Cassie, who in 2005 released an electro-minded hit, “Me & U,” that pre-suggested Rihanna, fares best on her new-ish mixtape “RockaByeBaby.” In the years since her self-titled debut, the singer’s underground legend has only grown, helped by the fact that she hadn’t actually done anything (except pioneer the half-shaved/half-long haircut, which will be really difficult to grow out).
“RockaByeBaby,” her first release in seven years, feels like the work of a returning heroine stooping to conquer: It’s twitchy and raunchy, begrudging and spare. Studded with famous collaborators like Mike Will Made It, Wiz Khalifa and Jeremih, the collection sounds like something Rihanna might make, if she was somehow even more diffident and interested in making stoner-friendly late-night electro jams for hipsters.
Rihannabe-ing isn’t for everyone. Tween-star-turned-singer-turned-“X-Factor”-judge Demi Lovato’s last album, 2011’s “Unbroken,” was an awkward, uncharacteristic mix of R&B, rock and club bangers. “I wanted to be like Rihanna,” Lovato recently admitted to an interviewer, “but I had to learn that wasn’t me.” Going the Rihanna route may be the last refuge of the Auto-Tuned B-lister, but Lovato can sing, and girls who can sing get to imitate Kelly Clarkson instead.
Lovato’s new album, “Demi,” is made of towering, if slightly bland ballads and scrappy dance-pop songs. Lovato is well-suited to the sort of big-voiced, Clarkson-recalling vocal showcases (like “Warrior,” or the equally great “Shouldn’t Come Back”) that Rihanna knows better than to attempt. Lovato is also so temperamentally opposed to Rihanna — she’s vaguely judgmental, a little prim, and prone to “atta girl” pop songs — it’s easy to see why her ill-advised makeover didn’t take. Mess with Rihanna and she will pull your still-beating heart out of your chest and eat it; Lovato will merely let you know she’s really disappointed in you, then spend the whole night journaling about it.
“Demi” is also relentlessly self-flagellating. Standouts like the it’s-not-you-it’s-me hit “Heart Attack (“Every time I try to be myself/It comes out wrong/Like a cry for help”) expertly channel the weapons-grade neuroses and self-loathing that teenage girls will find familiar, but pop goddesses would never admit to. Rihanna would never be so hard on herself.
Stewart is a freelance writer.