“I can't believe I'm receiving the Michael Jackson Vanguard Award at 28 years old,” Rihanna said last night as she accepted the highest honor offered by the MTV Video Music Awards. Past recipients of the prestigious lifetime achievement award include David Bowie, David Byrne, Madonna, and Michael Jackson — icons from the first golden age of music videos — along with more recent era-defining artists such as Beyoncé and Kanye West. At this year's VMAs, Rihanna became the youngest solo artist to ever receive the award, and in many ways her career represents broader generational shifts in pop that are richly reflected in her deep catalogue of music videos.
Rihanna's 2005 debut album, Music of the Sun, coincided with the launch of YouTube, which gave fans a central platform to watch music videos online. Around the same time, the iTunes Music Store was ushering in a shuffle-based consumption culture that put single songs on a pedestal and set off the death of the album. In the decade that followed, these changes worked to Rihanna's unique advantages. As the blockbuster album system that had lifted stars like Britney Spears, Mariah Carey, and Destiny's Child in the late 1990s and early 2000s began to crumble around her, Rihanna seemed to understand immediately that hit songs alone were her bread and butter. By 2015, she was the best-selling digital singles artist ever. Crafting long-form albums with consistent thematic and narrative arcs has simply never been her chief goal. This year, as her peers Beyoncé and Kanye have chosen to reinvent or disrupt the album structure entirely with Lemonade and The Life of Pablo, respectively, Rihanna has peppered our summer with varied and excellent standalone moments, from “Work” to “Kiss It Better,” each with a music video as memorable as the song itself.
Just as Rihanna's songs can feel like their own self-contained universes, so do the videos in her diverse collection. Rihanna's music videos have come a long way from 2005's adorable, unpolished “Pon de Replay” and 2009's minimalist space-age “Umbrella.” She's had clean-cut, romantic videos like “What's My Name?” (a classic now because of Drake's lifelong thirstiness) and 2009's “Unfaithful.” But she's also set the standard for aesthetic trends in music videos of the 2010s, from the collaged dancehall vibe of 2010's “Rude Boy” to 2011's brightly colored, high-fashion “S&M,” in which she parodies her relationship with hounding journalists. Her 2011 video for the Calvin Harris–produced “We Found Love,” with its Instagram-filtered, Tumblr-ready aesthetic, was over-romanticized EDM culture at its best — an instantly timeless hallmark of that scene. When the stripper-filled “Pour It Up” dropped in 2013, featuring Rihanna grinding on a throne and throwing bills at the screen, its ominous, almost dystopian mood felt like a refreshing antithesis to the beige, cutesy, chart-topping aesthetic of Macklemore and Miley Cyrus. And that was just the appetizer for 2015's “Bitch Better Have My Money,” the gory but glossy mini-movie that epitomized the intimidatingly cool pop queen that Rihanna has become.
Where most pop stars reinvent themselves on every record, Rihanna does it with every song and every video. It's the key to her superstardom and an ideal example of what's expected of singers in a culture that treats songs like album releases. She realized this power most recently in her two videos for “Work,” premiered back to back, each with an opposing aesthetic interpretation of the song. When you think about Rihanna's career, you remember it in video: Her as a redhead freaking out in fields in “Only Girl (In the World),” painted silver in “Umbrella,” grinding up on Drake bathed in pink light in “Work.” Rihanna is not a blank slate for directors so much as she is endlessly versatile; watching her videos and hearing her songs, it's clear that she possesses a remarkable fluidity unlike any other pop star of her generation.