September 26, 2011


Riri Goes Drinking

Even before Rihanna starts singing, "Cheers (Drink to That)" is a patchwork of borrowed ideas, sounds and phrases, a drinking song that doesn't even pretend to be anything that hasn't been said before. The very first voice we hear is pronouncing a familiar incantation, a variation on the "yeah yeah yeah yeah" hook from Avril Lavigne's nine-year-old single "I'm With You." That's this song's gesture toward Riri's musical signature, the single-sound repetition that's turned up in the lion's share of her hits, from "Umbrella" ("...ella ella") to "S&M" ("M.M.M.").

It's also how the seemingly very straightforward three-chord pop song "Cheers" ended up with ten co-writers, none of whom are Rihanna herself: "I'm With You" was credited to Lavigne and the three members of the production team The Matrix. (Lavigne actually turns up briefly in the video, along with various other pop celebrities.)

Once the lyric kicks in, the allusions to other party-time songs start flying even faster. Before she's stopped to breathe, Rihanna's given us the "freakin' weekend" bit from another let's-kick-back-and-drink bounce, R. Kelly's "Ignition (Remix)." "Got a drink on my mind and my mind on my money" tweaks Snoop Dogg's "Gin & Juice" refrain, "got my mind on my money and my money on my mind." (That's a hip-hop commonplace now--see, for instance, Nicki Minaj's "Mind on My Money," as well as Flo Rida and Youngbloodz songs of the same name, or Lil Wayne's "Money on My Mind.") And "money," naturally, rhymes with "honey," as it has since long before Fats Domino's "Blue Monday."

The chorus of "Cheers" has the oldest toast in the song. "Don't let the bastards get you down" is a variation on a phrase that goes back at least as far as World War II — "don't let the bastards grind you down"— which was popularized through a pseudo-Latin translation, "illegitimis non carborundum." There couldn't be any "bastards" in pop music at that time, of course, so it entered pop music rather late: it showed up in disguise in two different 1969 hits.

Sly and the Family Stone's "You Can Make It If You Try" encodes it as "don't let the plastic bring you down"; at that point, "plastic" was a countercultural insult on the order of "bastard," thanks to its memorable appearance in the 1967 movie The Graduate. And, in the title of a Temptations single from the same year, it was "Don't Let the Joneses Get You Down." "The Joneses," in those days, were all-purpose oppressors, partly thanks to the old phrase "keeping up with the Joneses"— that's who people kept up with before the Kardashians — and partly because of Bob Dylan's lacerating portrait of a "Mr. Jones" in "Ballad of a Thin Man."

Not that Rihanna's worrying about any of that stuff, on the face of it. She's too busy playing host to a crowd of whiskey- and sunglass-brand product placements and drinking-song allusions. "Cheers" probably wouldn't have an "I'm feelin' hella cool tonight" without No Doubt's "Hella Good," and it probably wouldn't have a "downward spiral" without Nine Inch Nails' album (and song) of the same name.

But wait a second: although "The Downward Spiral" might be a drinking song, in its way, it's not the kind of drinking you do at a party. In fact, there's a touch of bitterness to nearly every line in "Cheers." Rihanna's begging people not to fight, talking about "sitting around miserable," uncomfortably alluding to what she's going to feel like in the morning, dropping mentions of bastards and situations she needs to turn around by drinking. That's the part of the song that lets her be the Rihanna we know--the one whose performances thrive on songs about difficult emotional situations.

And it's that difficulty that makes Rihanna's singing here something more special than the "Cheers" video suggests. Imagine if the song's lyrics were in a language you didn't understand, rather than familiar exhortations to "put your glasses up": it'd have a very different emotional tone. Beyond Rihanna's surface mastery (check out the way she shifts between dancehall enunciation and a more open pop style as the chorus progresses), her performance here aches from front to back—the kind of ache that a round of whiskey has to sink into before the feeling can even begin to fade.