Rihanna is many things: Hip, witty, captivating, savvy at choosing amazing producers and writers to work with. One thing she hasn’t been since her breakout hit “Umbrella” eight years ago, however, is boring. Until now, that is.
With “American Oxygen,” a song that first arrived in a March Madness promo, the pop star has made her first big bid at raising political awareness through music—and, in the process, she’s startlingly made herself forgettable, if only for the span of approximately 5½ minutes. With lame, heavy production and lame, cliché lyrics (“You can be anything at all in America, America/ I say, can’t see, just close your eyes and breathe”) the tune feels more like a throwaway track at the end of an album, not a single vying for heavy radio airplay.
The song is being positioned as a single, and the accompanying video, which is now available to everyone via Vevo after being released exclusively to subscribing Tidal members last week, only highlights how bad “American Oxygen” is. Using the go-to trick for “music videos about important social matters” (think Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror”), the song is accompanied by countless historical images of varying degrees of shock and awe. Martin Luther King? Check. The moon landing? Check. The Twin Towers burning on Sept. 11? Check. And on the timelier end of the spectrum, there are images of police brutality in Ferguson and Occupy Wall Street.
The major difference between “American Oxygen” and “Man in the Mirror,” though, is that even the famously egotistical Jackson had the restraint to extract his image from his song’s accompanying music video (with one very brief exception at the end). Rihanna, on the other hand, strikes “profound” poses while singing, sometimes in front of a giant projected image of the American flag, sometimes, bewideringly, in front of a giant parachute while wearing parachute gear—but always with lots of wind, blowing her tousled hair ever so delicately. Basically, Rihanna and her team took a forgettable track and tried to use unforgettable footage to sell it.
Rihanna has said of her upcoming album that she wants these new songs to be “timeless,” the kind of stuff she’d still want to be performing “in 15 years.” This seems like a reasonable thing for her to aspire to, and a raw song like her Kanye-West-Paul-McCartney-assisted “FourFiveSeconds” is a step toward making that happen. But “American Oxygen” feels pretty tacky now—and in 15 years, it probably still will.