What’s Behind Rihanna’s Superbowl Backlash?

Hayley York

With a backdrop audience of 68,000 people, Rihanna and her 280 dancers took to the stage on the biggest Sunday of the year in sports. In her solid red get-up on floating platforms,

Rihanna gave it her all, performing for the first time in seven years while announcing her second pregnancy. It was a more simplistic halftime show than we’ve seen in previous years, with no elaborate costume changes or transitions between songs. Nonetheless, her musical medley through the hits of her two-decade-long career solidified her as a pop culture icon. Throughout her performance, Rihanna reminded us how much of a musical legacy she has established for herself and contributed to the industry thus far, with Rolling Stone commending her and her “DGAF energy.” 

Despite receiving critical acclaim, Rihanna was not free from controversy, which is to be expected when performing on America’s most prominent stage. The backlash came primarily from outspoken conservative figures. Right-wing commentator and media personality Ben Shapiro critiqued the singer’s vocal range, while Candance Owens drew attention to what she viewed as Rihanna’s prudent attire. Former U.S. president Donald Trump called her performance the worst in Superbowl History. Disapproval from figures like these is not surprising, especially from Trump, notorious for outrageously expressing his opinions on social media platforms. 

So why are conservatives targeting the wealthiest female musician in the world? They have long been critical of former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and his refusal to stand for the national anthem in support of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. In 2018, Rihanna publicly criticized the National Football League and its politics, turning down the opportunity to headline the halftime show in support of Kaepernick and BLM. In addition, conservatives were unhappy with Sheryl Lee Ralph’s performance of ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing,’ which is widely considered the black national anthem in the U.S. This song, along with Rihanna’s halftime show, left many right-wing politicians feeling like the Super Bowl was far too “woke” for their liking. 

However, American country music star Chris Stapleton’s rendition of the national anthem was praised by these same critics, with Republican Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene calling it “the most beautiful national anthem at the Super Bowl.” Stapleton differs from traditional country music stars in that he is vocal about his politics and has also shown solidarity with the BLM movement. One may wonder why Greene and other conservatives are so openly against singers like Rihanna, who share the same views as Stapleton.

It may be that Rihanna’s unbothered nature touches a nerve with these conservatives. Maybe her decision to perform while pregnant challenges traditional ideologies about when and how a woman should perform. Whatever the case, Rihanna blew audiences away in her comeback performance of the year and inevitably left some with a sour taste in their mouths. Furthermore, she set a standard for future performers, making her a tough act to follow in the coming years. 

Hayley York