"THIS IS SOME KIND of clusterfuck," the man says, unprompted, over the cacophony of impatient, unsupervised teenagers.
No matter how old I get, it's still startling to hear high school teachers swear on the job. We were backstage in the auditorium of Benson High School, where about 150 students—and no teacher, aside from this defeated-looking man who knew how to run the school's PA—awaited the arrival of Def Jam recording artist Rihanna. Rihanna's single, "SOS (Rescue Me)," was the pop song of the moment, and catchy as hell, thanks in no small part to its liberal sampling of Soft Cell's "Tainted Love."
In March Rihanna was in Portland for a quick show at the Zone, and I had been invited to tag along for the day. I was to meet up with her at Benson High, where she was growing later by the minute for a quick after-school appearance. The students were shouting, flirting, and leaping across seats when the van carrying Rihanna finally pulled up.
She arrived in a tank top, tight pants, and high heels, and she's beautiful—impossibly beautiful. Born in Barbados, her West Indies skin reminded me of cinnamon toast, and I couldn't keep my eyes off of her.
When Rihanna steps from behind the ratty auditorium curtain, her audience goes appropriately apeshit. Music videos are shown—of Rihanna singing in clubs and on sandy beaches, dancing in very revealing clothing. The high schoolers chant "Go Rihanna, Go Rihanna" during the sexy parts.
The 18-year-old singer answered the students' questions with unnerving poise and maturity. One boy in the audience stood up suavely, cocked his hat to the side with a slow deliberation, ran his fingers like a pistol all the way to his thigh, then asked the singer if she'd accompany him to prom. The boy's friends were so thrilled with his proposition that they leapt out of their seats and ran small circles in the aisles. When a female student asked about becoming a famous singer, Rihanna invited her to sing onstage. Endearingly, the auditorium screamed louder for their classmate than they did for Rihanna, who had danced on TRL just weeks before.
After the singer smiled for hundreds of cell phone portraits, we loaded into the rented cargo van and headed downtown for lunch. We talked about American Idol (she wants Chris to win), and then I asked her about her level of maturity relative to the Benson students. In her faint island accent, she tells me that she's always been well behaved and poised.
Suddenly, "SOS (Rescue Me)," comes on the radio. Rihanna cranks it until the speakers buzz, rolls the window down, and sings along with her radio self. Pedestrians pause to observe this striking young woman who was thousands of miles from home, acting, appropriately, as if she were on top of the world.