rihanna bbhmmThe uncharacteristically long wait for new music from Bajan icon Rihanna came to an end earlier this year with the release of ‘FourFiveSeconds’, a collaboration with Kanye West and, in an unlikely partnership, Paul McCartney. This was a serious departure from what fans had come to expect from Rihanna, the catchy hooks, dance choruses and glossy production replaced by a simple, melodic tune sung over the strumming of McCartney’s guitar. “I just wanted to focus on things that felt real, that felt soulful, that felt forever,” said Rihanna in a recent interview, indicating that her new material would continue in the minimalistic, soulful vein of her forthcoming album’s lead track.

Rihanna fans are in for another surprise with the release of new single ‘Bitch Better Have My Money’, a return to the star’s snappy, fiery sound. The track is a trap song, a genre that originated in the Southern United States in the early 1900s, and bares sonic similarities to Rihanna’s 2012 strip-club anthem, ‘Pour It Up’. Though ‘Bitch Better Have My Money’ is similarly concerned with flagrant displays of wealth, (“You wife in the back seat of my brand new foreign car” RiRi brags), it is more aggressive, Rihanna sounding like a backstreet debt-collector demanding payment. The track takes a further menacing turn in its final thirty seconds as Rihanna is replaced by an imposing male voice that repeats her sentiments for repayment as the song dies amidst the muted sounds of 808 drums.

The single is accompanied by black and white artwork featuring Rihanna with drastic, highlighted eyebrows and an open leather jacket. The grainy, dramatic photo is appropriate for a track that shuns bombastic production values in favour of understated beats and raw vocals. Rihanna’s voice has evolved, no longer sounding clipped and restrained as in previous hits, but volatile and feisty. This is the sound of a Rihanna that means business, no longer playing the role of a girl waiting for a man to sweep her off her feet (‘Only Girl in the World’, ‘Stay’) or a wronged lover (‘Take a Bow’, ‘Love the Way You Lie’), but a woman who is firmly in control of her own life and destiny. ‘Bitch Better Have My Money’ features no back-up from a rent-a-rapper or guest vocalist; this is Rihanna on her own, proving beyond doubt that she is a talent that requires no support to make an excellent track.

Given the disparity between the two singles from Rihanna’s forthcoming eighth studio album, it’s difficult to say how the record will sound. Two things these singles do have in common, however, is their minimalistic approach to production and emphasis on Rihanna’s raw vocals. ‘Bitch Better Have My Money’ is an edgier, harder sound to ‘FourFiveSeconds’, assuring fans that RiRi has lost none of her bite in the years since she’s been away. Indeed, this is Rihanna at her best: fresh, fearless and still completely unapologetic.

The word ‘fandom’ has always made me a bit uncomfortable. The term became commonplace just a few years ago, not long after pop acts started devising somewhat patronising names for their legions of fans. Lady Gaga has her ‘little monsters’, Justin Bieber has his ‘Beliebers’ and One Direction have their ‘Directioners’. This is only the tip of the iceberg – nowadays, any self-respecting pop act must have their own term of endearment for their fans, ranging from the bizarre (Rihanna’s ‘navy’) to the lazy (Little Mix’s ‘mixers’).

The notion of fandoms is one that is tied up in preconceptions of age and gender. Statistically, those identifying as part of a fandom tend to be female teens, a demographic that has proved in recent years that it is as formidable as it is terrifyingly irrational. Links to cyber-bullying and troubling trends such as the ‘CutForBieber’ hashtag have made fandoms a force to be feared and yet also one to be mocked. It is difficult not to feel some sense of schadenfreude as hordes of pre-teens weep as their idol is imprisoned for drink-driving offences, all the while proclaiming his innocence. Undoubtedly these reactions are juvenile and overly dramatic, but one must remember that being juvenile and overly dramatic is part and parcel of being a teenager. Taking pleasure from the pain of children, however, should not be part of being an adult.

As Zayn Malik announced his departure from One Direction yesterday, (25/03/2015), his notoriously irrational fans went berserk. This is, of course, nothing new. When Robbie left Take That in the mid-nineties, a helpline was set up to console heartbroken fans. Similarly, widespread outpourings of teenage grief were commonplace following Geri’s departure from the Spice Girls and Justin’s quitting of N*SYNC. The only difference is that back then, there was no Twitter. The reactions of the fans were no less extreme, they were just not documented online, not available for public consumption or to be mercilessly mocked by sadistic adults who should really know better.

Malik leaving the world’s biggest boy band was not the only headline showbiz news yesterday had to offer. Following his ‘fracas’ with a producer, Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson was sacked by the BBC. The knee-jerk reactions of Clarkson fans bore a striking resemblance to those of Directioners. They were angry, irrational and apocalyptic, fans of the mouthy bigot claiming they would boycott the BBC and that the whole business was another example of the dastardly spread of left-wing political correctness. Just like the Justin Bieber fans who jumped to his defence after he was filmed spitting on fans, driving under the influence of alcohol, egging a neighbour’s house and being an all-round dickbag, Clarkson supporters were quick to play down allegations that their hero had punched a man in the face after he failed to bring him some dinner. Notably, the Clarkson fans, primarily middle-aged men, behaved just as irrationally as the One Direction fans, primarily teenage girls. The only difference is that the Clarkson fans are old enough to know better.

Though the term ‘fandom’ was not coined until recently, its definition is nothing new and is certainly not confined to describing hysterical teenage girls. Football fans openly cry when their team lose a match, get into fights with supporters of rivalling teams and spout fanatical opinions all over the internet. They are not subjected to the same level of scorn as the teenagers obsessed with teen heart-throbs, though. In my view, the reason for this is a combination of sexism and ageism. While it is easy to laugh and point at powerless teenage girls, football fans, like Clarkson fans, are more commonly middle-aged white men, people with privilege and power. Though their obsession is no less rational than those of the teenage girls, they demand respect because of their age and gender – respect that society duly grants them.

Whether or not one considers the pain felt by Directioners to be worthy of sympathy, laughing at the expense of distraught children and teenagers is never acceptable. Malik quitting One Direction has predictably exposed an ugly side to human nature, one that delights in poking fun at the weak and powerless. Though the reactions of millions of teenage fans the world over may be extreme, irrational and downright frightening, their pain is nevertheless real, and should not be laughed at. Because if the Malik/Clarkson fiasco of yesterday has taught us anything, it’s that crazed fandoms come in all shapes and sizes, and we should learn to recognise which ones are truly deserving of our sneers.