So I'm talking to a priest about Rihanna and Taylor Swift.
No, really. No joke. As the biggest pop stars on the planet arrive for back-to-back gigs at the Tampa Bay Times Forum — the hip-hop queen Friday, the diary queen Saturday — even the Rev. John Tapp is intrigued.
And why not? The women have put up jaw-dropping numbers: Sultry, provocative Rihanna, 25, is the biggest digital-music seller of all time, with 120 million consistently catchy singles sold. Flirty but G-rated Taylor, 23, is one of the biggest music sellers period of the 21st century, a prodigiously clever songwriter who has moved 26 million albums and 75 million digital downloads.
But more than that, if Rihanna and Taylor are disparate in sound and style, they are twins in generating an endless heated Twitterthon of worldwide gossip. No matter who we are, we can't get enough of them.
The St. Petersburg priest (who, it should be noted, also has an appreciation for Lady Gaga) is no different. As it turns out, he has a uniquely spiritual handle on apostles and pop stars. He says we, as a collective music-loving populace, are unfailingly human in our treatment of Rihanna and Swift.
We tend to embrace one in spite of her messy lifestyle — a bad-news relationship with Chris Brown, drug use, exhibitionism — because Rihanna resembles us and our foibles. But we are becoming increasingly pricklier with the other — even though Swift's a Pollyanna compared to Rihanna — because she is becoming less and less real.
"We don't like perfect," he says about Swift, whose wounded wallflower songs are increasingly in contrast with her sparkling success and enormous power. "Because we're not perfect."
James Montgomery, a senior editor at MTV News, tells me basically the same thing: "People seem to think Taylor is being disingenuous these days. Rihanna is almost perceived as being more genuine, more real."
Flawed versus perfect. Real versus insincere.
Whatever you believe, this much is true:
Everyone loves theorizing about RiRi and Tay.
Rihanna: a rebel fleur?
In a series of casual conversations about the pop powerhouses, artists whose resounding talents are often overlooked among the swirling rumors, one refrain kept coming up:
Which is more real?
That's not the fairest of fights: Rihanna's racier material attracts an older audience, while Swift continues to stoke a core fan base that's younger than her 23 years. What's authentic or real to one person (say, my daughter) might not be authentic to another (me).
As Jessica Eckley, manager of event marketing at the Times Forum, puts it: "Moms have been calling here for both shows. For Taylor, they've been calling for their daughters; for Rihanna, they're calling for themselves."
But discussions about how the artists portray themselves are valid. Rihanna, a wild child who recently posted an online pic of her wearing new boots and not much else, hasn't really changed over the course of her career. She doesn't write her own songs, but she picks what she sings, opting for suggestive songs that mirror her spicy headlines.
In 2007, the Barbadian bombshell born Robyn Rihanna Fenty released an album called Good Girl Gone Bad. Talk about a mission statement. Jay-Z's protegee went on to launch a barely dressed assault of sex-smattered hits (Rude Boy, S&M, Love the Way You Lie with Eminem), tabloid fare (physical abuse at the hands of her boyfriend, R&B star Chris Brown) and drug use (her pot pics have made her an Instagram phenomenon).
Never mind the mess: Forbes ranked Rihanna as music's third highest-paid woman in 2012 with some $53 million earned.
Part of those earnings are from a perfume line. One of her scents is called, appropriately enough, Nude. A titillating title, it also describes the unabashed, unvarnished, unhidden way she lives her life.
She's bad but she's no faker.
"In hip-hop and R&B, you have to be you, 100 percent," says Orlando Davis, morning host and program director for WLLD-FM 94.1, a leading hip-hop station in the Tampa Bay area.
Davis points to Rihanna's disturbing relationship with Brown, who pleaded guilty to felony assault. Recently, flirty pictures of the two surfaced online: still together, still in love. "Every girl who read those stories has gone back to some guy she shouldn't have given another chance. People can still relate to Rihanna."
No matter how she wears her boots.
Taylor: a contradiction?
Hi, I'm Taylor. I love the number 13. I was born in December on a Christmas tree farm. I like imagining what life was like hundreds of years ago. I have blurry eyesight. My favorite thing in life is writing about life, specifically the parts of life concerning love. Because, as far as I'm concerned, love is absolutely everything. — the opening lines of Swift's media bio
Tickets are still available for Rihanna's show, but Swift's gig is sold out, and has been since a few minutes after it went on sale. She might be taking digs these days from Golden Globes hosts Tina Fey and Amy Poehler (who made gags at Swift's predatory date-aholic expense), but she hasn't lost a step in terms of sales.
On that Forbes list of 2012's highest-paid women in music, Swift is just ahead of Rihanna, with $57 million earned. Latest album Red, which is a heavily synthesized pop departure from her country roots, has sold more than 5 million copies worldwide
Her young fan base adores her, believes her, as she chronicles, with extremely infectious songs she writes herself, what it's like to be a lifelong heartbroken dork. Since her arrival in 2006, the Wyomissing, Pa., native has warbled weepers about teardrops on her guitar.
Her confessionals are famously about the men she has dated: Better Than Revenge (supposedly about ex Joe Jonas and his girlfriend Camilla Belle), Back to December (about ex Taylor Lautner), Dear John (about ex John Mayer) and so on. In the ballad Begin Again, from Red, she bemoans a past boyfriend not liking her shoes and how a new one loves them; the song is rumored to be about ex Conor Kennedy.
But now Taylor is aging away from her loudest supporters, which is creating a bit of an identity crisis: For whom is she singing? More and more adults are taking their share of shots, including a Nashville paper calling her a "laughingstock." There's also the increased perception that Swift is serially dating solely for songwriting fuel, that ensuing tabloid response will feed sales.
She doesn't do drugs or pose nude or sing about S&M, but her virginal lonely-girl shtick is bumping up against her high-octane dating life and golden-plated pop domination. It's a problem Rihanna never faced.
"They don't take shots at their own in Nashville," says 94.1's Davis, who adss that criticism of Swift has increased the more her music has shifted from country to synthy and dancey. "But now she's in the pop world. She's realizing she's not in Kansas anymore."
"Taylor in this past year has taken a hit," says MTV's Montgomery. "It started a few years ago when she was winning all those awards, and she was making that 'surprise face.' ... Taylor plays like she's eternally innocent, but look at her track record of men. There are people who think she's not genuine."
In a recent Vanity Fair profile, which tweaked her My Little Pony bio, Swift defended herself: "For a female to write about her feelings and then be portrayed as some clingy, insane, desperate girlfriend in need of making you marry her and have kids with her, I think that's taking something that potentially should be celebrated — a woman writing about her feelings in a confessional way — that's taking it and turning it and twisting it into something that is frankly a little sexist."
Maybe her songs are organic, truly from the heart; maybe she's being unfairly criticized for simply being 23. But let it be known that not only is Swift aware of the criticism but she often puckishly fuels it. When she and One Direction heartthrob Harry Styles broke up, Swift tweeted that she was headed into the studio to record a song. She amended it with two winking words: "Uh oh."
A dynamic duo
Swift and Rihanna travel in different posses, different worlds. But Elmer Straub, vice president of event booking at the Times Forum, said the acts will probably be aware of each other this weekend: "These shows tend to follow each other around."
And you better believe their competitive fires — don't underestimate their superheroic desires to win at all costs — will be burning. "Ladies hear them roar," says 94.1's Davis. "Taylor is the ruler of her roost. Rihanna is the same kind of boss. They have literally taken over."
They didn't get to be No. 1 by letting gossip get the best of them. Talent, drive, a fierce desire to stay on top? For Rihanna and Taylor Swift, those traits are as authentic as it gets.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.