"Love the Way You Lie," the combustible single by Eminem and Rihanna that depicts a violent cycle of domestic abuse and dependency, is undoubtedly the song of the summer. It has been on top of the Billboard singles chart for five weeks running.
For good reason: The song resonates with the life story of both protagonists, what with Eminem's stormy relationship with his wife, Kim, and Rihanna's brutal beating by then-boyfriend Chris Brown in 2009. Perhaps the song's strongest asset is its searing hook, sung by the Barbadian R&B star, who played an action-packed show Wednesday to a 20,000-strong crowd of mostly teenage girls at the Susquehanna Bank Center in Camden. The lyrics seem to take comfort in the plight of the abused: "Just gonna stand there and watch me burn/That's OK, 'cause I love the way it hurts.'
Those lines have caused an uproar among pop cultural police who would prefer that Rihanna - or any popular artist - put forth only socially redeeming messages rather than depict a full spectrum of psychological complexity.
But anyone under the erroneous impression that "Love the Way You Lie" indicates that Rihanna is content to play a victim's role would have been quickly disabused of the notion by the avenging-angel theme brought to futuristic - and militaristic - fashion-forward fruition in her "Last Girl on Earth" tour.
Referring to herself as "the hottest bitch in heels," Rihanna made it clear by the evening's second number, "Hard," that she was anything but soft. The brightly red-haired singer strode a stage backed by video-screen images of skulls and guns. Nuno Bettencourt of the hard-rock band Extreme unleashed screaming guitar lines, and Rihanna sat astride the turret of a pink tank that shot out colored smoke into the night.
"Hard" was the song with the most macha staging of the four-costume-change, fastly paced evening, but there was a toughened exterior to almost everything Rihanna did Wednesday, as indicated by such titles as "Firebomb," and "Breakin' Dishes."
Early on, she and a pair of female dancers - who, at one point, hung from trapezes shaped like AK-47s - pounded with baseball bats on the husk of a car on "Shut Up and Drive." Later, she banged on a drum kit with some acumen during a cover of Sheila E.'s "The Glamorous Life."
Rihanna's music, which is moving ever closer to arena rock in its confrontational style, isn't all about hard edges. There were a fair share of piano ballads, like "Hate That I Love You" and "Stupid in Love." But even those featured her strong and steely voice in expressions of empowered determination that her ardent fans could sing along to while clenching one fist and taking an iPhone picture with the other.
After a quick run through hooks she has sung on other rappers' records - T.I.'s "Live Your Life," Jay-Z and Kanye West's "Run This Town" - the singer in thigh-high dominatrix boots and a leather bikini top closed the show with her megahit "Umbrella," with parasols emerging in timely fashion. It was a peaceful conclusion to an evening spent on the battlefield of love, in a war that Rihanna is clearly winning.
Singer and rapper Ke$ha opened with a winningly ramshackle set of her often quite humorous hook-filled songs from her bratty debut album, Animal. She put lecherous old dudes in their place in "Dinosaur" ("Not long till you're a senior citizen/And can strut around with that sexy tank of oxygen") and planned to get wasted (a favorite theme) in "Party at a Rich Dude's House," while moving from hip-hop to hair metal without a care in the world.