Here’s a fact which sent a shiver of mortality down our spines: it was 5 years ago today that Rihanna’s “Umbrella” was finally knocked off the UK number 1 spot after 10 weeks – the longest run of the “noughties”, or whatever we decided to call them. Its huge success was sometimes put down to its uncanny timing: a song about umbrellas co-inciding with the wettest and most miserable UK summer until this one (The Sun rather hilariously called this the “Rihanna Curse”, although this position is now filled by Chris Brown). But the reason was actually rather simpler: it was a proper amazing pop song.
In porn terms, “Umbrella” was a grower rather than a shower, and it took PopLifer at least a surprisingly long time to fully recognise its genius. But we got there and even now, after all of its years of ubiquity and the endless cover versions, that first snare drum is enough to send off a little tingle of excitement down our spines. By now we’re all over-familiar with the sweet slow simplicity of the melody (and Rihanna’s stilted yet strangely seductive delivery), the dumb/genius “ella ella ella” hook and the way the chorus leaps out at you, like a sunbeam emerging from a grim cloud.
What’s often forgotten about “Umbrella” is that it is something of a rarity in pop, in that it’s a song about friendship. Millions of pop songs are devoted to the subject of sexual devotion, but far less to friendship, sex’s calmer but more constant cousin. “Umbrella” is about how friends prop each other up through bad times and enjoy the good times, perfectly expressed in this vow: “When the sun shines we’ll shine together/ Told you I’ll be here forever/ Said I’ll always be your friend/ Took an oath, I’m a stick it out to the end/ Now that it’s raining more than ever/ Know that we still have each other/ You can stand under my umbrella.” As a promise, that’s just as powerful as Dolly/Whitney’s “I will always love you”, and probably more realistic.
The song also unleashed the Rihanna juggernaut upon the world (is it just us or does that woman release a song every other week?), and she soon reverted to the pop norm, having spent the past five years banging on about sex until it’s become tedious. Yes, even supernaturally beautiful people can be boring when they keep talking about how naughty they are in bed. But that still doesn’t detract from what a distinctive and perfect 4 minutes and 36 seconds of pop “Umbrella” was. It may also have been the last truly omnipresent, radio-dominating pop hit before online downloads and piracy began to fragment the pop charts forever, a reminder of a time when a bestseller really was a bestseller – eller, eller, eller.
Oh come on, we had to do that.