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Rihanna wowed us at the EW 100 party

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Rihanna_lLast night EW threw its annual party for its EW 100 issue — on stands today! — at the cavernous Gotham Hall in Manhattan. I went for one reason: to watch Rihanna perform “Umbrella” in the flesh.

Pop music ain’t my beat at EW. I grew up on classical, then switched to your typical twenty-something white-dude indie rock sometime around college. Then, out at a party one June evening back in 2003, while drunk, I heard Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love” for the first time. Ever since, I’ve been moderately obsessed with the idea of the summer song — i.e., the infectious and inescapable pop tune will define and even mythologize the year’s three or four best months for sunshine, drinking, yakking, sweating, and all that rigmarole.

And now “Umbrella,” according to my music-o-meter, is the truest, best summer song since “Crazy in Love.” 2004? We heard “Yeah,” by Usher, pretty good, but only that. (And since tainted forever by Hitch.) 2005? “Hollaback Girl” will be the first song I dance to at my wedding, I love that stupid ditty so much. But it came out in the spring. Disqualified. And last summer was a disaster. Timing is everything in a summer song, and no tune last year got it right. “Crazy” and “Sexy Back” were formidable, but they came out too late into the season, after the annoying “Promiscuous” had been anointed the S.S. by default. What a mess. It’s a big relief — given that I was starting to wonder if “Crazy in Love” was a fluke and I had it all wrong about the summer song — that “Umbrella” arrived perfectly timed to take over the season, and is awesome. And after the jump, “Rihanna” will sing it to us at the EW 100 party!

addCredit(“Kevin Mazur/WireImage.com”)

She hit the stage around 10:40, hair falling in two bewitching fronds down the sides of her face, and wearing that black leather-y sleeveless slingy top that she cavorts in at the beginning and end of the wonderful “Umbrella” video. In the clip, she sports two fingerless black gloves; last night she only had on one — very M.J. of her (decipher that as you will). If she walked on the tips of her toes, ballerina-style, like she also does in the video, I was standing too far back to see it. Her set was six songs long. I was only vaguely familiar with a few of the first five numbers, because one of the tenets of summer song-ery is that the summer song is a single, and knowing all the other songs on the album (or, in some cases, even other songs by the same artist) is dangerous, because it might only dilute the power of the summer single. So let’s just skip to the closer.

We were a few bars into “Umbrella” — it was certainly well after Rihanna asked us all to get the hands in the air — before I even realized, Hey, it’s on. The studio version begins with percussion and Jay-Z; the live version began with synth noise, out of which the familiar drumming quickly popped through. Jay-Z was sadly not in attendance, but his curiously short intro was not particularly missed — the song does just fine without it. “Umbrella” has great build; the chorus gets a little bit catchier each time Rihanna runs through it in the song, until we get to that great moment in the last third where she takes everything down a notch (I believe, in my limited pop-musical know-how, that this section might be called “the bridge”). She slow-jams for awhile, and then the sound gets bigger and bigger, until we burst back into the chorus again. This is the irresistible part of the video where suddenly she’s dancing (Madonna-style, circa “Vogue”) in a shower of yellow sparks with an umbrella and a crew of hip-hop Gene Kellys, and this was the irresistible part in the live performance where the guitars and her voice got huge, her four backup dancers performed neat acrobatic moves with their prop umbrellas, and the song smashed its stamp on all us party people’s summers, 2007, forever. Rihanna is an amazing performer, and once “Umbrella” has loosed its grip on me I will go listen to everything else she’s ever done.

What do you think? Is “Umbrella’s this year’s summer song, and is it the best summer song since “Crazy in Love” or what? (Just don’t bring up “LoveStoned”; I’ve been listening to that song off the album for the past year; it’s DQ’ed.)