"Relax, but we have to blindfold you," said the driver. A chorus of gasps filled the bus as he passed out blindfolds emblazoned with the Tidal streaming service logo.
There could only be one explanation for this "Mission: Impossible"-like move: We were headed to Rihanna's house.
It was 9 p.m. Wednesday night, exactly when her video for "Bitch Better Have My Money" was premiering, so it only made sense that 80 of her most devoted/sacrificial fans would be cruising down Santa Monica Boulevard, in a bus with blacked-out windows, clueless and blindfolded.
I know, insane. Let me back up here and start from the beginning.
I rarely enter contests, online or otherwise. The entries are laborious, and I never, ever win. But when Tidal sent an email to its subscribers Monday morning to RSVP for a private Rihanna event, I figured why not.
Wednesday's event, the latest in a string of special events the fledgling streaming service has thrown to engage and reward subscribers, was open to the first 80 people that entered. I thought my chances were decent considering the email went out at 9 a.m. and only a few minutes had passed by the time I saw it.
On Tuesday afternoon, a congratulatory notice informed me that I'd gained entry, plus one.
The note contained vague details as to what the event actually was (would it be a concert similar to what Jay Z or
Upon arriving to a designated parking structure in West Hollywood with my date, we were given a map with walking instructions on how to get to the venue that was a few blocks away, but the dozen or so people lined up along the sidewalk made the map unnecessary.
Once at the tiny location — the headquarters of a brand marketing firm called NCompass International — guests were slowly processed through multiple check points. Two security guards and three event staffers asked to see my driver's license before I even stepped foot inside the building.
Inside, we were instructed to wait in another line.
In the first line we were given film releases and nondisclosure agreements that were only in effect while we were on their property (I'm not sure why, the place was a modest office space and security watched our every move), as well as drink tickets.
Next, we slowly filed into another line.
The lobby of this place was shoulder to shoulder and one security guard instructed you when to take a step (not kidding). In my now third line of the evening I was instructed that my phone would be confiscated. I signed my name on a form, then handed my phone to a security guy who then misspelled my name on a black paper bag into which he dumped my phone.
We were then given a laminated number that corresponded with the number of the bus we'd be riding because the space were were in was entirely too small to host anything more than a business meeting. At this point, whatever excitement I left had dissolved into anxiety.
"That's the element of surprise I like," one enthusiastic guest told me as I felt my brow grow moist with sweat.
Stuck without a phone — folks complained endlessly about having to fork over their mobile leashes — guests were left to actually, eh, socialize with one another.
Or you could just gorge yourself with free food. Spreads of pizza, mozzarella sticks and chicken wings that had sat out way too long lined one wall, another had guacamole and veggies with dip. And then there was the "entertainment."
A juggler and a magician roamed through the crowd doing card tricks and passing out business cards, because a Rihanna fan is definitely looking to book a party magician in the near future, right?
We were then instructed to wait outside in the parking lot, mostly because the cramped space had become so stuffy and humid.
After another 25 or so minutes of waiting, the first group was carted off to board a luxury tour bus that blasted Rihanna music.
This is when I realized the night was going in a crazy direction. The windows on the bus were blacked out with fabric and the driver's seat had shades pulled down just enough so that anyone sitting behind him couldn't read the overhead street signs.
Wherever we were headed, organizers didn't want us to know. At all.
"Are you excited?!" a handler asked the 40 or so occupants on the bus. "All right, so we are on out way to … well, I don't know."
In classic field trip fashion, she then announced we'd be playing games as we drove to our final destination.
The first was finishing the lyric to a Rihanna song. One guy scored $20 for filling in the blanks to "Stay" and there were a few more rounds before a male event staffer interrupted the ride with a very cryptic update.
That's when the blindfolds came out.
Speculation ran amok on the bus. We were definitely going to her house, a group of fans assured the group as they jumped about in their seats. Given that we won cash in singles, I actually believed we were headed to a strip club (hey, Rihanna would totally do something like that).
We got to take off our blindfolds long enough for the lip-sync battle portion of the trip. By then we were headed south down the 101 — I briefly caught the Silver Lake exit sign through the driver's window — which is definitely further away than I had anticipated.
One girl won $100 for vamping to "American Oxygen," while the battle to "Bitch Better Have My Money" was a draw (both contestants got 100 big ones).
Forty or so minutes after we initially departed West Hollywood we reached our destination — and were finally allowed to ditch our blindfolds for good.
A path from the bus to inside was cloaked with black drapes, making it impossible to piece together clues of our location.
It was definitely a warehouse of sorts. Or maybe it was a studio? An art gallery, possibly?
We were located in Historic Filipinotown, according to the sign I was able to very quickly scope.
Inside the mysterious destination there were bizarre decorations haphazardly strewn all over the place. I spotted hanging doll heads and mannequins.
We were ushered into a yet another room that was much too small for 50 people, let alone nearly double that number when you factor in contest winners plus security guards, event staff, bartenders and the singer's entourage. I did, however, notice there was a piñata. More than one actually. And behind the large black drapes that were erected to keep the mystery going, I spotted what looked to be shelves and shelves of craft paint.
Plastic wine glasses, emblazoned with the Tidal logo naturally, were being passed out in one corner. An array of beer was on one table. Another table, which stretched the entire length of one wall, was stocked with a variety of cheeses, dips, veggies, hors d'oeuvres, ice cream cups, cake, candy and a myriad of other sweets.
Next we were shuffled into a tiny theater. The walls were red and covered with stage lights and metallic garland that was lit by white Christmas lights.
Dusty crystal chandeliers and disco balls hung from the ceiling, and there was a stage flanked with statues dressed in silver jester costumes.
When the lights dimmed Rihanna's tune "Mad House" rang out and the audience braced for what was next. It turned out to be nothing, save for some creepy marionette skeleton that walked across the stage doing a little jig. It was one of many psyche-outs of the night.
"It's been an experience so far, a journey," an announcer said before deciding the crowd should play yet another game. It was a new round of lip-sync battle that we restlessly indulged.
And then the curtain opened. The video for "Bitch Betta Have My Money" began playing.
The crowd went bonkers, many loudly offering blow-by-blow reactions to the twisted, seven-minute short film that shows the singer kidnapping the wife of her accountant and taking the woman on a drug-and-booze-filled journey that ends up with a naked, blood-soaked Rihanna smoking a joint in a trunk packed with cash.
Seeing the video treatment it became clear the kidnapping was Rihanna and Tidal's way to plug us into the premiere of the clip. Yes, I spent over four hours of an evening to watch a music video.
Before anyone could feel duped by that same thought, the singer herself strutted out to admire her handiwork.
"I want to thank everybody for signing up and actually showing up — and for allowing me ... to kidnap you," she said before pulling out a wad of cash from her coat and tossing it to fans.
Rihanna told the crowd that the video took a lengthy four days to shoot, and she even introduced the French duo, Megaforce, who helped her direct the sure-to-be-controversial clip.
And then with a literal bang, a shower of dollar bills came raining down over the crowd. It was the best pop star exit I had ever seen, her fans wanted more of her but they were too busy sliding across the floor to pick up cash to notice she had left.
She reemerged to mingle with fans and squeeze everyone together for a massive group shot.
"You guys are the best fans ever. You … rock," she said.
After the event our phones were immediately returned to us and we boarded waiting buses — which didn't have the windows blacked out this time.
After the bus pulled off I looked out the window. We had been at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater on 1st Street, a place I pass often on my way to the office.
As we made the late-night trek back across town well after 11 p.m., my date patted the wad of cash that bulged from his pocket and laughed. Maybe we should enter contests more often, he said.