[4 December 2012]
PopMatters Music Reviews Editor
Doesn’t it seem like just yesterday that Chris Brown was smoothly singing the following innocent refrain from his second single off his debut record?
“Yo, I don’t know your name but excuse me miss
I saw you from across the room
And I got to admit that you got my attention
You’re making me want to say yo
I know you’re trying to leave but excuse me miss
I saved the last dance for you
How I love to keep you here with me.”
But that wasn’t just yesterday—that was 2005. And that refrain wasn’t nearly as innocent as it seemed. We’ve since seen how brutal Brown’s wrath can be when confronted with his own anger. And the silk that once painted his crooning is almost entirely moot—he’s all about vocal attitude, now. And the things that made him a fringe contender to be a generation’s Michael Jackson (yes, those conversations did exist at one point) now seem long dead—it’s impossible to be labeled the King of Pop if you destroy a Good Morning America dressing room on a whim because of your dissatisfaction with the questions lobbed your way.
My, how things have changed.
The daily soap opera that has become The Saga of Rihanna and Chris Brown is one of the most disturbing tales in popular culture. For those who may be unaware of the story, let’s run through a brief recap: In February of 2009, Brown beat up his then-girlfriend Rihanna right around the time the Grammy Awards were to be handed out. Photos of the “Umbrella” singer’s face released after Brown was arrested zoomed past the world of Startling and wound up residing at a city named Disturbing. He was rightfully labeled a woman-beater and a hot head, and if anyone around him had any brains, they would have told him to go away for a lot longer than he did before taking his shot at a comeback. (See also the Flashpoints essay, “Body Image”.)
Naturally, the two stars called it quits on their romantic involvement with each other at the time, and Brown released Graffiti later that year to little acclaim. Rihanna found other boys to which she was romantically linked. Brown floated along, devolving into this monster of a person who somehow ended up wearing his unspeakable faults as a badge of honor, and—maybe even more amazingly—became lauded for what some argue is his “realness”. There was the Good Morning America spat and a bar fight with the rapper/singer Drake that is still being written about as we speak. Other flare-ups happened, too, but it became increasingly easier to ignore the tabloid fodder that constantly surrounded Brown’s public perception if only for how annoying he became.
But then something odd happened: Brown’s fan base became angry at the backlash. And like some disgustingly unhealthy partnership, the artist and his admirers became increasingly confrontational in their defense of not only the artist’s musical output, but also the man himself. Before anyone could yell the words “Run it!” the world was divided into two people: Those who adored Brown and enabled him to act like a child in public, and those who despised Brown and took every opportunity to insult and discount him as both an artist and a person.
The saga took yet another turn in recent weeks as Brown has been rumored to be dating Rihanna again. One of the more celebrated comedic Twitter personalities, Jenny Johnson, reacted to the news by murdering him with 140 characters in tiny spurts. Brown saw the tweet and reacted exactly the way you would think he would react, “Take them teeth out when u sucking my d—- HOE.” and “I should fart while ur giving me top,” among other very vulgar and very nasty witticisms. Consequently, not only is he the subject of ridicule and criticism, but Rihanna is also feeling the brunt of the legions of people who consider her either idiotic or irresponsible for agreeing to even be seen with him in public again.
Here’s the thing: There’s a difference between being forgiving and being weak, and there’s a difference between being committed and being spiteful. Both of these differences are at the forefront of why it seems so troubling to see what is going on in the lives of both Brown and Rihanna, and both of these differences illustrate precisely how wrong-minded our celebrities can be, and how ignorant our popular culture die-hards can appear.
We’ll start with the former. There’s nothing wrong with letting forgiveness into your heart, of course. Without the ability to move forward, our lives would be one gigantic collection of misery that would forever be impossible to change. Accepting apologies and allowing love back in to a place that was once occupied by so many horrible feelings is essential to our existence as a species. But that’s not news to anybody.
What makes this particular case unique, however, is the amount of relevance and influence that surrounds the two main characters at hand. While it may be safe to presume that Rihanna’s argument against her detractors in this instance would be heavy on the absolution component to the narrative, in doing so, she is refusing to take into account a much-needed amount of perspective that is essential when considering the issues this situation confronts. Rihanna’s reaction to the Johnson/Brown Twitter spat was a tweet of her own last week, mocking the comedian for calling out her boo, saying “How does one find the time? We gotta do better than this!!” Alas, her piss-poor, childishly defiant response to those who question her recent personal decisions only paints her as an enabler to Brown’s detriments and not the victim she very clearly was.
One of the hardest things to reconcile in this kind of scenario is the difference between the amount of advocative responsibility that the sufferer wants to take on, and the amount of advocative responsibility that on-lookers believe the sufferer should take on. That difference is stark and deep. While we may believe Rihanna should stand up and use her celebrity status to raise awareness of domestic abuse, she might not feel it’s her duty. The consequence of such a push-and-pull between popular thinking and a stubborn personality is hostility.
And that’s where Rihanna’s misstep truly lies.
It’s one thing to paint a picture of redemption and true love. It’s another to paint something smothered in contempt for your detractors. In a way, everybody loses. Those who suffered through similar episodes may convince themselves that behavior akin to Brown’s is acceptable, while other, younger people may view such treatment as normal or just another indicator of so-called true or honest love. Rihanna’s tweets of Brown laying shirtless on a bed don’t emphasize anything remotely close to a healthy relationship. Rather, all they do is serve as self-fulfilling moments aimed at proving to the world (and more importantly, herself) that she doesn’t care about what people think of her personal choices. It goes far beyond the nose, face and spite adage.
But what about Brown? If Rihanna is the woman empowering the monster, essentially suggesting that his temper-tantrums and despicable actions are acceptable ways for a 20-something pop star to act, then what lesson could Brown possibly learn?
The answer, of course, is none. What seems to be missing from all these public displays of affection and leaked tales of getaway nights out togetehr is the look beyond whatever kind of fun these two love birds want to have on a Friday night in Munich. There will be very serious ramifications for these two individuals as people, moving forward, regardless of if they end up getting married some day or a sex tape leaks by next Wednesday. What happens when that urge to reunite for a quick 48 hours of pretty people fun is forced to expand into something more serious, or something more conventional? His problems are still going to be there, and it remains unclear if she understands exactly how much blame she might be carrying if another story about his reckless behavior appears due to her desire to keep him around.
Blame is actually a fairly tricky thing when examining this saga, and the affects it has had on television sets and tweeters alike. Gawker’s Cord Jefferson wrote an excellent piece on the latest chapter in Brown’s ever-troubling tale last week aimed at the element of race and its impact on the perception of the R&B singer.
“If, after beating Rihanna, Brown had accepted the court’s punishment and behaved like a decent and kind human being in future public appearances, chances are people would be more inclined to forgive him his crimes,” Jefferson wrote. “Bill Murray, for example, has been charged with hitting his now ex-wife, Jennifer, in the face and telling her she was ‘lucky he didn’t kill her.’ But people don’t constantly link Murray with those violent allegations because Murray doesn’t constantly behave violently. Brown, on the other hand, goes into chair-throwing whirlwinds at a moment’s notice, tears apart nightclubs during stupid fistfights, and behaves like a racist goon to have fun. And then, when anyone dares criticize him, Brown doesn’t engage with those critiques and learn from them; he lashes out and calls his critics ‘haters,’ as if anyone who disagrees with him is just jealous.
“Where racism (and classism) does seem to creep into the equation, however, is in how Jenny Johnson and others apparently can’t get enough of condescending to Brown and his fans,” Jefferson continued. “Consider the way that Johnson points and laughs at Team Breezy’s slang, or how she believes calling Brown a ‘worthless piece of shit’ is a high-minded ‘difference of opinion,’ while Team Breezy’s insults are the crude work of idiots and losers. Then there’s the tweet in which Johnson, after sending Brown into a rage, begs of him to ‘get some help. Seriously,’ as if calling an obviously troubled and violent man a ‘worthless piece of shit’ was just her way of trying to compel him to get the in-depth and intense professional therapy he so obviously needs…
Reporting on Chris Brown’s brutality tour as if he’s the totem for all domestic abusers is hard not to do when, for a variety of reasons, Chris Brown is almost certainly the most famous domestic abuser of all time. It is not insidious or racist to acknowledge his crimes, nor is it racist to talk about Brown’s abuses more often than we talk about those of less famous white men accused of the same thing. But looking at the relish with which some people seem to hurl abuse at Brown, or at his fans’ lack of educations and use of street slang, it’s hard not to see at least some prejudice there. There are a lot of people in this world who deserve to be called dumb assholes; why does everyone get such a kick out of doing it to Brown?” (“Hating Chris Brown Isn’t Racist Until You Make It Racist”, by Cord Jefferson, Gawker, 26 November 2012)
The answer to that question is simple: The real response his actions have solicited are always truly sitting behind a thick veil of supposed comedy or supposed morality. Everyone knows that there could be dire consequences from the awful actions he so clearly hasn’t yet considered seriously, though everyone also knows that it is almost impossible to rationally confront such an irrational man. The subsequent approach is then mired by unfunny attempts at humor or preposterous stances that are so extreme, Brown becomes the very martyr figure in which his fans believe so passionately.
But what has increasingly become lost in all the hateful speech and over-the-top proclamations is the following simple truth: The relationship between Brown and Rihanna is toxic. It’s wrong. It’s disturbing. It’s juvenile. It’s scary. It’s irresponsible. And most of all, it’s sad.
It’s sad that there seems to be no end to it. And it’s sad that yesterday now seems so damn far from the innocence and promise of where two pop-stars-in-the-making once came.