The Chris Brown Conundrum
Last month at the Grammys, Chris Brown and Rihanna confirmed the long-suspected rekindling of their relationship by canoodling the night away. But Brown also sat in the audience and pouted while everyone else in the theater gave Frank Ocean (with whom he'd had a parking-lot altercation several weeks earlier) a standing ovation when Ocean's channel ORANGE won Best Urban Contemporary Album. Meanwhile, Brown's singles -- including the buoyant "Don't Wake Me Up" and especially the not-quite-humble, almost-apologetic slow jam "Don't Judge Me," -- continue to get tons of radio play and a decent amount of chart love. And that's at least partially because they're very good pop songs.
And that basically sums up what we're calling the Chris Brown Conundrum: Here is a guy who did an absolutely heinous thing to someone (and a very beloved someone at that), and who continues to pretty much act like a gigantic jerk, but who still managed to win back that beloved someone and keeps putting out music America genuinely likes. How does that happen? How do we reconcile our distaste for a person with our affinity for his music? What kind of responsibility (if any) do we have to Rihanna, women and, well, the world as pop music consumers? Does it even matter? And what the hell is Chris Brown's deal anyway? These are the questions that plague Rhapsody Pop Editor Rachel Devitt and Hip-Hop/R&B Editor Mosi Reeves so much that we decided to chat them out. Process along with us, will ya?
Rachel Devitt: So Mosi, we decided to have this conversation because I'm feeling conflicted about my, well, disgust for Chris Brown's behavior and my undeniable affinity for his music -- and how that all relates to Rihanna. Anyway, I emailed you to see if you feel similarly. Do you?
Mosi Reeves: Let me address his music first. Chris Brown has never been a critic's darling -- I remember the cynicism some had when his self-titled debut threaded the needle between a tough hip-hop persona and a bubbly teenybopper sensibility. Having said that, I've enjoyed some of his dance pop singles, like "Forever," "Turn Up the Music" and "Beautiful People." They hearken back to that happy, innocent charm his career once promised.
RD: Yeah, I haven't always loved all his music, but when he gets it, he gets it. "Turn Up The Music" is great. I also absolutely love "Look at Me Now" and "Don't Judge Me," too, which basically epitomizes my conflict. I feel like his only mea culpa has been in the form of (sort of) using it to turn a profit. Then again, that's his job. And we keep employing him. How much of this is the public's responsibility and/or the responsibility of labels, Grammy Awards, et cetera?
MR: I have a problem with petitioning radio, or industry groups like Billboard and the Grammys, to stop patronizing his music. I know that not supporting him doesn't feel like censorship, but it really is.
When his first post-scandal album, Graffiti, flopped, he made an interesting statement that he can't survive as an underground artist. But at the same time, if he has accumulated a genuine pop following, then that should be recognized. There has to be a way to separate Chris Brown the artist from Chris Brown the abusive, ill-tempered jerk.
RD: But if he wants to be a pop star, so much of that job IS image and intertwining that with the hits. So it's difficult to separate, especially when he seems to actively cultivate that jerk image (like not standing up for Ocean at the Grammys). Can we recognize his popularity/success and still hold him accountable? Should we?
MR: I think that in order to understand why Chris Brown remains successful in spite of being publicly vilified, we should look at why he's maintained [his popularity]. Is it because of his good looks? Is it because he's made some strong singles (albeit on mediocre albums)? I think those factors are important. At the same time, I think everyone -- from his strongest critics to his Twitter-trolling fans -- is magnetized by the spectacle that his public life has become. Part of that is our general obsession with celebrities, and our collective belief that they're representative of society, for better or worse.
RD: Absolutely. And frankly, we like our celebrities to be spectacularly controversial, whether they're melting down or making sex tapes or wearing meat dresses or whatever. I guess where I keep getting hung up here is that there is another person's safety involved (and by extension, a legion of young fans that follow his example). It's not quite the same as an artist screwing up his own life.
MR: I find the argument of Brown being a potential hazard to Rihanna more compelling than their romance setting a bad example for young people. The message is out there -- domestic abuse is not acceptable. If his young fans continue to ignore that, then there's not much we in the media can do. In regards to Brown and Rihanna as a couple, there's a thin line between public and private responsibility. If she wants him in her private life, I don't think she has to reject him in her public life to placate us.
RD: Let's talk about Rihanna. On one hand, it IS disappointing and frightening that she has chosen to be with someone who abused her so grossly. On the other, I find it just as problematic when people/media blame or get angry at Rihanna for that decision. Or even assume she's just too messed up to know better. It's like, let's allow her to have some agency, please!
MR: I think we as a society are afraid to acknowledge that some relationships can be abusive, yet change into something positive -- and vice versa. Women and men who find themselves in those situations should turn to help, whether it's the authorities or counseling, and we applaud them when they have the courage and strength to do so. But when they choose to return to those relationships, we demonize them and call them weak, scared or submissive.
RD: Well, there's something to be said for acknowledging that the abuse cycle is so hard to break -- and that's got to be times 1,000 when you are a public figure.
MR: I get the sense that we're collectively exhausted by him. We pilloried him, made Graffiti flop, and figured he'd go away ... yet he pulled an extraordinary comeback and now acts like nothing happened. His continued success makes us feel powerless.
RD: What's more, I sometimes feel like I'm reinforcing that system of power that creates and perpetuates abusive relationships -- and makes that cycle so hard to break -- by supporting him and his music.
MR: I guess that's where I disagree. If he makes a good song, I have no problem listening to it, which tacitly means that I support it. I suppose his record label could have dropped him after the incident -- I've seen labels do that to artists that sold less -- so the fact that they stuck by him speaks to the industry's cynicism in regards to women.
RD: Yes, that's part of it, too. Meanwhile, when Rihanna had a big hit with "S&M," I heard radio stations and articles call into question the "morality" of her singing a song like that after what happened to her (leaving aside the whole other iceberg of abuse vs. S&M, which are WAY too often conflated). Really, Mosi, I guess this is my perpetual Sisyphean quest: how to be an unabashed fan of pop music I absolutely LOVE while still making space for feminist critique and, most of all, change!
MR: I'm glad you brought up Rihanna's "S&M." I think Loud has a brilliant subtext of why she's attracted to tough and abusive men. It's compelling, even if it's difficult to listen to. Though I think her albums after that riff on that theme too often, I think that she's done a great job of illustrating her personal motivations through her music.
RD: That aspect of her music -- her attraction to "inappropriate" men -- is really one of the most fascinating discussions that this whole thing opens up, but that almost never gets talked about. To some degree, I think it's an assumption that women and especially female pop stars can't possibly make self-actualized decisions, even as Rihanna keeps telling us she is -- or at least, that she's working through things.
MR: We don't see Rihanna and Brown as artists, but as "pop stars." But when we judge them by their individual artistry, then Brown loses a lot of his power. Even at his best, he's a stock male sex symbol, whereas Rihanna's work, even at her worst, conveys much more complexity. And yes, I realize that most of her songs are written by others, but I would argue that she conveys more heart and emotion just with her vocal talent alone. I mean, there was a two-year period where every R&B singer tried to sound like her on "Umbrella."
RD: True. And even if a pop star's songs are written by someone else, they can still pick those songs and/or choose to sing them the way they do.
MR: So, how can you be a feminist and not feel disempowered by Chris Brown?
RD: OK, so this is going to get real queer studies-ish for a second, but I think the "solution" for me is not having one: not re-creating this fixed power structure where Chris Brown = bad and listening to his music = anti-feminist. It's more about keeping things in constant dialogue -- with others and with ourselves -- so that we can find little ways to subtly change pop culture while still participating in it.
MR: I think the best way to deal with Chris Brown, whether it's as a personality or as a musician, is to disinvest in him if he makes us feel uncomfortable. At some point we've got to get away from paying attention to celebrities just because they make good water-cooler topics. An incredible amount of bandwidth has been spent on him -- and frankly, though he's made a few good singles, I don't know if he's really worth it. At the same time, if he's making good music, and those songs force us to pay attention to all the other crap, then we should own up to that and give him some credit.
RD: Yes, agreed. But some credit critically -- and that doesn't mean necessarily criticizing his songs BECAUSE we don't like him or his behavior. But just thinking critically about it all in general -- without devoting more attention to him than he deserves.