Rihanna feat. Chris Brown- “Birthday Cake (Remix)”
As you probably know, before the 2009 Grammy Awards, Chris Brown physically abused his then-girlfriend Rihanna. In the intervening years, people have divided themselves into two camps. My self-selected Tumblr and twitter universe (what I suspect is a vocal minority) has sided with Rihanna and spewed vitriol at Brown. These people suggest that beating up a woman is an unforgivable act, not to mention an act for which Brown has not even attempted to atone.
The other group will admit (I hope) that there’s no excuse for such violence, but they “love” Chris Brown enough to overlook, excuse, or forgive his actions. They claim that, while Brown was wrong, he does seem repentant and has suffered in his own way, even if he didn’t suffer as much as Rihanna. Time heals all wounds. Some of these people are idiots, but they can’t all be. #TeamBreezy is less morally defensible but probably more realistic in their view of human nature.
The debate intensified in the past week after Brown won a Grammy, which seemed like a public validation and embrace of him. He went on to wish Ri-Ri a happy birthday on twitter. (Insert comment on what counts as news in our Information Age.) To top it all off, the erstwhile couple collaborated on and released not one, but two, songs together, the better of which is posted above. The Brown haters have more fuel for their fire, and the Brown apologists can point to Rihanna’s reconciliation with Brown as a sign that we should forgive him as well.
Here’s why all of those people are wrong.
As his fans would note, Chris Brown has completed all of his court-ordered community service and counseling, and he issued several apologies* in the wake of the beating. It’s also true that he undoes any goodwill he earns by being, by all accounts, an egotistical jerk. He threw a tantrum on Good Morning America when they brought up the incident, and he pissed on the opportunity presented by the recent Grammy with a tweet that it was "the ultimate FUCK OFF."
So while the letter of Chris Brown’s rehabilitation has been met, the spirit of it definitely hasn’t. His opponents would argue that he isn’t really sorry for what he did, which seems true. People who are torn up with guilt don’t look like this on a jetski a few days later. He also never really stopped releasing music or trying to gain people’s sympathy. In fact, most of his language repurposes himself as the victim.
Brown’s supporters might then argue that his music should be evaluated on its own merits, that Chris Brown the singer should be separated from Chris Brown the guy who sent a young woman to the hospital. What I would say to them is that it is impossible to do that in 2012: The public lives of pop stars are always already part of their artistic personas. That’s the game they agree to and often profit from. For example, it is impossible to listen to Rihanna’s revenge-tinged, aggrieved Rated R album without the context that it was made as a response to the beating. For his part, Chris Brown keeps trying to stage every public event as a comeback, and he wants the benefit of that narrative without an acknowledgment of what caused it in the first place.
Actually, the very fact that people care about this issue shows how much the public and private cannot be separated. I’d like to think people would be this outraged if Chris Brown had beaten up some nondescript hoodrat, but I know they’re outraged because he beat up America’s Sweetheart. Sadly, it’s not as if Chris Brown is the first male singer to assault a woman; he is, however, the first male singer to assault one of the most famous women in the world.
But the Brown haters aren’t off the hook. At the same time, believing that Chris Brown “isn’t sorry enough” is a childish and ridiculous stance with no endgame. Someone’s repentance for a crime is always subjective, which is why we have an objective court system in the first place. It’s not up to you. And, even if it bothers you, can you really blame him for wanting to put the biggest mistake of his life behind him? Can you blame him for having trouble adjusting to being loved by everyone in the media (except people against lip-syncing) to being hated by everyone in the media overnight? Even if you deserve it, that has to be weird, right?
There’s also a whiff of “the lady doth protest too much” with the most vocal of the Brown haters. There’s something incredibly self-serving about posts like this one that attempt to define how everyone should respond to traumatic events. Most of these posts also condemn the collaborations as a cynical cash-grab (Again, you don’t know that.) and end up slut-shaming Rihanna by pointing out how sexually-aggressive the collaborations are, when that’s the kind of music each artist has always made. What were they going to remix? A nursery rhyme?
In the end, Browns’ supporters and detractors both suffer from sketching a caricature from a complex portrait.
Brown’s supporters want to divorce his despicable actions from who he is, which is always a dangerous game. A condition of his fame and fortune is his status as a role model, and he proved to be a terrible example to impressionable fans everywhere. Sure, no one’s perfect, but no one’s quite as wrong as a man who beats up women.
Brown’s opponents believe that he should have known better, even though he was, at the time, a nineteen-year-old without a high school diploma, who had been a victim of domestic violence himself. Rather than asking why this violence happened and how acts like it might be prevented, they have simplified it to a degree that no one can learn from.
Worse, by implying that his actions are unforgivable, they are taking agency away from the real victim. Whether or not Rihanna forgives Brown is her choice, and every victim of a traumatic event responds to it in a different way. How do you know singing “I’mma make you my bitch” to Chris Brown isn’t her way of reasserting her dominance and seizing power back? You have the right to document if Rihanna embraces Chris Brown or not, but you don’t have the right to shame her into never doing so. By stamping your own values on this story, you have backed her into a corner and ensured that she can’t dictate how or when a reconciliation could happen. After all, people have forgiven their exes for much worse in the real world.
And maybe that’s the real lesson to take away: that they are in the real world. These people aren’t talking points or totems for twitter teams. They are growing up in a real world that is messy, complicated, and difficult to navigate. They are living in public with consequences they can’t predict.
Right after the abuse was reported, Brown was fond of insisting that only two people were there and knew the whole story. He claimed that the police report and all subsequent news reports got important details wrong. That might be true, and it might be a cowardly way of excusing his actions. I don’t know. But what I do know is that, if we can’t be sure how this whole story began, then we certainly have to stop pretending to have all the answers to how it will end.
*- My favorite, although it’s weird to have a favorite apology for domestic violence, was one from what appears to be Bow Wow’s home bowling alley. It totally reminded me of the last scene of There Will Be Blood.