I never really felt a need to write about the whole Chris Brown/Rihanna incident, especially since I try and avoid celebrity gossip at all costs. But the confirmation this week that the couple is not only reunited but are actually recording a duet together means that we’re actually going to get an audio document of all this madness, which I suppose makes it worth considering.
Whenever and however this track gets released, it will probably be the most awkward public musical take on a criminal situation since Michael Jackson’s fascinatingly-awful HIStory record, released during the midst of his own scandal. Given that Chris Brown has based most of his career thus far on his ability to dance and sound like Michael, it’s only fitting that he should also be working out his issues on the record the same way.
I’ve long maintained that Michael Jackson’s biggest problem in the years since the accusations of child abuse wasn’t what he may or may not have done; it’s that he never was able to write a hit single to make us forget or forgive what he may or may not have done. A hit single is the ultimate clean slate in pop music ethics – it can wipe away a whole litany of crimes and misdemeanors. Remember when R. Kelly was public enemy number one after apparently having sex with a minor? And remember how quickly everyone kind of forgot about that when he dropped “Ignition (Remix)”?
This probably doesn’t fit your concept of morality, of course. Most of you reading this probably think that Chris Brown doesn’t deserve a career after what he’s apparently done. And you’re almost certainly right. In fact, one could argue that we should hold celebrities up to an even higher standard, given that they often (rightly or wrongly) serve as role models for young people.
But our mass culture has never really worked that way. Instead, we force these caricatures to live out classical narratives for us, as if they were actors in some sort of pop drama. We don’t follow celebrity storylines – John Mayer cheating on Jennifer Aniston, the ongoing Lindsay Lohan/Samantha Ronson chaos – because we care about these people in any way, but because they provide us with entertainment that exists in the realm of the almost-real: more tangible than a soap opera, but with just the right amount of emotional distance so that no one important to us can get hurt.
We revel in the chaos, and marvel in the self-destruction of our own creations (remember this?). And yet, we also hold out hope for redemption, probably far more so than we would for a run-of-the-mill troublemaker in our own community. There’s something real-world distressing about Rihanna going back to Chris Brown after what he apparently did to her, and maybe that will prevent people from giving his music a listen ever again. Somehow, though, I suspect that our thirst for a redemption narrative – rightly or wrongly – will win out. After all, if these larger-than-life characters, these pop idols, can’t redeem themselves when they fuck up, how can us mere mortals ever expect to pull our own little lives together?