Addressing the Chris Brown question

Why haven’t we forgiven Chris Brown?

I’m not suggesting that we should, mind you. But pop culture has a rather fascinating ability to forgive, if not to forget entirely, the indiscretions of its stars, and I find it peculiar that it hasn’t done so for Brown.

The question is relevant this week because Brown is releasing F.A.M.E., his second album since he was charged with physically assaulting his then-girlfriend Rihanna. But it actually first sprung to mind last month when I was helping plan and implement activities for athletes during the Halifax-hosted Canada Winter Games. A big highlight each week of the Games was the dance, where a DJ spun the latest top 40 hits and the gaggles of teens went gaga for the latest from Ke$ha, Enrique and, well, Gaga.

But I was kinda blown away when Chris Brown’s “Yeah x3” got, from where I stood, one of the biggest reactions of the night.

Confession: I think “Yeah x3” is kind of an amazing pop song. I know that “Deuces” is the track that got a lot more blog and reviewer cred among Brown’s pre-release singles from F.A.M.E., but there’s something about “Yeah x3”’s buoyancy that’s captivating. In contrast to a lot of the bass-heavy pop tracks that populate the charts these days, it floats with a helium-like jubilation. Lacking a guttural or primal feeling, its electro riff keeps the festivities on a higher plane of pop living. It’s infectious—and the kids dancing to it at the Canada Games seemed to agree. (You can check out a video of their reaction here.)

But until the Canada Games, I felt like I was the only person who thought so. The song did reach number 15 on the Billboard Hot 100, but that seemed like a rather low plateau for a song this catchy, its broader cultural impact negligible (especially compared to, say, the latest from his pop/R&B contemporaries). Its lack of impact is really felt when you compare it to some of Brown’s pre-scandal singles—I remember “Kiss Kiss” being particularly inescapable at one point. So despite the enthusiasm I saw for it on the dance floor, “Yeah x3” didn’t seem to provide Brown a full and proper “comeback.”

This posed a blow to one of my working theories of pop: that all is forgiven if you deliver a killer track. That as long as you keep being good at what the public originally liked you for, the culture—starting with the media, filtering down through the audience—will eventually get over the scandals and indiscretions. I sometimes refer to this as the “R. Kelly rule,” so named for how quickly discussion of his supposed (and filmed!) sexual encounters with a 14-year-old girl quieted down when “Ignition (Remix)” became the jam of spring 2003. As the rule goes, Michael Jackson’s biggest problem wasn’t that he was accused of inappropriate behaviour with young boys: it’s that he didn’t deliver a pop song good enough to make us forget about those accusations.

Callous? Sure. Unfair? Certainly. But it’s how the pop world works. Keep in mind that even before his recent escapades made him a permanent TMZ category, Charlie Sheen was television’s highest paid star, on the highest-rated comedy on television. And this is a man with a history of drug problems, anger management issues and—just like Brown—domestic assault charges against women. If we never actually “forgave” Sheen, as a culture, we certainly at least turned a blind eye in the interest of sustaining our entertainment.

So this begs the question: why does Sheen get to be a megastar on a hit TV show, while Brown’s should-be-a-hit song gets stalled on the charts?

Brown himself asked that question yesterday, in a tweet that he quickly deleted following a (somewhat) confrontational interview on Good Morning America that involved several Rihanna questions and ended with Brown smashing his dressing room window in a rage:

“I’m so over people bringing this past shit up!!! Yet we praise Charlie sheen and other celebs for there [sp] bullshit.”

That Brown is once again in the media spotlight for his anger is, at least, part of the problem. From his awkward interviews following the assault, to his embarrassing Michael Jackson tribute at the BET Awards—breaking down crying singing “Man in the Mirror,” turning a tribute to Jackson into a public spectacle for himself—he’s never really tried that hard to regain his “nice guy” image that, understandably, took one hell of a turn following the assault charges. Sometimes it seems as if he has no interest in being the apologetic public figure, and the other times when he does want to play that role, he seemingly lacks the ability to pull it off. I mean, yeesh, his album’s title stands for “Forgiving All My Enemies,” for goodness sake.

(In case you’re curious, this clearly means I disagree with Vulture’s piece this week arguing that Brown HAS gotten out of culture purgatory. Especially after yesterday’s news, that article feels like it was written within a bubble, mistaking the slightly-greater-success of his efforts in recent months for a full-fledged comeback when, to me, they only seem successful in comparison to how abysmal everything surrounding his last album, Graffiti, ended up.)

But frankly, I’m not sure even the best public performance in the world would work to rehabilitate Chris Brown. And no, sadly, it’s not because assaulting a woman is suddenly being treated as a higher plateau of crime, a cultural “dealbreaker” of sorts.

It’s not that Chris Brown hit a woman. It’s that he hit another celebrity.

Charlie Sheen hit a woman that we don’t know. R. Kelly was accused of having sex with an underage girl that we don’t know. We treated these victims as peripheral characters in these stories and the celebrities as the lead actors. The women had their moment, then disappeared; we only cared about them as accessories to the greater narrative. In contrast, the celebrities involved had the opportunity to return to their craft, unobstructed by the faces of the people involved in their scandals. They were allowed to remind us why we may have enjoyed them in the first place, and slowly pick away at the problems with their image (or just wait us out until we forgot or neglected them).

In short: they rode our entertainment economy, our celebrity culture, to rehabilitation.

But Chris Brown can’t make us forget Rihanna. She’s even more famous than he is, with more hits, more public appearances and more famous friends. Moreover, the ongoing success her hit-making machine suggests that she’s not going anywhere anytime soon either. Because she’s also a celebrity, in the public eye, she persists as a constant reminder of Brown’s assault, perpetually reminding us that no matter how much Brown tries, he’s got a monstrous side that cripples his attempts at a comeback. As long as Rihanna is out there, we can’t forget what happened to her.

And who did it to her.

So what can Chris Brown do? He seems completely unwilling to accept his lower, neglected status in pop culture, so when he reaches for the top and gets knocked down again—be it by the media, or on the charts, or on radio—he lashes out, blames everyone but himself and only reinforces the problems he’s dealing with. He’s stuck in a vicious cycle and he can’t understand why. Doesn’t he have the power to rewrite who he is? Make us forget his indiscretions? Isn’t he a celebrity?

But he hit a celebrity. And because of that, and that alone, we won’t let him.

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2 responses to “Addressing the Chris Brown question

  1. I’ve heard a lot of talk about the fact Chris Brown is black and has an urban flavor to his music as the reason the public won’t forgive him. However, R. Kelley is in the same category and he was forgiven. I don’t disagree entirely with that. I think that has a little bit to do with it when he’s referred to as a thug or a rapper when he clearly makes pop music. However I think that the celebrity victim is for sure the thing that sets his cases apart. Rihanna is everywhere and you can’t look at her without thinking about what he did to her.

  2. Pingback: …in which McNutt reflects on The Grammys, Adele, women in music, and Chris Brown « McNutt Against the Music·

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