Yesterday, Rihanna and Chris Brown revealed news that shocked much of the music world: they’re collaborating. How could this be? Many people in the industry declared Breezy’s career as good as dead after the very young R&B star beat up his equally famous girlfriend in February of 2009–three years ago this month. And nothing shouts “Happy 3rd Domestic Abuse Anniversary!” quite like getting back together to sing about CAKE.
I hope this track moves you[r bowels] as it did for me. For some reason, hearing the words “I know you wanna bite this–it’s so enticing” from Rihanna makes this anniversary song exceptionally moving, as TMZ reported that her Chris-Brown-related injuries circa ’09 included bite marks on her arms and fingers. Chris Brown’s very first lines are also earnest, truly reflective of his desire for a second chance at making art with RiRi: Girl I wanna fuck you right now/ It’s been a long time, I’ve been missing your body. How beautiful. It’s now very clear why he won a GRAMMY for the Best R&B Album this year–his compelling and artistically significant lyrics. Step aside, Emily Dickinson (even though you can’t cuz you’re dead). This is fucking POETRY.
A few days ago, SPIN Magazine wrote about the recent co-involvement of the young R&B stars, branding any thought that Rihanna might have of working artistically with Chris Brown as a career-killer. I usually love SPIN, and I wish I could take stock in their view here. But unfortunately, I strongly disagree.
SPIN’s argument hinges on two flawed assumptions:
- A RiRi/CB collaboration would brand Rihanna with a negative image akin to the one that Britney Spears acquired after shaving her head and showing signs of emotional trauma in 2007.
- Chris Brown has only been supported by a small, bad-apple-crew of fans and artists, while Rhianna has been flourishing on the charts and working with “nice-guy” bands such as Coldplay on recent recordings; accordingly, a collaboration would a) pervert her lovable image and b) adversely impact her place on the charts by the rekindled association.
The Britney Spears parallel falls flat on its face almost immediately–most obviously, because Britney is still recording multiplatinum albums in spite of her lapse. More importantly, the type of drama surrounding Britney Spears several years ago is critically different from the current controversy surrounding Rihanna. From 2006 to 2007, Britney struggled with a lot of personal issues that were made obviously public: she filed for divorce after having a baby with Kevin Federline, checked into a drug rehab facility months later, and eventually shaved all the hair off her head. Regardless of what you thought of Britney Spears before 2007, you probably felt sure that you wouldn’t be hearing her on the radio much longer after watching her demise unfold in the news. Since she looked like an out-of-control train-wreck, Britney’s career simply appeared to be done for. There was little left for anyone to take stock in.
Rihanna, on the other hand, encountered a different type of crisis: she was abused by her significant other. Her wounds were not self-inflicted, and their evidence could be physically seen on her face. Fans, casual listeners, and anyone keeping up with national news all flew to her support, condemning Chris Brown for his actions and praising Rihanna as a “survivor” of an ongoing and largely under-acknowledged violent crime. Unlike Britney, how could anyone not support Rihanna more adamantly after this event?
Here’s another difference worth highlighting–Rihanna speaks confidently about her current work with Chris Brown, and suggests (via her social networking dialogue) that the issue is no big deal to her anymore. In no way does she seem mentally shaken by this incident, unlike the 2007 Britney Spears. In her moment, Britney looked pretty hopeless; Rihanna speaks like she doesn’t know why everyone is still concerned about the Chris Brown thing. A few days ago, she tweeted (and later deleted) this callous message to followers who might’ve been unhappy with her new ventures:
They can say whatever, Ima do whatever… No pain is forever <—–YUP! YOU KNOW THIS
According to SPIN, this attitude will result in a loss of loyalty from groupies who care about the female performer. But Rihanna fans aren’t fans because they’re women’s rights activists: they’re fans because they like her music. And as long as she keeps making songs that people want to listen to, it probably won’t matter to them who she’s collaborating with.
For the few people who started listening and/or looking up to the Barbadian pop icon because they thought she stood up for women anywhere as a posterlady for gender issues and domestic violence…well, she’s gonna lose that crowd. But I don’t think the latter group represents even a fraction of her fan base–especially with songs like “S&M” and “Rude Boy” on her current set list at concerts.
What a segue:
SPIN’s second point–the idea that Rihanna’s artistic reputation holds some sort of lovable innocence when compared to Chris Brown’s–also lacks concrete substantiation. For one thing, the male vocalist’s early songs were more adorable and innocent than hits from the likes of Justin Bieber, and everyone wanted to work with him. Only within the last few years did Breezy leave his explicitly G-rated world of kiddy-R&B, deciding to experiment with hip hop collaborations and the use of profanity in some of his songs (OMG!).
Post-scandal, Chris Brown has colaborated with Lil’ Wayne, Justin Bieber (I know, right? Damnit Bieber), Busta Rhymes, Ludacris and Trey Songz. None of these artists are considered hip hop or R&B outcasts, and all are profoundly popular.
Rihanna has collaborated with Coldplay, but this doesn’t seem to mean anything in the grand scheme of her work: she’s also worked with Young Jeezy, Nicki Minaj and Eminem (on “Love the Way You Lie,” a song about being unhealthily drawn to an abusive relationship). These are also big names, but to me they don’t garner any more “clout” (as SPIN put it) than the performers making music with her ex.
If she decides to sell out all the way and make some music with her abuser, will any of those artists working with her really care? Again, I seriously doubt it. This event has done nothing but put Rihanna in the spotlight. Any act with her now will only receive peripheral attention, and give her music and the music of collaborators even more airtime. Ugh. In fact, I would not be surprised if Chris Brown leaves his “serious girlfriend” within the next year and gets back together with Rihanna completely, in part for the sake of publicity. How gross would that be?
One big consequence of this controversy is the impact that it will have on listeners. Yep, I predict that we’re going to get even shittier top-40 radio. Most stations will play a song on two qualifications: 1) it has to be catchy, regardless of it’s content, and 2) the artist has to be well-known. Rihanna is the queen of “catchy” (as is Chris Brown, if you can get past the whole, you know…), and she’s certainly well-known. If the mantra of any press being good press applies here, expect to hear Rihanna on many more tracks than you’ve previously heard on the radio. As she’s only adding to her bad-girl rep, we’ll likely hear her on FM channels even more often now.
If you disagree, take a look at her most recent Billboard hits. In “We Found Love,” Rihanna’s hopeless place is not a romantically difficult time in her life, but at a party where the couple in the song’s narrative are hopelessly high out of their minds. See the video for proof. She throws up colors. In “S&M,” the pop star shouts in her refrain that sticks and stones may break my bones,/ but chains and whips excite me. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with that if you’re into it, but it’s not exactly “lovable” radio music by everyone’s standards like SPIN claims. In the video for “Love the Way You Lie,” Eminem tells the camera that if Rihanna’s character Ever tries to fucking leave again,/ [he'll] tie her to the bed and set this house on fire. Mmm. Healthy. (Even healthier–this music video has almost 500 million hits on YouTube. That’s almost 2 views per U.S. citizen.)
I’m aware that this is Rihanna’s form of “art”–which, in her case, is often a fictitious representation of a story based on some strand of autobiographical reality; but when you compare it to Chris Brown’s singles at any point in his career, his songs sound less provocative and hold greater potential (lyrically) for universal radio appeal. From “Forever” and “Yo (Excuse Me Miss)” to “Yeah! (3X)” and even “Look At Me Now,” none of his recordings bring up extremely uneasy topics, and most of them are literally about dancing and puppy-love. What?
Anecdotal paragraphs aside, the effects of Rihanna’s decision have far-reaching negative potential beyond the issue of radio quality. The most damaging impact is the one that she’s making on her young female fans, and the questions that they are forced to ask themselves if they want to enjoy these new songs. If Rihanna’s ‘over it,’ shouldn’t they be too? Isn’t it important to forgive and forget? Doesn’t everyone get angry sometimes? By choosing to work with Chris Brown again (and tweeting about how she’s over it), Rihanna becomes an apologist for horrendous violent behavior, and normalizes a form of awful behavior in the developing minds of millions. If some teenage girl of finds herself in a violently abusive marriage ten years down the road, the apologist mentality that she has been exposed to might be one of many influences that prevent her from seeking necessary separation.
Some readers might think of this as a stretch–that Rihanna’s decisions couldn’t play a substantial role in the health of others’ relationships. But after seeing Buzzfeed’s list of horrific reactions to Chris Brown at the GRAMMYs, it’s obvious that the gravity of such a situation hasn’t been grasped by many teenagers and young women, and it’s clear that many of those comments come from people who might think that such violence could be “sexy” or otherwise understandable in a relationship. I cannot explain this better than Roxane Gay from Rumpus, who wrote an unbelievable Op-Ed apology entitled “Dear Young Ladies Who Love Chris Brown So Much They Would Let Him Beat Them.” Likewise, young men aren’t seeing just how dramatic the consequences should be for physically damaging a person that you “love.” Forgiveness is important, but incidents of domestic violence are not something that our culture should forget, or treat without consequence.
Especially since the majority of women who find themselves in an abusive relationship today will eventually return to their abuser. And, statistically speaking, it’s no less likely that he won’t hit her again.
While SPIN does seem to have missed the mark here, the last thing they should be worried about is Rihanna’s career. Her decision (or publicity-stunt move) is sending a powerful implied message to millions of young listeners: that domestic abuse is not that bad–even a tiny bit sexy–and that we should eventually get over it enough to sing songs and be best friends with our attackers.