Rihanna, Inc. Absolves Chris Brown, Inc.
Three years after Chris Brown beat his then-girlfriend Rihanna into a bloody pulp, the two singers are working together again. Brown raps on a remix of Rihanna's "Birthday Cake" and Rihanna's vocals appear on a remix of Brown's "Turn Up the Music."
Nona Willis Aronowitz has an appropriately cynical take on the spectacle:
Billboard.com solicited a comment from The-Dream, the producer behind the new remixes, who said that the track's were "Rih's idea." He went on to explain the collaboration this way:
For me, it's just music—two talented people doing a record together, doing two records together, and that's what it was...it wasn't about an incident that happened. The true thing really is to forgive, and… you want to believe in people.
Translation: It's just business. Regardless of who suggested the collaboration, multiple people surely weighed in on the decision—how it would improve Rihanna's image, how it would sway public opinion, how it would allow both stars to move on from some very, very bad press. Rihanna and Brown didn't write these lyrics. They didn't plan the media blitz. They may not have even been in the studio together. These remixes say very little about what Rihanna's feeling and how she's healing. For The-Dream and everyone else profiting off the release, it's "just music," not a statement about "an incident." At least that's what they'll tell the press.
Chris Brown has been persona non grata in some corners of the music industry ever since the beating. Not nearly enough corners: He was still invited to perform at the Grammies and took home the award for best R&B album.
Still, the stigma of being a batterer clouded his big night. Understandably, a lot of influential people felt that a guy who put his girlfriend in the hospital on the eve of the 2009 Grammys shouldn't have been invited at all.
The post-Grammy buzz was every publicist's nightmare. It was all about the Chris Brown fans who proclaimed on twitter that they'd be delighted to be beat up by Chris Brown. Brown is trying to rebrand himself as a rapper. The last thing he wants is to be known as the batterer with the masochistic fanbase. The Rihanna collaboration probably predated the Grammy controversy, but it's a good example of how the assault remains an image problem for Brown as he tries to launch the next phase of his career.
Brown is still serving the 5-year probation term he got for the assault. He hasn't done much to earn public forgiveness. He threw a violent tantrum on Good Morning America last March when he was asked uncomfortable questions about his crime. After the Grammies he taunted his critics on twitter: “HATE ALL U WANT BECUZ I GOT A GRAMMY Now!” and tried to delete the evidence. Clearly, this guy is not about to rehabilitate his own image. He needs to be bailed out by his victim.
Perversely, Rihanna's image also suffered because she got beat up by Brown. She was accused of provoking him, of ruining his life, of giving him an STD, etc.
Brand Brown and Brand Rihanna have a vested interest in putting the attack behind them, regardless of the artists' personal feelings.
So, the pressure falls on Rihanna to publicly absolve Brown. No doubt, there are many artists who are looking for an excuse to work with Brown without tarnishing their own images. If Rihanna is singing love songs with Brown, who are they to treat him like a pariah?
Rihanna is performing the same rituals that society demands of less famous victims of intimate violence. The PR folks can expect it to work because we already know the script. It's her job to stop making such a big deal about it. She's the only one with the power to make this all go away. Non-famous battered women often face intense pressure from their own friends and families to drop charges against their abusers.
The pressure on the victim to forgive is sort of like the pressure on a politician's wife to stand by her husband as he apologizes to the electorate for cheating on her. Adultery isn't battery but there's a similar social logic to the performance. If the victim is willing to forgive and forget, who are we to hold a grudge?
As Amanda Marcotte points out at The Frisky, Rihanna can't win. She's being excoriated for "going back" to her abuser, but she was blamed for getting abused in the first place. Eighty-five percent of abused women go back to their abusers at least once. It's not because they're weak or stupid. It's because abusers exploit every point of leverage to control their victims including our culture's kneejerk blame-the-victim mentality.
I'm hearing a lot of "Rihanna is a stupid famewhore for going back to the man who beat her. Where's her self-respect?" I'm not hearing any "Chris Brown is a stupid famewhore for using the woman he beat to resuscitate his career. Where's his self-respect?"
We have no idea how Rhianna the woman is feeling; but there are larger structural factors that are pushing Brand Rihanna towards this gesture of public reconciliation. Her promoters and surrogates are hyping the creative reunion as an act of symbolic absolution because they think it's good business. They're probably right.
The industry pressures on Brand Rihanna are eerily reminiscent of the social pressures on non-famous battered women.