On Chris Brown–or Something
It’s a federal holiday. Which probably means most of you have not just settled into your cubicle to read my Monday morning message. Not that anyone would actually be reading this if they were at work this morning, but at least I have a legitimate reason–and a federally recognized one–to be ignored. Initially, I had planned on using this morning’s blog to declare my independence from a variety of things: the NBA free agency conversation, graduate school, Blizzards. But I realized that recently I’ve been taking this space to list things. And frankly, I’d be back in line at the Dairy Queen before you could say Benedict Arnold. So why bother using holiday blog time to reset some of my New Year’s resolutions?
That said, it seems appropriate to flesh out/expand upon the glib comment I made about Chris Brown’s performance during last week’s BET Awards. After all, no one is looking. Edward wrote a nice post about it the other week; Yolo took the opportunity to write a really timely and eye opening blog about domestic abuse in general. I don’t want to retread that road here. Rather, I want to say something more about why my response to Chris Brown’s tears (#wedontbelieveyouyouneedmorepeople) wasn’t unique, and perhaps divulge what I meant by it.
I’ve been Facebook messaging my cousin, Margot’ lately. We have several threads going: my sister’s wedding, the re-emergence of Lauryn Hill, and of course, Chris Brown’s Michael Jackson tribute. Margot’ is fantastically and wisely sweet–believes in forgiveness, second chances, and Chris Brown’s moonwalk. I admire this about her, and I know she’s right but my cynicism won’t let my meter go anywhere beyond ambivalence when it comes to the Brown ordeal. Our exchange has given me pause (not in the nohomo sense), because it has required me to explain why I’m so neutral on the resurrected Chris Brown debate.
Whatever BET intended to do by allowing Chris Brown to honor his idol by showcasing his mimicry skills is debatable. Perhaps it was their effort to help revive Brown’s flatlining career. (Before the Rihanna incident, Brown was Christopher Williams and Al B. Sure! remixed, bringing light-skinned dudes back into vogue as if Wesley Snipes and Tyson Beckford never existed. It was almost as Brown’s popularity single-handedly avenged 1993.) If you can’t go home to BET where can you go? Of course, BET is not known to reflect critical thinking skills. So if my conjecture is correct, how BET thought that letting Brown dance in tribute to Michael Jackson and giving him an award as a way of compelling people to love him again, is beyond me. Dancing may cure many societal ills, but I don’t think domestic violence is one of them. Besides, the whole thing seemed very deliberate. BET could have simply left well enough alone. Having already flubbed the Michael Jackson tribute last year, no one was really waiting for BET’s “do-over.” The television station has made its share of soup sandwiches. And, as was to be expected, BET and Chris Brown left us with that WTF? taste in our mouths. The fact that Brown’s performance was the source of debate proved that having him on the show for the sake of rehabilitating his career was probably a bad idea. Some of us were moved by the moonwalk while others scream that his tears were fake.
The fact that some of us, that the public feel that we have to decide whether or not to forgive Chris Brown is interesting. After all, none of us were in the car that night. We need not pretend that we are all Rihanna, in the sense that we are some caring community who is invested in making each other accountable, reviles domestic violence, and protects its women. (Some of us are respectable Negroes, but to be sure, we are not caring citizens of some mystical African village.) So why are so many of us mad? Why do we think that we’re in some position to grant or deny penance to Chris Brown? Why are some of us just straight up confused? Perhaps it’s because what Chris Brown did was a very real thing in a very inauthentic world. Chris Brown jerked us out of the land of make-believe. And we hate it when people do that.
Although many of us feigned appalled when the pictures of Rihanna were published on the internet, it wasn’t domestic violence that left our mouths agape. It was the fact that we had been lied to. False advertisement. Chris Brown was not the clean cut kid who smiled as he sold tweens bubble gum. He was just another young black man with anger management problems. (Did we wonder why he wasn’t a rapper?) We were forced to remember that celebrity–like race?–is a social construction. We saw Oz. And all the public relations stunts that followed: the Larry King interview, this latest Michael Jackson tribute, read like efforts to make us forget what we saw when the curtain got pulled back.
We have no problem with liars. We just have a problem when the lies prove inconsistent. It’s not that we’ll stop buying your albums once we realize you probably do horrible, horrible things. R. Kelly still has a career, after all. We just need you not to lure us into believing that you don’t do ostensibly horrible things. And it’s incredibly difficult to reconstruct the house of cards once the falsities have been revealed. Just ask Tiger Woods. We need celebrities to appear better than we are to justify our admiration; why else are they richer, more beautiful, and famous than us? We need empty shells of celebrities on which to project ourselves. And that night, Chris Brown proved that he wasn’t some vacuous superstar, but rather an incredibly flawed person, full of issues that so many of us, and the people we know, have. And forcing–deliberately or not–the product obsessed public to realize that we were buying a bill of goods all along is an unforgivable offense.
We all know exactly who Tyler Perry is, we just don’t want him to come out and tell us. We like myths. They’re comforting, and our country is built on some. What happened between Chris Brown and Rihanna was, to reiterate, a very real thing that happened in a very inauthentic world; so it becomes quite the project to discern the authenticity of one’s apologies, etc. once one understands how constructed the whole thing is. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men are simply making things worse, reminding us of the fabrication of it all. Chris Brown exposed the myth of (his own) celebrity, and some of us just can’t deal. So we act as if whether or not we’ll forgive him is important, when what we’re really saying is something much shallower: I will buy your products–or I won’t. Our forgiveness doesn’t matter; our money does.