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Lisa McInerney: Should we forgive Chris Brown?

As the pop star heads to Dublin for a gig later this year, should we remain hostile to him over his brutality towards Rihanna or let him get on with it?

Lisa McInerney

CHRIS BROWN IS set to play The O2 this December, and so flares once again the indignant debate from both sides of the great pop culture divide: should we or should we not forgive this purveyor of flash-in-the-pan pop for savagely beating his girlfriend?

Brown has previously been denied a UK visa on the grounds of his being convicted of a serious criminal offence, which (as anyone who hasn’t been living in a cave halfway up Carrantuohill will know) was his sustained and vicious attack on then-girlfriend Rihanna. Some now suggest that Ireland could implement a similar ban, or that pressure could applied to both promoter and venue to pull the gig. A lot of people don’t much like Chris Brown.

Likely you remember why. In February 2009, the couple were driving in LA when Rihanna confronted Brown over text messages he’d received from an ex-lover. Enraged, Brown punched her repeatedly about the head, “causing [her] mouth to fill up with blood and blood to splatter all over her clothing and the interior of the vehicle”. He also bit her ear and fingers, held her in a headlock until she began to lose consciousness, and threw her phone out of the car when she tried to call for help.

Brown later maintained that his actions were more outburst than assault, that he couldn’t remember the details, that the night was all a “blur”. Police reports indicate otherwise. Chris Brown battered the woman he still claims to love. He didn’t lash out and instantly regret it. He didn’t give her a petulant slap. He battered her.

He did apologise. Via text message. Nine days later.

That there’s a debate at all may seem inexplicable, but Brown still has a lot of fans. It has to be said that many don’t condone his actions, but are simply enamoured of his brand of accessible, polished pop. Brown had been the prefect frontman for this glitzy variety of R’n'B; young, handsome, professionally pliable. His attack on his girlfriend threatened to finish his career, but his crisis team’s determination to roll with the controversy has paid dividends. Chris Brown’s more popular now than he was before he decided to paint his temper all over his girlfriend’s face.

“Chris Brown is to contrite what Mitt Romney is to tact”

But how? you may ask. How could a man capable of beating his girlfriend so hard her blood splattered all over his car continue to enjoy fan adulation?

It’s a pretty mind-boggling career trajectory, especially given that Brown is to contrite what Mitt Romney is to tact. Following the leak of the police report, Brown reported feelings of deep shame and remorse and claimed he was going to do a bit of soul-searching and help-seeking and plea-bargaining. Following widespread rejection of his best penitent efforts, Brown regressed to infancy and started tweeting about how cross he was, ripping his shirt off by way of protesting awkward interview questions, and drawing inflammatory pictures on his neck. It’s rather hard to allow the man to move on from a heinous mistake when he keeps proving himself to be heinous in an occupational capacity.

Fans should accept that that’s why a significant section of the pop culture massive cannot let it go. Certainly, we don’t always heap that level of humiliation on other artists who’ve behaved appallingly, and Chris Brown is by no means unique in his heinousness. Peevish fans point out
that artists like John Lennon (who admitted later in life to having hit women), Chuck Berry, James Brown, and Dr Dre have abused women, to little or no detriment of their careers or legacies.

The list goes on. Being rich, famous and well-loved is no impediment to bad behaviour; in fact, evidence suggests that being surrounded by sycophants is likely to make you more of an ass than your mam could ever have thought possible.

“Should the public find you generally amusing… you may well get away with it”

Should the public find you generally amusing, and more of a crackpot than a thug, you may well get away with it – see Nicholas Cage and Charlie Sheen.

If your output has genuine cultural merit, you’re forgiven even more readily – Roman Polanski drugged and raped a thirteen-year-old and went on to win an Oscar.

It’s not difficult to find proof of even history’s most noble individuals committing questionable acts. Even the great Gandhi, who was convinced of the necessity of celibacy and urged even married couples to avoid sex, was fond of sleeping with naked young women (though not touching them). To test his mettle, apparently.

But perhaps the difference for Brown is that he’s a star in the Information Age, and as such we not only hear about his sins, but can see photographic evidence and read police reports? Perhaps that’s why the backlash against him has seemed so much more pronounced than for many other noted brutes; aside from perhaps Mel Gibson, is there a star so widely disdained as Chris Brown?

“A persecution complex”

Is that, too, why he still has such support? Is the level of hostility pitched his way contributing to a persecution complex shared across his entire fanbase, which is mostly made up of kids? If you’re a 17-year-old girl who harbours a crush on Brown and likes his easy, cheesy hip-pop, it’s possible that the antipathy he attracts could make you feel just as victimised. An attack on an idol can feel like an attack on one’s own values.

So are people right to call for the Brown’s O2 show to be cancelled? No. Brown is no John Lennon, but there are people (no, really) who’d rather listen to him than to the Beatles. Why should it be ok to admire one violent musician, and not the other? We’ve been able to separate artist from art up to this point, and if there are fans out there who enjoy his musical output, let them go listen to his crooning.

But are the rest of us obliged to let the man get on with his life, to leave him room to atone for his mistakes? We most certainly are not. Should Chris Brown want to continue to make music, he is entitled to. Should people want to bop along to his tunes, they are entitled to, too. But that undercurrent of ill will flows for a reason, and neither Brown nor his fans can demand that goes away any time soon. Chris Brown battered his girlfriend. Are his fans really so surprised that that wasn’t okay?

Read previous columns on TheJournal.ie by Lisa McInerney >

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Lisa McInerney

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