To talk about Chris Brown is to talk about "haters." America's No. 1 female-assaulting R&B singer threw the word around on a personal webcam video, his first appearance after he assaulted his then-girlfriend, the singer Rihanna.
He's followed suit in numerous interviews and quite often on his noxious Twitter account. His song "Beautiful People"—simultaneously the best and worst radio hit of the year—finds him belting out feel-good platitudes like "Live your life" and "Don't let them bring you down." It's one of 2011's numerous fist-pump pop jams, and it's squarely directed at all the "haters."
People have good reason to hate Brown: He punched Rihanna in the face a whole bunch of times, bruising her angular visage nearly beyond recognition. Still, he seems intent to pretend that it never happened, as if he were the victim of some great injustice. Brown's latest album, and the first since his February 2009 beating of Rihanna, is titled F.A.M.E.—an acronym for "Forgiving All My Enemies." Irony, it seems, has found a new home.
Five months after the assault, Brown appeared, prerecorded, on Larry King Live, sporting a creepy-as-hell baby blue vest and bow tie, a parody of what a fine gentlemen (read: one who would never beat, bite and threaten to kill his ladyfriend) might wear. He blamed the incident on the domestic abuse in his childhood household and also claimed he didn't remember that fateful night—just that he kind of did something. His only focus was getting through the interview and looking good enough to put out more music. Fuck this guy.
About five months later, Rihanna released Rated R, a quasi-dark dance album that implicitly addressed the trauma. Songs like "Russian Roulette" and "Fire Bomb" employed violent metaphors for lust and love. In the video for "Hard," she wore army fatigues and commanded a group of soldiers. She mounted a Pepto-Bismol pink tank, mocking the tough guy masculinity of wife-beaters and warmongers in one perfectly symbolic moment.
If Rihanna seemed intent to cleverly deconstruct that night within her music, Brown contrived to pull at people's heartstrings to gain favor or forgiveness or forgetfulness. In June of 2010, he performed a Michael Jackson tribute at the BET Awards. He cried while singing "Man in the Mirror." The month before, Brown released Fan of a Fan, a stopgap "mixtape" that tested the waters for his imminent return. He was forging a comeback by refusing to go away. It didn't hurt that major labels continued to struggle and could not afford to lose one of their biggest stars and investments.
Rihanna released Loud almost exactly one year after Rated R, as if she were obsessively documenting her recovery. The first two singles, "Only Girl (In the World)" and "What's My Name," offered touching requests to be treated kindly by a lover. "S&M," the third single, was obviously about rough sex. It was deemed tasteless by some, but why? Rather, it was a clever way to assert agency and differentiate consent and abuse. This strange pop conversation between Brown and Rihanna made Breezy, as Brown's fans, bless them, affectionately called him, look even less proper. Here's a woman telling the whole world what she wants from a lover; and there's the asshole who beat her.
In order to hype the March 2011 arrival of F.A.M.E., Brown offered "Look At Me Now," a hip-hop track in which he is simply schooled by guests Busta Rhymes and Lil Wayne. Busta literally interrupts Brown's verse, bursting in and loudly, condescendingly declaring, "Hey Breezy, let me show you how to keep the dice rolling when you're doing that thing over there." If he must stick around, this would be the ideal way to always hear and remember Brown—being one-upped on his own single, forced to just shut up and deal with it. That wouldn't last, of course.
A few days before F.A.M.E. arrived in stores, Brown appeared on Good Morning America and awkwardly dodged questions about Rihanna. He insisted that was "in the past," steering the conversation back toward pimping his album. After the interview, Brown apparently yelled at the show's producers, threw a chair at a window, ripped off his shirt and stormed out of the building. If anyone bought his "Man in the Mirror" show, here was the evidence he hadn't actually listened to The King of Pop's advice.
If you're wondering why it's so hard for Brown to say he's sorry, remember that he doesn't have to: F.A.M.E. went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts, and the album is currently on its eighth single. Brown has had his unlikely defenders, too, including Rosie O'Donnell. She invoked Charlie Sheen, a violent celebrity whose transgressions have been celebrated rather than simply ignored, to give Brown's situation "perspective." Let's pick a better time to call out white privilege than in defense of the petulant woman-beater, OK?
Others insist that Brown has served his time, as if the legal system means past transgressions shall never be discussed again. A disturbing number of people insist Rihanna must have done something horrible to make him so mad. Even worse, some think we should just ignore it.
As is often the case, we allow abusers to re-enter our lives because it just seems easier—back to Thanksgiving dinner, back to our couches until they "get their life back together" and into our town's big amphitheater to knock out the hits. On stage at Walnut Creek, Brown will undoubtedly make some veiled reference to the time he beat the hell out of his girlfriend, though he maintains that the event doesn't need to be dredged up again and again. After all, this has been Brown's way of dealing with it all for the better part of three years: Do and say whatever you want. Just never, ever apologize, and always obfuscate the issue.