Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

How does Chris Brown get away with it?

Illustration for article titled How does Chris Brown get away with it?

Evan: If you bet in your office pool that Chris Brown’s rekindled relationship with Rihanna would end ugly, congratulations, you can now split the pot evenly with every other person in your workplace. About a week and a half ago, the mercurial R&B singer took a not-so-veiled swipe at his once-again ex, tweeting “She’s not mine if she’s everybody else’s.” (It has since been deleted.) As nasty as that brief tweet was, it was actually understated compared to Brown’s previous attempts to slut-shame his former flame. Last May on a remake of Kanye West’s “Theraflu,” some months before reuniting with her, he cautioned, “Don’t fuck with my old bitch, it’s like a bad fur / Every industry nigga done had her.”

Much of the coverage of Brown and Rihanna’s damned relationship has understandably focused on why a singer of Rihanna’s talent, resources, and pop savvy would reconcile with a man who not only beat her, but has also so persistently badmouthed her. Lately, though, I’ve been more interested in an admittedly less consequential question: Why can’t Chris Brown just leave it alone? At this point, my opinion of Brown is so low that there’s little he could do outside of rape or murder that could genuinely shock me—like almost everybody else I know, I long ago filed him away as an abhorrent human being—yet I’m consistently awed by his inability or unwillingness to disguise his transparent awfulness. How is it possible that someone whose exacting career requires such discipline could lack the basic impulse control to stop himself from firing off a repulsive tweet? The first step toward not being viewed as a horrible person is to stop doing horrible things, and yet that’s a step Brown seems simply incapable of taking.

Brown, of course, was far from the first musician to face domestic-abuse allegations. James Brown, Rick James, Jackson Browne, and even John Lennon had histories of hitting women, and as Chris Brown’s endlessly loyal fanbase argues tirelessly, none of those artists’ reputations were irreparably damaged by their offenses. The difference between those artists and Brown, however, is that none of them seemed to wear their guilt as a defiant badge of honor—not even Ike Turner, rock’s great boogie man, who for as often as he changed his story over the years usually conveyed at least some sense of remorse. After failing to land his initial apology attempts following his 2009 arrest, though, Brown abandoned contrition altogether. Instead of distancing himself from the incident, he spit in the face of conventional P.R. wisdom by actually embracing it, going out of his way to remind his fans and the general public about it at every turn. The three albums he’s released since missing the Grammys that year are peppered with references to the assault and its fallout, many in the form of calls for sympathy, others in the form of cruel taunts directed toward the woman he clearly still blames for his near-downfall. If the pair of collaborations he released with Rihanna last year seemed similarly designed to rub the incident in the public’s face, then his reconciliation with Rihanna represented the culmination of his efforts to troll the world—the moment that Chris Brown, after years of not only surviving but prospering, truly won.

Annie, help me make some sense of this. In a rational universe, Brown’s career should have ended when the Internet got hold of those photos of Rihanna’s bruised face. What do you make of his resilience? Through sheer audacity, did Brown find a way to cheat the system, or is his continued commercial fortune endemic of a bigger, more systematic problem? It sometimes seems like Brown is being rewarded for making the calculated decision to write off listeners who probably would never have forgiven him anyway. That’s a very different approach than the one taken by Surfer Blood frontman John Paul Pitts, who since being arrested for domestic battery last spring has stayed mostly silent. Will you be able to listen to the upcoming Surfer Blood album without thinking of those allegations, or is the baggage of domestic abuse too much for any musician to overcome?


Annie Zaleski: Well, let me first address Chris Brown. I think his continued commercial fortune is, as you say, “endemic of a bigger, more systematic problem”—or problems. For starters, he has absolutely no reason to stop his trolling, his taunts, or his assault-referencing songs, because there are absolutely no negative consequences for this behavior. Although most music critics generally can’t stand him (and, by extension, his music), he’s not hurting for fans. His hordes of Twitter minions (Team Breezy, a.k.a. #TeamBreezy) blindly have his back, while both 2011’s F.A.M.E. and 2012’s Fortune debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts. His videos are still all over MTV, his songs are on the radio, and (until recently) he and Rihanna were together(ish). Why should he change? His career isn’t floundering, and he didn’t lose the woman he beat. Time and time again, he can act like a spoiled child and disrespect women—and suffer no ill effects.

More than that, Brown absolutely seems to be relishing his bad-boy reputation, perhaps because he can’t stand being out of the spotlight. Don’t we all know people who aren’t happy unless they’re embroiled in drama? Brown especially craves attention (I mean, how else to explain the demented Muppets painted on his house?), and his need for controversy has been insatiable since being arrested. Leaving the Rihanna situation alone means he would have to rely on music for attention. I have to think his reluctance to distance himself from notoriety also stems from insecurity and a lack of confidence.


But perhaps we’re giving Brown too much credit here. Although he took full responsibility for how he behaved, since then, he’s shown a shocking lack of self-awareness in his actions and reactions. On Larry King Live, he compared himself and Rihanna to Romeo and Juliet—a couple who committed suicide due to a series of misunderstandings, not a couple that was ill-fated because of domestic violence—and also said: “I’m pretty sure we can always be friends, and I don’t know about our relationship, but I just know definitely that we ended as friends.” It’s awfully presumptuous to say that about a woman you just punched—and you have to wonder if, at the time, Rihanna felt they were “friends.”

So let’s move on to Surfer Blood’s John Paul Pitts. I wasn’t really into the band’s music even before the arrest came to light, simply due to personal preference. (I guess I was more indifferent than anything, although I saw them live once and was kind of bored.) And I do admit that the domestic battery allegations made me even less interested in paying attention to them. That recent Pitchfork interview with Pitts didn’t change my mind.


Honestly, he really doesn’t come across as very sympathetic in this interview. For starters, I was rather surprised to see he and bandmate Thomas Fekete blame the relationship for the volatility, as if that could excuse or explain what happened. Fekete said, “This is a relationship that we observed from afar for quite a long time and it was really unhealthy”; Pitts added he “was in a very toxic living situation with someone that I loved, but we didn’t really bring out anything good in each other.” It really rubbed me the wrong way that the frontman really didn’t take personal responsibility for what happened: “I deeply regret everything that happened that night.  I think people take this incident as a reflection on my character, even though it was a mistake and the outcome of a horrible situation.” Because, yeah, even though court records indicate he wasn’t prosecuted, something happened that night to prompt an arrest—and it took a year, with Pitts taking an anger-management class and a “plea and pass” agreement, to close the case.

Furthermore, by blaming the situation/relationship, Pitts is subtly sharing blame with the other party—namely, his ex-girlfriend, who (as far as I know) hasn’t spoken out publicly about what happened. All we have to go on from her side is the initial incident report, which contains this: “The victim stated this has occurred before. She told Pitts on numerous occasions she was going to call the police, but he just laughed. Advised she is not trying to ruin his life.” These lines are heartbreaking to me, and I wish I knew she was okay. It makes me uncomfortable that we do only have Pitts’ side of the story.


We weren’t there, of course, so all we have to go on for judgment is this interview and the excerpts from the incident reports. Regardless, I think Pitts is going to have a hard time shaking the negative connotations of this charge, even though the outcome was in his favor. Look at former Shins member Marty Crandall and his ex-girlfriend, Elyse Sewell, who were both arrested after getting into a fight in a hotel room. (Maybe you remember that Sewell blogged about the arrest and subsequent court date on her LiveJournal?) To this day, whenever I think of Crandall, I think of this incident, not any of his musical contributions or new bands—even though no charges were brought up against either of them, and their subsequent breakup seemed almost civil.

Evan, what are your thoughts?

Evan: I’m really fascinated by the Crandall incident, because the band’s response to it seemed to suggest the bluntest possible answer to the question of how musicians can redeem their reputations following a domestic-abuse incident: They can’t. That’s how I read it, at least. Frontman James Mercer realized that the black cloud around Crandall was so imposing the only way to escape it was to purge the band entirely (and though he was judicious enough to claim he replaced Crandall for artistic purposes, nobody doubts Crandall’s arrest played a role in that decision). 

It was eye-opening in another way, too, of course: Even by the highly lovable standards of The Shins, Crandall seemed like a good guy. He was the member of the band most known for interacting with fans, and on stage his outgoing personality and effusive humor positioned him as something of a stand-in frontman for the introverted Mercer. It’s not hard to imagine that an ever-angry, megastar egotist like Chris Brown could be capable of roughing up a woman, but a goofy puppy dog like Crandall? Or, for that matter, a seemingly grounded indie-rock bro like Surfer Blood’s John Paul Pitts, who I know less about but, if only on the basis of our shared record collections, can imagine as the type of guy I might have hung around with in college? That’s harder for me to wrap my head around. And that’s part of what’s so frustrating to me about these incidents: They’re never addressed in a way that sheds light on the causes of domestic violence. There’s an important conversation here that nobody seems willing to have, even as these incidents illustrate that the problem is much more pervasive than many realize.


I don’t have any sympathy for these accused aggressors. There’s never an excuse for laying hands on a woman, and no valid way to rationalize it after the fact. I do believe that there should be a pathway for them to earn forgiveness, though, and to me that pathway seems almost intuitive. First, apologize unconditionally. If it’s pertinent, explain what happened, but do so without blaming the victim. Take full responsibility, and, just as importantly, make sure your apology conveys not only an unambiguous understanding that what you did was wrong, but also an understanding of why what you did was wrong.

To me those steps all seem obvious, yet none of the musicians we’re discussing have followed them. Crandall, to the best of my knowledge, never issued a public apology. Pitts, meanwhile, may have made things worse for himself by with his tone-deaf Pitchfork interview, where he seemed more interested in garnering sympathy than in coming clean. The only thing I took away from that interview was its lack of apology: He never used the words “remorse,” “apologize,” or even “sorry.” The closest he came was the statement “I deeply regret everything that happened that night,” which is shrouded in weasel words. My takeaway from that interview was the same as yours, Annie. He doesn’t regret what he did that night; he regrets what happened that night, which he continually chalks up as the result of a bad situation, not his bad behavior.


What would you have liked Pitts to have said in that interview? Do you think there’s anything he could say or do to atone for the aggression that police report alleges, or is his reputation, like Marty Crandall’s in the eyes of his former bandmate, permanently tarnished? And this is probably the biggest question (and the one I don’t have any answer for): What responsibility do we have as listeners? Many readers of this site refuse to listen to Chris Brown on principle. Does that mean they should hold Surfer Blood to the same standard as well?

Annie: Evan, I agree with what you said a few paragraphs ago—for starters, I would have liked to hear an apology from Pitts and some sort of acknowledgment that the incident had personal repercussions. (The professional repercussions are covered very thoroughly.) The “I’m a nice guy” defense didn’t quite work; we never really got any concrete insights into what specific lessons Pitts learned. This leads back to this important point you make: These apologies should convey why this type of violence is wrong. Time and time again, that part of the equation is missing. These high-profile cases are a chance to talk about domestic violence, its aftermath, and its consequences—and in most instances, these conversations don’t happen. As a result, the severity of these incidents is downplayed; worse, the silence also perpetuates the victim-blaming/shaming that runs rampant.


Either way, these incidents underscore that being a public figure seems to insulate you from consequences. Even Crandall and Mercer’s relationship can’t be too fraught; the former’s new band, Sad Baby Wolf, opened for The Shins in late 2012. (So maybe the split was more due to artistic differences; I guess we’ll never know.)

Your other question about listener responsibility is difficult, as it gets into separating the art from the person making the art. This is something I’ve struggled with for a long time—one of my favorite artists is Morrissey, and he’s most definitely said some heinous things over the years in the press, and I’ve liked other bands/musicians who have turned out to be assholes. Can we like the music but hate the person? In many cases, for me, the answer is yes. Domestic violence is on a whole different level, though; in my mind, that’s something I personally can’t forgive. I don’t listen to Chris Brown because of what happened—and I definitely respected his talent and music quite a bit before that.


But Brown pled guilty. Pitts was only allegedly guilty; he was just accused of wrongdoing. This is where it gets tougher. On paper, from a purely rational level, there’s no reason to disown Surfer Blood’s music. But on an emotional level, I have trouble giving them a chance. Maybe I have reservations because I don’t know the full story of what happened, so I can’t make a truly informed decision. Or maybe I have reservations because, like you said, I don’t sense a lot of remorse from Pitts.

Or maybe it’s simply that I’m angry that the entire situation has been framed around how the alleged incident might affect Pitts’ and Surfer Blood’s career. That seems to have taken precedence over everything else and, whether he’s guilty or innocent, that’s appalling. Sadly, I’m not surprised: Misogyny and sexism are an ingrained part of the music industry, and if a man is musically gifted, he gets away with a lot of things. I mean, the veteran musicians you mentioned earlier (Jackson Browne, John Lennon, James Brown, et al) were lucky their episodes of domestic violence took place before the Internet even existed. Today, there are people who don’t even realize these men were involved in these situations.


In the case of Surfer Blood, I don’t know what the answer is, either. However, I do know that listeners have the power to speak out and against artists who are violent toward women; they can actively choose not to support them. And when these situations do happen, they don’t have to accept (or perpetuate) the knee-jerk reaction that women who are assaulted somehow deserved it or brought it on themselves, or that those women are crazy. This extends beyond domestic issues, too: If we hold musicians accountable for their actions—treating them like normal people rather than special artistic snowflakes with a different set of rules—perhaps in the future we won’t need to have these types of conversations.

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