Chris Brown and other misogynistic musical mediocrities

Last Sunday night, the R&B singer Chris Brown performed at the Grammy award ceremonies, having apparently been given an exemption from the terms of his five-year probation to appear. Brown is probably better known for beating up his then-girlfriend, fellow R&B singer Rihanna, at the wheel of a car than for his music, although I’m no expert on that kind of music, except that it’s no stranger to stars who humiliate and abuse women. Of course, Whitney Houston died the night before, and I made some ostensible attempts to “cheer people up” on Facebook by suggesting that at least we could look forward to seeing Brown booed off stage, or maybe to him presenting “Best Female Solo Artist” to someone who punched him in the face. However, neither of these things happened, and his performance passed off without incident. Rihanna also appeared (both of them were meant to appear at the event in 2009, but couldn’t because they were either in hospital or helping police with their enquiries) and an early Daily Mail report on the event has Rihanna doing a duet with “Coldplay’s Chris Brown” — which might seem like a fine way to humiliate her violent ex if it were true, but Coldplay’s lead singer is in fact Chris Martin.

What was pretty disturbing about this event was the number of young women who publically declared that Chris Brown could beat them up any time — Buzzfeed recorded 25 examples from women saying things to that effect on Twitter. I should add that a while ago, when I heard his song “Beautiful People” on the radio, I tweeted to the effect that last time Brown had one of those, he smashed her face, and I got various angry tweets from his fans, one of whom said that Brown had had several girlfriends since Rihanna. The man obviously has quite a few fans who aren’t put off by the fact that he seriously assaulted a woman while driving a car, so he could have killed her with the assault or could have caused a car crash and killed her along with an entirely innocent member of the public (or more than one). Perhaps they see his girlfriend as a rival for a man they desire, rather than an innocent victim of something that could just as easily happen to them. The Guardian noted at the time that his legions of girl fans posted supportive messages on fan forums, like “I don’t care what anyone says, I still love you Chris Brown”, while other R&B stars (male and female) refused to speak out against him.

It is also a mystery that his sentence did not include a day of jail time, despite his perpetrating a serious assault while recklessly endangering the public (MTV have the police’s version of the incident — note: if you’re outside the UK, select “continue to visit MTV US” or it will take you to your country’s MTV front page). There are those who say that really, three years is enough and we can’t continue to shun him forever. I would have some sympathy with that if the assault (even if against a woman) had been not been so serious and prolonged. He has also not shown a great deal of remorse, his arrogance reflected in his most recent album’s title, “F.A.M.E. (Forgiving All My Enemies)” (rather than him begging for forgiveness) and his statement (or his publicist’s — they can always leave it up long enough to be noticed and then say it was posted in their name) on Twitter, “HATE ALL U WANT BECUZ I GOT A GRAMMY Now! That’s the ultimate F**K OFF!”. This, combined with the fact that so many people think that violence, even against a woman, by a “select”, sexy, rich or famous man is quite acceptable, should have given the Grammy organisers pause to consider making a stand to say it isn’t. It is not sufficient for a white, female country singer to speak out; there also needs to be some stands made within the R&B community — people refusing to sing the songs he writes, or to sing on or produce his records or have him do the same for them.

The fondness of girls and young women for mediocre pop stars who degrade them is not new — in the mid-1990s, a lot of the girls I went to college with were into what was then called swing (not the 30s jazz, but the tail-end of New Jack Swing which had already gone out of fashion in the USA) and one of the worst (but most popular) was R Kelly, whose pictures featured him carrying a walking stick with a cycle mirror on the end, which a reviewer pointed out was only good for looking up girls’ skirts, one of whose songs was called “I Like the Crotch on You” and whose lyrics praised the “hotties” in short skirts and told them “I know exactly what you need … a little bit of me”. I read an article that was published in my college magazine, titled “How to win friends and influence people the R Kelly Way” which noted that, if someone said the things in Kelly’s lyrics (“You say he’s not treating you right / Baby spend the night” for example) in real life it would earn him a resounding slap in the face, yet in song it had earned him hordes of female fans. None of this, and none of his legal troubles involving underage girls, let alone the mediocrity and sappiness of his lyrics when he’s not inviting someone for “a bit of bump and grind”, have stopped other R&B artists, including Michael Jackson, singing his songs. (R&B isn’t the only type of music where performers or their lyrics have denigrated women, but the heavy metal and blues-rock that also have that reputation don’t have a predominantly female fan base.)

No doubt some of the girls that are inviting Chris Brown to beat them up today are the daughters of those who were listening to R Kelly 20 years ago. Surely some parents should be telling their daughters they can be more than just a “hotti” and they can find better men than those represented by the lecherous R Kelly and the thuggish Chris Brown. Both of these men should have sank without trace years ago, but are being supported by a music industry which cares only about money and back-slapping and doesn’t care one bit about the welfare of those buying the records and attending the gigs as long as they keep paying.

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