Just as a service worker’s tolerance for asshole behavior from a customer rises in direct proportion to how much he spends, so too will music fans overlook an artist’s morally repugnant private life in proportion to the assumed value of his output. People hate Chris Brown because he is too famous for music that is not good enough to replace his womanbeating as the first thing they think of when they hear his name.
George Jones was a wifebeater, but when you hear his name I bet you think of “White Lightning” or that story about him driving the riding mower to the bar before you think about that. James Brown was arrested—a LOT—on domestic violence charges. But that’s not the first thing I think of when I hear him. It’s not even the first thing I think of when Ike Turner’s name is mentioned (Rocket ‘88 always starts playing in my head, and then I remember seeing him in Memphis sometime in the 90s with his ridiculously hot statuesque young girlfriend).
So, when Chris Brown is the subject, we must always discuss his womanbeating because 1) it’s the most interesting thing about him and 2) his musical catalog does not carry enough weight to combat his assholism. There is some sort of algorithm that determines at which point “artistic merit” overcomes “being a horrible person” and he is so very much on the wrong side of that.
This is exactly correct. There was such intense (online) media coverage of Chris Brown’s horrible deed, plus indexical evidence of its effects on Rihanna’s face, that it quickly outpaced his musical identity. Now, he’s just tagged as a violent shithead, and arguably the Grammys’ ignorance of this fact only heightened this feeling (this tragic trend notwithstanding). This of course wasn’t the case when Ike Turner, Glen Campbell, George Jones, Gil Scott-Heron, et al did similar (if not worse) things. Their music was allowed to stand on its own, and their public image could signify strictly music related things (in Ike’s case, it was the film What’s Love Got To Do With It before his violent past caught up to the mainstream public imagination, right?)
This reminded me of Matthew’s review of M.I.A.’s divisive second album, which started out with this claim:
Pop music has a way of forgiving artists on a hot streak. You can say, do, or get accused of horrible things, but most of time, if you’re delivering the goods, the public will remain on your side. This is why R. Kelly is like Teflon, and why outrage regarding Michael Jackson’s scandals and peculiarities only truly hobbled him when the quality of his music began to slide in the early 1990s. Madonna, too, has proven herself capable of multiple comebacks following creative missteps and P.R. disasters. Right or wrong, the social contract is simple: If you bring the hits, we’ll put up with your shit.
First, this is one of the depressing facts of popular culture: be creative and do whatever! Second, Chris Brown was part of a really great song last year, but nope, sorry, that doesn’t appear to be enough. Third: nothing that Madonna or M.I.A. have ever done (violations of public propriety) is anything near Chris Brown’s deed. Fourth: I’d even argue that R. Kelly’s public persona of “WTF is he doing now” (along with a legal vindication) has been enough to cover him up in the absence of another “Ignition (Remix).” As horrifying as it seems, a Dave Chappelle sketch made us all laugh at what appeared to be a despicable deed.