There’s a delightful video doing the rounds this last couple of weeks – a cover version of Chris Brown’s Look At Me Now by a band called Karmin, notable because Karmin singer Amy Heidemann does an amazing interpretation of bullet-rapping Busta Rhyme’s verses. I watched it, loved it, shared it with my friends. And as I was doing so, I thought, “Chris Brown, eh? He still has a career?”
Yes, as it happens. You might remember Chris Brown as the young man who battered (now ex) girlfriend Rihanna a couple of years ago. Due to the celebrity status of both the victim and the strutting arsehole who beat her up, it was an unfortunately public assault. Some argued that this was a good thing in that it raised awareness (amongst young people who up to then had thought that it was ok to beat up their partners? Dunno). The rest of us flinched at the leaked photographs of Rihanna’s injuries, wished that the press would leave her alone to come to terms with what had happened, and hoped that Mr. Brown soon entered the market for a large boulder he could wedge his bulk under.
And yet this hasn’t happened. Rihanna’s career has gone from strength to strength, and oddly enough, so has Brown’s. Not that I generally keep up to speed with hip-pop artists, but I don’t even recall there being much of a sabbatical. He’s as popular as ever with fans, and has no problem attracting other artists to work with on musical projects.
One might say that Brown is entitled to forgiveness and entitled to move on with his life and career. And indeed he is. But how could a fan bring themselves to support someone who severely assaulted his girlfriend and was never quite convincing in subsequent public apologies? Indeed, at the end of March he threw a dramatic hissy fit backstage at Good Morning America when quizzed about the assault, reportedly breaking a window, leaving the building in a shirtless huff(!) and tweeting afterwards, “I’m so over people bring this past s**t up!! Yet we praise Charlie Sheen and other celebs for there[sic] bulls**t.”
This may be the thing, though. Are the public “allowing” Brown a career because he’s such an entertaining little Veruca Salt?
Social media has made it possible for a celebrity to have virtual one-on-one relationships with his or her fans – Twitter, tumblr, whatever. A celeb now has the power to make connections with the wider world without the deft swipe of a publicist’s whitewash brush. Before, celebrities flourished in stone fortresses, pampered and bubble-wrapped and told marvellous tales about how their personas were received in the outside world. Nowadays it’s like the poor, narcissistic things are kept in Wicker Men in a madhouse garden. Should they wish to say something out-of-character (as in, not becoming of a public figure), it will be seized upon and flung halfway around the world well before their publicist’s spidey-sense gets going. And they may well wish to say something out-of-character, because the fans will lap it up and egg them on, rubbernecking on a delightfully careening ego.
Recently, we’ve seen Charlie Sheen, Mel Gibson, and Lindsay Lohan making headlines for pretty horrific behaviour; Charlie’s hired an entourage of porn stars to live with him, Mel admitted to domestic violence, and Lindsay practically lives in court these days. Yet the public hasn’t denied them their celebrity status, or let them know that such behaviour is not socially acceptable. The public would rather Charlie and Mel and Lindsay kept making asses of themselves. Who wants to see Charlie get well? Who wants to see the erstwhile holier-than-thou Mel get his act together? Who wants to see Lindsay reinvent herself as an indie darling? No one. They’re far more valuable as clowns. No matter if Charlie keels over from an overdose or Mel breaks his girlfriend’s teeth or Lindsay dies in the gutter. Collateral damage.
Do we condone bad behaviour from celebrities simply because they’re celebrities? I don’t think it’s quite as simple as that, but the answer isn’t on par with rocket science, either. Celebrities who behave badly cannot presume that the public will remain empathic, forgiving – even interested. Celebrities who behave badly in a ridiculously over-the-top fashion can, though. We can be entertained as well as feel superior. Is this why Chris Brown still has a glittering pop career?
Or do we really think that battering women isn’t really that big a deal? Do we think that proud patronage of the sex trade isn’t really that big a deal? Do we think that a young woman drowning her talent in alcohol isn’t that big a deal?
[Of course, the other condition under which the general public will forgive a misbehaving celebrity is if that celebrity has a talent that is not interchangeable with a hundred other pretenders (as in Brown’s identipop career). I suppose Roman Polanski would be the prime example here. If he was not a brilliant storyteller and visionary, would we have forgiven him for raping a child?]