Both Rihanna and Chris Brown are back. As Slate pointed out, there is something very cringe-worthy about enjoying Brown’s work. One of his new singles, “I Can Transform Ya,” is cocky and self-assured, and, content-wise, totally unrelated to his recent plea of guilt in the state of California. The single features Lil Wayne, who, besides fraternizing with a domestic abuser, has his own problems these days.
Anyway, even if it is absolutely morally revolting to enjoy Chris Brown (I know it is for me), I would never suggest we ban his music from our personal listening rotation. Even though his artistic persona has been revealed as a total lie, (as Slate noted, “An R&B loverman best known for a domestic-violence conviction is an insupportable contradiction”), art still needs distance from the personal life of the artist. We’d have pretty much no one to appreciate if all artists were judged by the merits of their personal character or politics–that’s right, we’d have to say good-bye to Polanski, Woody Allen, Heidegger, etc. I’m just trying to say that I hate censorship, and only believe it’s necessary when hate speech enters the ring.
Rihanna’s new single, unlike Brown’s, doesn’t enjoy very much liberty from the February assault. Its first sound is the cry of a lone guitar streaming across the sonic landscape, signaling a Red Dawn. “Russian Roulette” isn’t about Russia, however–though the cyrillic-lookin font plastering the single cover might have you thinking differently (see above). The song’s mood is foreboding, the lyrics dark, the song structure torn out of the heartbroken-ballad song book. The last sound in the song is a gun shot, because, ahem, she lost at the high stakes game of roulette.
I think it’s unfair to only read this song through the lens of her recent life events, but I’m doing it to illustrate a point. It’s more acceptable in this here society to let the abusers move on, artistically unscathed, while Rihanna, the abused, returns with a persona that recalls this year’s events.
Yet, detractors may say, Rihanna’s always had a dark side. Even the sundrenched Barbados days of her earlier singles were tinged with the chaos-making agents of love, that is, madness and desperation. (See: S.O.S.) Detractors, I agree. But check out this further evidence that Rihanna’s new stuff is related to her personal life:
In this month’s issue of Glamour, Rihanna says of her new album:
I put everything I’ve wanted to say for the past eight months into my music. The songs are really personal.
So that’s good, if it helped her deal. I’m not asking Rihanna to do anything contrary to what she feels like doing. But we women are always supposed to infuse our art with emotion and personal experience. When women’s art is detached from our emotional life, we’re accused of being cold and fucked up. No one expects any kind of musical reflection from Chris Brown. He is free to be whoever the fuck he wants to be, and no one will ever wonder why he didn’t make a song about what it feels like to be a domestic abuser.
One day, I hope women won’t be chained (or barb-wired, as is the case with Rihanna) to our feelings. In the meantime, I still can’t wait for November 23rd, the day Rihanna’s cd comes out.