On Monday, Rihanna and Chris Brown each released a remix track featuring the other; Brown joined Rihanna for a few verses on the innuendo-iced “Birthday Cake,” and she reciprocated with vocals on his club jam “Turn Up the Music.” Considering the pair’s well-known history of domestic violence, the new music has been greeted, to put it mildly, with consternation.
The Daily Beast’s Allison Samuels compared the reunion to the toxic orbiting of Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown, while Alexandra Petri over at the Washington Post wondered whether the whole thing is “about creating a narrative of Bad Romance and reconciliation to loop viewers in.” The New York Times’ Jon Caramanica was even more forthright:
"It displays an advanced understanding of marketing and an understanding of moral obligations and ethics that’s not much more than rudimentary. It is a woman publicly accepting her abuser — nothing more, nothing less."
Oh yes, and Perez Hilton called it “genius,” for whatever that’s worth.
But seriously, the fact that so many critics are upset by this reunion begs certain questions: What does collaboration really mean, and why are the stakes of this particular case so high?
Here’s my theory. Even though we know that collaborations like this are almost always commercial in motivation, we like to imagine that the artist’s choice of a creative partner gives us some kind of access to their private, emotional world. Collaboration suggests a personal relationship, and our eavesdropping on that interplay conjures up a feeling of intimacy between audience and artist that is very powerful. We feel like we know what’s really going on with Rihanna and Chris Brown because we are virtually present in the studio with them, and here, the thing we’re meant to know is that everything’s OK now. The problem is, the strategy won’t work; because of an infamous leaked photograph, we were also virtually present in the car that night three years ago when Brown beat Rihanna till her face was bruised and bloodied. And that kind of terrifying intimacy is not easily forgotten.
For Rihanna, the inclusion of Brown in “Birthday Cake” could represent the resolution of a dissonance that has plagued her image ever since the attack. The central paradox of celebrity is that generally, no matter how much information you learn about the star, you never get any closer to their actual interiority; yet, the leaked photograph was an authentic moment of access—you can't help but feel Rihanna's fear and pain. The singer’s projection of a persona based in sadomasochistic sexuality and dominance over men (even when she’s playing power bottom) was deeply disrupted by the very real image of her violated face.
Suddenly, singing about the seductive charms of an abusive relationship (as Rihanna does with Eminem in “Love the Way You Lie”) takes on a tone of unsettling poignancy. S/M-tinged photoshoots make us shift in our seats. The fantasy image flickers, and a flesh-and-blood victim peeks through.
Of course, Rihanna would understandably like to restore the protective stability of her image, if only to halt speculation that she is doomed to the macabre waltz of abusive codependence. Hence, the collaboration: The original moment of upsetting intimacy should be canceled out by the new moment of empowerment—in our seeing that she chooses Brown. It’s just that, with that photo in the back of our minds, we can’t help but worry about her fitness to judge.
Chris Brown’s situation is even more constrained. Rap and hip-hop have a long tradition of redemption/forgiveness narratives where in male artists who in many cases were just rapping on one track about drugs, violence, and misogyny suddently tone down their swagger in the next song to apologize and ask for forgiveness from God, Mrs. Jackson, mom, their girlfriends or whoever. This sacrifice of masculinity is supposedly so great that their contrition cannot be doubted; we, the audience, are meant to forgive and forget without question.
Chris Brown has tried to take advantage of this trope, but it hasn’t really worked. His dead-eyed, remorseless apologies were supposed to automatically atone for his sins, but something about that picture of Rihanna’s face just won’t allow it. We’ve seen too much of Brown's rage, lack of compassion, arrogance and immaturity in her bruises to stop “hating” so easily.
I can see how the public’s resistance might be frustrating to them: After all, the industry has effectively welcomed Brown back into the fold by way of a Grammy, and if, in this collaboration, Rihanna is symbolically absolving him as well, why can’t we just get over it? You know the cliché: If the victim forgives the abuser, then it’s none of our business.
But unfortunately for Brown, that photograph makes it our business. We viscerally understand that both he and Rihanna are not just images—they have real bodies that can make terribly real choices. It's the kind of knowledge that the celebrity fantasy just won't accomodate, a blemish that even the savviest PR stunt can't airbrush away.