My friend Shannon was on Vancouver public radio yesterday talking about books and babies. You can listen to the great interview by clicking on the top link listed here. I found this whole conversation fantastic. Beyond the intense friend-pride that comes from hearing a dear pal at the top of her game speak so expertly to an interesting topic, I really learned a lot, particularly about what babies absorb (not just spills). Babies develop synapses and recognition at a rate higher than we previously thought (I say “we” as if I'm a member of the scientific community and not just a lapsed member of the Burger King Kid's Klub). I'm proud of babies being smarter than we give them credit for, but if they're truly absorbing as much as we think, we've got some explaining to do. When the babies of today become the youth of tomorrow, they'll look to us and say, “Hey, back in 2012, like in February? I know I was still rockin' a onesie, but what the hell was up with Chris Brown?”
Dream: Make sense of this whole Chris Brown thing.
Goal: Achievable. Yes, I'm jumping on the hater train, and I know Chris Brown vitriol is dangerously close to becoming nothing more than an internet meme, like Girls saying Shit or Charles Damaged My Finger (titles altered for no reason). But one time I was on a plane next to a crying baby and we hit an air pocket and I involuntarily went, “Ohhhhhhwhaat?”. The baby stopped crying and cocked his widdle head at me like, “You look concerned, should I be concerned?” I didn't have an answer but that baby was listening. Therefore, I can empirically echo the scientific findings and Shannon assertions that babies pick up on stuff. I'm not saying we should explain Chris Brown to babies now, but simply that the possibility exists that our reaction (or lack of it) to this controversy today may dictate their reactions tomorrow.
Plan: Break it down to baby-sized chunks of comprehensible information.
Okay, drop your humour expectations and settle in, because this will take awhile. As I understand it, Chris Brown's first single “dropped” (phraseology of the time, if you're reading this in the future) when he was sixteen, and “Run It” was a big hit. An album followed, a following followed. Drawing comparisons to Usher and Michael Jackson, acting in some lousy movies, and landing some lucrative ad campaigns, Chris seemed heir apparent to R&B's super cool throne.
If CB was the man who would be King, in 2008, it seems, he courted the perfect Queen. Rihanna enjoyed a similar career trajectory, perhaps more successfully than he (how dare she?), and the rumoured hook-up of the two pop idols was a match made in marketing heaven. Despite coy denials from both parties, pictures quickly surfaced of the young couple vacationing and canoodling together, and rumours of their engagement broke in early 2009.
After Brown and Rihanna both took home hardware at the Bilboard Music Awards, it was announced they would be performing together at the far-more-prestigious Grammy Awards in February. Then, some bad stuff happened. The following account is excerpted (without permission) directly from the police report leaked to the public and recently reprinted by Jezebel.com. In point of fact, the full article is here and it is also where I obtained most of the previous chronology. It's a superior article to this piece, but finish this one anyway, just to please me. Not for the squeamish.
A verbal argument ensued and Brown pulled the vehicle over on an unknown street, reached over Robyn F. with his right hand, opened the car door and attempted to force her out. Brown was unable to force Robyn F. out of the vehicle because she was wearing a seat belt. When he could not force her to exit, he took his right hand and shoved her head against he passenger window of the vehicle, causing an approximate one-inch raised circular contusion.
Robyn F. turned to face Brown and he punched her in the left eye with his right hand. He then drove away in the vehicle and continued to punch her in the face with his right hand while steering the vehicle with his left hand. The assault caused Robyn F.'s mouth to fill with blood and blood to splatter all over her clothing and the interior of the vehicle.
Brown looked at Robyn F. and stated, 'I'm going to beat the sh— out of you when we get home! You wait and see!' "And:
Brown looked at her and stated, "You just did the stupidest thing ever! Now I'm really going to kill you!"
Brown resumed punching Robyn F. and she interlocked her fingers behind her head and brought her elbows forward to protect her face. She then bent over at the waist, placing her elbows and face near her lap in [an] attempt to protect her face and head from the barrage of punches being levied upon her by Brown.
Brown pulled Robyn F. close to him and bit her on her left ear.
He then placed her in a head lock positioning the front of her throat between his bicep and forearm. Brown began applying pressure to Robyn F.'s left and right carotid arteries, causing her to be unable to breathe and she began to lose consciousness.
She reached up with her left hand and began attempting to gouge his eyes in an attempt to free herself. Brown bit her left ring and middle fingers…
If it was hard to read that, it should be. But that's what happened (or at least that's what was recorded by police officers, which is therefore potentially a subjective opinion and not necessarily blah blah blah). But if that is true, if even... say 20 percent of it is true, why does this man continue to enjoy a thriving, albeit less than before, career?
PR can only do so much. Even if Chris had been immediately contrite and donated money to domestic abuse shelters (he wasn't and didn't), you'd think public opinion would be so low as to effectively destroy his chance at another hit record. Instead, other public figures responded with muted indecision. “They're both kids!” was a common refrain, “We don't know what goes on behind closed doors.” What could we possibly learn about life behind closed doors that would justify a man beating a woman nearly to death?
A lot hinges on that “nearly.” What would it take for Brown's statement, “Now I'm really going to kill you!” to go from threat to fact? One more punch? A deeper contusion? Delayed medical personnel? And what then? One surely hopes that if Rihanna had died at the hands of her boyfriend, he'd be locked up for murder. But she survived, and watched from her front row seat at the 2012 Grammy's as he took the stage three times, twice to perform, and once to accept an award.
Or what if Rihanna's assailant was not her boyfriend, but a stranger? What if the man hired to drive her home one night pulled over on the side of the road and brutally attacked her? Surely a manhunt would be launched, a different trial would play out, and he would be in jail to this day and beyond. And even if he was a soulful singer with sweet dance moves, he'd never be given a public forum to perform, land a record deal, win industry awards.
This is the trickiest hypothetical, but what if Rihanna, what if Chris Brown, were not black? If John Mayer punched Taylor Swift with such ferocity that her mouth filled up with blood and splattered all over her clothes, his car? If Zac Efron gave Miley Cyrus two black eyes? If Russell Brand looked at Katy Perry and stated, “I'm going to beat the shit out of you when we get home. You wait and see.” Would public opinion be different? If it was hard to imagine the above scenarios, why? Are we less likely to believe our white pop-culture idols are capable of such violence? Jackson Browne, Sean Connery, Josh Brolin, and Grammy 2012 Hall-of-Famer Glenn Campbell might dissuade us of that notion if we Google them alongside “beats his wife.” Are we as a culture more reluctant to condemn a black role model than a white one? What does that say? Does that speak to a lower cultural expectation of black men? If so, how fucking racist is that?
A common refrain when this topic comes up seems to be in defense of second chances. Chris Brown served the community service handed down to him and was even commended by a judge for his commitment to that service. He's paid his legal debt, there have been no further reports of domestic abuse, can't we just let this go? Maybe we can. I'll buy tickets to any Woody Allen movie, despite the despicable information about his beginning a sexual relationship with the adopted daughter under the nose of his then partner, Mia Farrow. I've listened to Jackson Browne albums. What's the difference? Am I being hypocritical? Probably. Though Woody Allen had his budgets slashed and fled to Europe to make films post-scandal, and only recently began seeing box office returns equal to his heyday (though this could speak to the quality of his films, one supposes enough time has passed to lessen the impact of the scandal), and though Jackson Browne's fair-to-middling career is limping through casino tours and state fairs, they're still allowed to make films and records, as is Chris Brown, but why are we buying them? Why does Chris Brown have an active Twitter, more hit records, a “Team Breezy?” More importantly, how could anyone still consider him a sex symbol? Why does our backlash to his recognition come off as over-sensitive mud-slinging? Could this speak truth to power? I really hope not.
I arrive at no conclusions, and perhaps it's useless to try, but the whole thing makes me sick. Forgive me for using my fun blog to get heavy-handed on your ass. I don't know how to lightly tie this back in to babies; it was most certainly in bad taste to use baby synapses to launch into a tirade about domestic violence. But if there is a connection to be made, it's that babies are love and light and our instinct is to protect and nurture them at all costs. Where do we lose that instinct, when it comes to each other? When do we drop the “nice hands don't hit?” When do we teach each other that love doesn't hurt?