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Chris Brown's BET breakdown: the 'coulds' and 'shoulds' of forgiveness

Getprev One thing is certain: Chris Brown is an amazing dancer. The four minutes and thirty seconds that preceded his now-controversial weeping session at Sunday's BET Awards demonstrated the talent sidelined by his recent exile from the entertainment mainstream.

Paying tribute to Michael Jackson, to whom he has often been compared, the 21-year-old R&B star put his own firm stamp on the King of Pop's signature moves. MJ was lighter than air; CB firmly connected to the ground, his beefier frame making those foot stamps more territorial, the hip thrusts more blatantly virile, the arms reaching toward heaven more attitudinal. Brown pushed himself with this performance. The aggressiveness he radiated may not have been a conscious choice, but honestly, it worked.

Then Brown cried. His tears had a bitter tinge; he shook his head and pushed the weeping toward a shout. This breakdown, which prevented Brown from singing "Man in the Mirror," the song that ended the Jackson medley through which he'd otherwise only danced, has become Monday's most hotly debated media moment. (We need one a day, in the Twitter age.) Was Brown, attempting a comeback a year after pleading guilty to felonious assault of his former girlfriend, the singer Rihanna, faking remorse? Did the memory of Jackson and his own struggles with scandal overwhelm him? Or were the cheers from the crowd what set him off -- that taste of what his crime cost him?

Such questions intrigue those of us who habitually engage in the celebrity dramas of the 24-hour tabloid age. Yet the media response to Brown's onstage behavior, mostly focusing on the sincerity of his outburst, seems to me to miss an important point. The thorniest question isn't whether Brown is honestly seeking forgiveness, or whether he's forgiven himself. It's whether a route to redemption that still acknowledges reality can be found.


How can Brown, whose appeal is based on his relationship to women, regain his position without asking women to forget not only what he did but what that act symbolizes? That question turns the focus on the audience, and on the industry that frames Brown's return to the public eye.

Watching Brown's performance, I was intrigued by the cutaway shots of rapt fans, captured by the BET cameras. Those shown in close-up were mostly women of color, cheering, nearly crying themselves. One mouthed an exclamation that was like a prayer: oh my God.

The implication was that Brown's heavily female fan base is ready to cheer him past his period of probation, even if he hasn't fully completed his legal sentence. Brown went on to claim a fan-determined BET award, beating out 2010's darling Justin Bieber, among others. The message was firm: urban music fans want Chris Brown to flourish. So do artists like Mary J. Blige, who Tweeted "God is merciful" after his performance.

That's not really surprising. Pop stars of all kinds, not to mention actors, sports stars and even the occasional politician, are often quickly forgiven after engaging in morally questionable behavior. What makes Brown's case sticky, though, is that target audience, and the nature of his music and public persona.

Brown is a heartthrob, the kind of idol who teaches young girls what's appropriate in love. His hits, such as the yearning "With You" and his duet with his imaginary Juliet, Jordin Sparks, "No Air," have bottled the overflowing earnestness of beginner-level love. When he got racy with the full-grown and lecherous pop star T-Pain in the video for his "Kiss Kiss," Brown wore a schoolboy's outfit: He was a family kind of star. Even his rehabilitation after his crime against Rihanna began with the viral rise of a family video that showed a Midwestern couple dancing down the aisle to Brown's  swirling ballad "Forever."

Brown's image and the content of his music aim to soften people's hearts. He's not a pro athlete, required by his job to be physically confrontational; nor is he a "bad boy" rapper, hard rocker or country outlaw, with some edge of violence built into his image. That might be one reason (along with Rihanna's own fame) that his misdeed caused such a furor, while other cases of celebrity violence are more easily ignored and quickly forgotten. Brown's very real violation of Rihanna's trust was also a violation of our fantasies.

No one wants this kind of pop hero to sport a serious moral scar. R. Kelly, recently acquitted of child pornography charges, survived 6 1/2 years of that scandal partly because he's an outrageous personality; whether his fans fully believed in the innocence the court has now declared, his blatantly sexual music allowed for a way to absorb his questionable moral decisions. A similar case could be made about Bret Michaels or Gene Simmons, hard-rock rogues who flaunt their philandering and sexual objectification of women on reality television and emerge all the more lovable for it.

Sexuality is complicated, and pop music expresses its negatives as well as its healthy side. It's also a realm where individuals express their personalities directly through their music; a star's actions onstage can never fully be separated from his conduct offstage. Though violence can never be condoned, in some corners it's more easily contextualized. That's the only way I can explain how certain titans of heavy metal well known for abusing underage groupies never fell from grace, or why the journalist Elizabeth Mendez Berry received as much hate mail as praise for her groundbreaking 2005 Vibe magazine piece about domestic violence in rap.

Chris Brown's actions, however, shattered his image and destroyed the main function of his music. It's hard to imagine how he can move back into his role as a teen dream, now that he's admitted doing something no young woman would want done to her. (Not to mention the parents of girls who might have crushes on this handsome and smooth, if eager to reform, criminal.) The BET performance was problematic precisely because it felt like a bid to be washed clean, and because the audience members shown seemed ready with the baptismal water. Whatever Brown does, however sincerely remorseful he is, he can't go back. He will forever be in recovery.

To acknowledge this is not to condemn Brown as an artist. He has another choice: to not only admit to the darker impulses he unleashed against Rihanna that night in February 2009, but to make art from the soul-searching he's done since that confrontation. Brown needs to become a fully adult artist now, and to live publicly with the contradictions his actions exposed. His audience needs to ask that from him.

To that end, if you find Brown's performance on the Web somewhere, don't just watch the tears. Notice the intensity of that dance -- its anger as well as its precision. Realize that Chris Brown is a man who, like any man, must confront every aspect of the power he holds. Expect that from him. He should be up to the challenge.

-- Ann Powers

Top photo: Chris Brown at his arraignment on March 5, 2009. Credit: AP Photo/ Bob Chamberlin, Pool. Middle photo: Chris Brown at the BET Awards. Credit: Associated Press

Comments () | Archives (100)

There was much anger in his performance. Not only did MJ have a serious demeanor when he danced, Chris mirrored every moved. Remember BET shunned him last year from the performance. So this was his way of spitting in back at then a whole year later. He really never got a chance to mourn with the rest of the industry. Now as for the tears understand that MJ went through his trials and tribulations, and to have a song which lyrics want the person to change, Chris really took it to heart and I think the whole audience saw who become a man right there on stage. it wasnt for sympathy or lets forgive him because he can dance like MJ. He earned that standing ovation. Chris I salute you.

emotions like that are pretty hard to fake,i share his pain

How dare you people even question the sincerity of his performance what type of sick person do you beleive would actually take the memorial of someone who was a mentor/role models to them and then use the death for their own medial gain smh if you watched the perrormance you wouldve seen how real and raw it was.
- sincerly a true fan who never stopped beleiving even after the relapse

This was well written, It's truly expressed the reality of our youth. I believe we must give them a chance to bring them up from the ashes. To many of them are dying from growing up to fast. We really need to look within ourselves and stop the madness that are driving these young people into relationship that they are not clearly ready for. I pray for Chris Brown, It is said that what doesn't kill you only makes you stronger. In Chris Brown case wiser. Amen. Thank Author of this column.

Ann, as a CB fan, you have really spoken my thoughts. Part of his trouble has been that he hasn't publicly confronted those demons in word, action or in his music. But he is young and I do have faith that he will. He can't go back but that may be a good thing, forcing himself to separate himself from an image he was fast growing out of anyway. I wish nothing but the best for him and Rihanna.

This is such a well written article. It reflect brown's situation with finesse and honesty.

Just as u said he is A MAN, he made a mistake and it's not up to us anyway! Not to mention Rihanna is NOT innocent herself. I suffered SEVERE abuse as a teen and in my early 20's, Rihanna has an anger prob! I have a teen son, I by no means condone abuse, but with the girls today, I refuse for him to sit and let someone abuse him! So I've told him do what u have to do to get her off of you. You people are living in a fantasy and don't know WHAT CB had endured before he lashed out at Rihanna. He was sincere and its ppl like you and Rihanna that hv ruined his career.

i think he should come back and i think he will... he deserves to after all he is a human we all make mistakes... but he shouldn't do it again...and i think that he cried because of the fans cheering for him like it was before jail

Chris Brown did a wonderful job portraying Michael Jackson legendary dance moves. He's a young man for crying out loud, we all make mistakes. His only fault is that his life is so public and being in the public eye, such as he people are'nt as quick to forgive. He's young enough to change and get the help he needs. He was a child who grew up in a domestic home (let's not forget.) As far as the anger with is dance move comments. The comment about his dance moves being angry etc. come on! If that's the case all the people on Dancing with the star have the potential to be abusers to.

I believe he was just using the show to push his comeback.
He was faking. His dance was below MJ's and he should have been left off the program... The dancers with the light/dark background was great.
Chris, you can't dance and cry your way back...

He released his album WAY too soon after the whole thing went down, and his BS apologies and interviews where he refused to talk about what happened didn't help him either.

Take a look at Celeb abusers and they never fully recovered.

Ike Turner.... Mike Tyson...OJ... Bobby Brown..

It also didn't help him that the pictures were released and we all saw what he did to her. He beat the s**t out of her.

He's done.... I hope he was smart with his money.

It is nothing wrong with forgiving someone, for all of us at one time or another in our life will need it from someone. The problem here is not forgiving Chris Brown, but should you continue to support him. The answer should be no. To see so many women, black or not, suggesting that somehow he should be now left alone, is absurd. I assure you if it were your daughter, fairness would go out the window. He got a second chance by not being sent to jail like an animal, for an animalistic act. He should be allowed to continue to live and earn a living, but to expect society to support him in the process, is ridiculous. Living a "free" life without the adoration and trust of people, is alot better than being locked up. For the record if crying was all us men needed to do to convince people we were sincere, none of us would ever lose a girlfriend. To mee the apparent tears meant absolutely nothing.

As one poster (Melodious) already pointed out, this is, indeed, a well-written article. That said, there are two items I think need pointing out. 1) By suggesting his violence toward another human -- especially a female -- would have been expected had Chris Brown been a "bad boy" rapper, rockstar or country outlaw, Ann Warren touched on -- but did not address -- an important issue in American society. That such violence is expected at all.

Another issue that begs to be addressed is from whence violence of this sort stems. As a society, Americans are are _still_ taught from youth -- usually by their parents, but even by iconic leaders like pastors and ministers -- that violence is okay. Too many parents still think the best way to handle trouble with a child is by spanking (or worse). Of course, those same parents would scream bloody murder if it was okay for Cops to address an issue of, say, speeding, by stopping the offender and slapping several times. Kids, usually boys, are often encouraged by a parent to solve a problem at school or on the playground by diving in fists first. And the long outdated (because it was written by men, thousands of years ago) adage of "spare the rod, spoil the child" is still preached by many a minister and pastor in too many churches (where the more Christ-like message of "violence begets violence" has been forgotten).

One doesn't teach a child respect by hitting him or her when they make a mistake (and the majority of times, those spankings -- oft-times beatings -- are administered in the heat of anger, over issues of control). Hitting children (toddlers and young teens) only teaches them fear and, later, agressive behavior. The sort of behavior that carries on throughout an entire life, in either violent, physical reactions or rationals thereof (read "Dshay's" reaction to Chris Brown's violence. She rationalizes it with a very childish, she hit him first response.

Having the the talent to sing well, play a musical instrument, dance well, write an entertaining book or even paint the Sistine Chapel doesn't give _anyone_ carte blanche to behave in a criminal fashion.

And earning "forgiveness" for spousal abuse should begin and end between the two spouses: the abused and abuser.

I have just about had enough of folks going off on this young man. For christ sakes doesn't everyone deserve a chance to get it right. He has been under so much scrutiny I truly believe that he wants to do better. Who are we to judge that. His performance was sincere and amazing. Listen here I have a grown son and a grandson and trust me if a woman gets in their face and is out of control and it goes on and on then doggonit do what ever you have to do to stop it. I have been reading before this happened about Rihanna and her jealous rages. Not to say that Chris was right but he does deserve another chance. Please stop it already. Good job Chris, keep your head up and know that God is in control of this not these fools that won't let it go. Bless you.

He cried over MJ but not over how he beat Rihanna and threatened to kill her and she ran for her life to the police. And then he went on his twitter/facebook and bashed her afterwards. No, I will never support an abuser/attempted killer. Yes he cried because he was an MJ fan, I am not really questioning that, but he is such a creep I really could care less. He never apologized to her, never admitted his hate for women and his rage, nope, he is not redeemed in my eyes. And his "fans" are really creepy individuals that I have seen online, saying it's fine he hurt a woman and to get over it. What a lousy group of people.

Sorry, that should have been "melodies", when I typed the name of the previous poster (typos, the thirteenth "bane" of cyberspace).

This clown brought it all on himself and to go on TV a few months ago and make excuses is deplorable. He deserves ALL of the scorn and shame that is heaped upon him and I do not feel sorry for this self absorbed hack

The ONLY way he'll ever look good, morally, is to act morally, over a long period of time.

Like Powers wrote, his artistic performance is something aside.

And his audience isn't the one that can forgive him anything. They just decide to accept his public image or not, enjoy it or not.

Only reforming his habits of treating people. He has yet to prove that he's not a thug who will slap somebody when he gets angry the next time. It's actions, not feelings. And it's gonna take a long time of working on habits. One year is not enough.

Meanwhile, if people want to watch him perform, and buy his records, that's their pref. But he's not a poor shmuck to be redeemed by the adoration of his fans. It's condescending to him to think so, as a matter of fact.

He cleans up morally off camera, not on.

I wish him well, all right. At least he's had compunction. But that's the beginning of moral change. Not the change itself. Good luck to him on the journey. It takes years to get the kind of anger and self indulgence that lead you to slap around someone smaller than you out of your heart and mind. Thank heaven he's young and has enough conscience to have felt bac.

But the performance? It's a performance. There's nothing redemptive about it.

I thought his dancing was stellar.

Hope he walks the walk in treating people well when the cameras aren't on him. I still wouldn't want my niece to be anywhere near him, though. One year isn't enough for that kind of reform. The proof is in the actions over time...what happens in cars, in homes, in the privacy of times when nobody's around.

Nice piece by Powers.

i was in chok when i saw chris cryin...and i was crying also.........chris is a human like us ... and human make mistake.......this guy is very goud he is future of RNB give him a chance to show us dat he was sorry for what he did...... he deserve dat... pliz rhianna dont hate him for wat he did.. i know da was bad but u still alive u have to learn to forgive people.... be pround of yourself and i think God will appreciate dat.... there alway am opion B in life...throw all dat anger away... and start a new life.even though its not easy but i bet u can and we can also luv u rihanna ..... sup chris

I think that Chris Brown just misses Michael Jackson and he regrets what he did in the past. I mean it must suck not to be able to pay tribute to your idol cause you beat the hell out of your ex. He could not have faked his emotion like that because it was real. Everybody knew that Chris loved and admired Mike. He even had his Super 18 in like-ness off Mikes' off the wall album. I love you Chris brown and welcome back!

Wow..what a powerful article on such a specualted matter. I don't think either him or Rhianna have spoken much about what happened that night. Rhianna has stated that she regrets his actions and how this has become fodder for public speculation and opinions. Chris Brown has apologized for his actions and we all agree that this behavior was wrong. If I had not watched this drama unfold over the last year I would have thought that this was some sort of monster out and committing unspeakable crimes against the public. What I saw was a two young people acting out and Thank God it didn't go futher than it did. I say he has given his 7 pounds of flesh...it's over ...find another dead horse to beat

I don't care if the emotions were real or faked, Chris Brown, who can dance, isn't 1/100th the dance MJ was. He was a little boy trying to look like MJ and it didn't work.

when chirs brown came out there on that stage and did that he had all of micheal jackson moves i mean he was doin it i was lovin it and when he broke down cryin i broke down cryin

And Dshay-bashing on the victim - that's a really nice attitude to have towards a woman who was choked, beaten and bitten by her boyfriend. Shame on you. No wonder there's so much crime against women still these days, people like you adding fuel to the fire with your hate towards them.

I truly feels that CB is being genuine. We all should have a forgiving heart. Chris is very young and he made a very big mistake but we all are human. Humans make mistakes all the time. He needs to be given the same opportunity we would want if we made a mistake. If I was Chris I would care what the media thought about me. It is what it is! live, learn, and move on. The media is so critical of people. Quit trying to always analyze people. If he was faking he's ultimately hurting himself. If he is sincere that on him as well. You guys could cause damage to these celebrities. You all could drive people into a deep depression. For instant, now that Michael is dead oh everybody expresses their love for him but it's too late. He can't hear that now. He should have heard it when he was living.

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