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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.

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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)

At an interview with Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie; the interviewer noticed Michaels earphones and asked who he was listening to. Michael said, 'Chris Brown. He's the only one really making music." Michael identified with Chris' music as Chris did with his. Imagine then being denied the opportunity to properly mourn with the rest of the industry as Dash stated.

My dear friend's expression was genuine and came from mourning the loss of a mentor a year later , the endurance of vicious media, the determination to remake himself, and the lyrics of a song that hit home.

What we witnessed was the sincerity of "The Man in the Mirror"

Ms. Powers:
Let's discuss the 'coulds & shoulds' of your article. First, you touched on a few valid points. While we are keeping it real though, it is to be taken highly into consideration, that Chris Brown is barely 21 yrs. old. I can't honestly say I know not one 21 yr. old - who has not made mistakes. I did, some were biggies, but being young is a period in EVERYONE'S life where you are highly unlikely to skate past an indiscretion or two. (or three). He made a mistake, and the mistake was with another person who like himself, fits into the same simular age category. The life-time achievement award went to Prince, who at his acceptance speech, reflected on how he, himself was wild at that age, and offered up advice on not making the same mistakes he made. I also agree w/ Dash, Chris never really got a chance to mourn Micheal's passing with the rest of the industry. Michael was/is an inspiration to Chris, long before the Rihanna incident, therefore, he broke down, a heartfelt tribute to the person who inspired him to go into the business. His performance was spectacular, and IMO, he is about the closest musical re-incarnation of Michael Jackson, I have seen yet. (I have said this WAY prior to the incident w/ Rihanna). Never mind the hype, this young man is a bud waiting to blossom, in more ways than one. You go, Chris, I support you.

Forget this guy, quit putting him up on a pedestal America. There are doctors performing groundbreaking research and saving lives, soldiers protecting us, and hardworking people cleaning up our shores and working all over the country. Screw this jerk, he should be beaten down twice as hard as the act he committed.

It is perfectly clear that the situation that occurred between Chris Brown and Rihanna was not good. In fact, that is an understatement. More importantly, no one condones what Chris Brown did. I for one am totally against violence, domestic violence at that. No female or male should ever have to experience that level of violence in their lifetime. Nevertheless, it can be fairly stated that an altercation took place between the two people. They were both participants in a very unfortnate situation regardless of who started it; and the end result is that the fight got totally out of hand on the part of Chris. However, having said all of the above, it was very clear and most obvious that this young man's performance last night was genuine. He now realizes the extent of his behavior or conduct. The song - 'The Man in the Mirror' helped put things in the proper perspective. We have to take hold of our lives in a positive way; and we must accept the consequenes of our actions so that we can become better individuals for ourselves as well as for others. This means 'change'.

Chris Brown, I believe has a wonderful future whether he sells millions of CD'S or not. The 'breakdown' as some have described his performance was merely recognition of where he has been and where he is about go which is - 'FORWARD' in the future. The 'breakdown' or 'meltdown' (whatever persons want to call it) was not anything negative. It was a good thing and I truly believe for the first time, in a long time, Chris Brown was able to share with his peers and express to them his emotions in song and dance. LIFE GOES ON!

Mother of a female CB fan poor chris he is hurting for descions that he made and i do believe that he has gotten wiser from his actions he's dealing with it now and it will pass and for little Ms. not so innoccent she will eventually have to deal with her actions. Anybody with a good heart got at least a little glassy eyed with that performance.Good for you CB keep healing!!!!!!!!!

Who cares? He's a loser. Crying for sympathy isn't becoming a man or any indication that he has morals. All he did was dance. So what. I wonder what you people would be saying about me after I beat the hell out of my girlfriend... who also happened to be your daughter. Could I moonwalk your pain away? Or maybe I could cry it away for you. Would you pray for me? He's nothing but a spoiled punk ass mommas boy.

What a great commentary on Chris Brown's situation. While his fans ought to expect more from the artist, even if he doesn't prove to change, he'll continue to be famous as long as he can maintain the quality of his performance and artistry. The fans want music and something to watch. From my experiences listening to urban radio stations in Philadelphia, his fans forgave him long ago! A fair sized sector of his fans never even believed he did anything wrong... If Chris Brown was really overcome, I'm glad. Emotional reactions of that kind can be cathartic.

I’m not angry at Chris. I agree with your viewpoint. He needed guidance long before the incident and he needs plenty more now. Intense counseling. Education. It’s a long journey. And I just don’t understand why his “comeback” is SUCH a huge deal in the Black community. It’s as if they are OFFENDED that people want to reprimand this young man for violent behavior. He’s Chris Brown! a pop star! He has PLENTY of choices in life. He’s not a political prisoner or one of the many nameless black boys killed in the street (Chicago,IL/Chester, PA) everyday. I just don’t understand what Black people’s obsession is with him.

I’m also disappointed in our constant focus on the wrong things. Nobody is addressing WHY teenagers think it’s okay to pummel each other. All they wanna do is talk crap about this ridiculous notion of “forgiveness through dance” or the idea that a strong reprimand for violence and the dysfunction that leads up to it is somehow unfair. Correction is warranted! I believe people don’t want to deal with the hard facts because it sheds a light on their lack of prevention. We love you enough to ignore your transgressions but not enough to teach you right from wrong and protect you through prevention? In the end, all people seem to want to do is bring up R. Kelly as some kind of twisted example of how we should handle CB. R. Kelly, who, while not as lauded anymore is just a disgrace (or at least his behavior is). I see some folks have even brought Charlie Sheen out of their behind. A whole OTHER (quite disturbing) mess, lol.

I dont forgive him cuz of the crying i forgive him because he was dancing like mj!! :) :) i respect him for that

and besides, if the girl he beat was just a normal girl no one would care.

Guys that hit girls don't deserve to be famous, regardless of talent. There are much more deserving people out there. He blew it with me, and I refuse to ever support him again.

Thank you for writing an article centered around Chris Brown with such integrity. The lack of sarcasm and belitting comments show a step in the right direction. Ever since his huge mistake reporters and bloggers alike have had no mercy with their words. Your article swelled with intelligence and it was remarkably refreshing. Ann Powers you have set a wonderful example today for entertainment reporters to follow. I look forward to the day when other writers are able to challenge their readers rather then make assumptions for them with petty words and naive insight.

Excellent article. However, I note the line, "Pop stars of all kinds. . .are often quickly forgiven after engaging in morally questionable behavior." Michael Jackson was not "quickly forgiven" for behavior he was accused of and then exonerated from. He was damned for years by tabloid and major media for being weird, for having plastic surgery, for walking under an umbrella, for de-pigmenting his skin to deal with vitiligo. Why were/are others forgiven and he was not? Was it envy at his success and musical genius, the need to have a a permanent example for why being different is not acceptable, or most likely the greed of tabloid and major media to sell papers and increase ratings?

This writer is a hater. Leave that boy alone! Dang, people have done so much worse! And Rihanna is no kind of role model anyway, I can only imagine what she did to him, yet he is the only one to receive conviction. Ya'll don't have to want him, but the black community will keep him. Just like we did Michael Jackson, Kobe Bryant, R. Kelley, and Michael Vick. Don't come to our culture and condemn our starlets because we don't judge by your standards, OH GREAT WHITE MAN THAT ENSLAVED MILLIONS! You don't know what happened in that car and you don't know what was going through his heart! It kills me, Michael made Thriller, then you made the man miserable and you made the man miserable for the rest of his life, the hell if we let you do Breezy like that!

I'm not a diehard Chris Brown fan but, I honestly don't tink he was faking......I'ma leave it like that.

Remember this is Michael Jackson we're talking about.....he was the MAN. RIP

emotions like that are NOT hard to fake actors do it al the time and musicians do it in their videos now i really don't care aout the sincirity but about how easily our black community forgives its own for actions that stereotype us you people are making the rest of us look bad when someone does something wrong we shouldn't have made up up our mind on them just becasue of their race let's move beyond that please come on if rihana was white no one would even remeber he was a performer lets do the same thing and stand up for our black women come on!!

What people don't realize about Chris Brown when he did that performance is that he genuinely loved Michael Jackson. And that emotion shown throughout his performance wasn't about Rihanna, I mean, it's been a year.
And the problem had nothing to do with the fans not accepting him. It has everything to do with the media. The media is what kept him off the radio, off television, and out of the main stream. Not the fans.
We, the fans, know what's going on with Chris Brown. We keep up with his music and movies he's doing and has done.
Everyone's dwelling on the past when they need to be focused on the future of Chris Brown because be things are going to becoming from that man.

I felt it was genuine. Nobodys saying forget what he did, just forgive him and move on.

Self aggrandizing. What this sad spectacle represents is how low the bar is being set for this generation. How much energy can people devote to a song and dance act that is performed for a self stroking egomaniac. Those crocodile tears weren't for MJ or for introspective honesty that results in an emotional outburst from witnessing the least we do onto our brothers and sisters.

While Chris Brown may not deserve to be shunned to the hinterlands permanently, he does not deserve adulation he craves that belongs to better.

And MJ wanted people to take action in their world. The real world. Not some fantasy celebrity driven world. If you are looking to bring truth to the words in that song. Then stop the worngful worship of celebrity and come to the real party. The world needs the help of this generation.

hes a great performer, and if he is telling the truth about moving on with his life , which rihanna has then why do he get on twitter and say meanspirited things about rihannas new fellows brother whos has austism? why do he make comments to emply that rihannas fellow has got his left over? why do he have his inner circle get on the net and bash, low rate and spread lies on rihanna all over the net? why do he do these things? he has a anger problem, and he can not control his temper thats why he went off on the industry and the walmart telling them just what he thought because his music was not selling like he wants it to. i believe in second chances but this fellow needs to face his demons and get his life back on track and stop trying to get next to rihanna . he needs to call his boys back and tell all of them to stop bashing this young artist all over the net.

Chris Brown is human and we all make mistakes and like the bible says Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. He was wrong for hitting her but at the same time she is not as innocent as the media is portraying her I believe she pushed him to that point to where he just exploded! This media is harsh and we can be so unforgiving! When he walked on stage even before his breakdown I was in years for the simple fact I know how much this meant to him! I have always been a supporter of Chris and I will continue to support because his personal life doesn't have anything to do with his music! Team Chris!

O and to G...fyi he did apologize to rihanna numerous times even on live t.v....and once again fyi when you grow up in a household that was centered around domestic violence you tend to pick up on these issues. Just the same as sex offenders and other criminals. It's not like he's been doing this all his life he's only 21 years old. Hypocrites these days really urk my nerves.

I'm a female and i too was once in an abusive relationship and no i don't condone his behavior but we are all on the outside looking in. who knows what happened that night. The whole world wasn't sitting in that car watching their every move, argument and so forth, if we were then we'll know everything but we dont'. how can you tell someone else to stop adding fuel to the fire when you're doing the same. not one person but the victim and suspect know what happened basically his word against hers. like i said previously leave him alone and get on wit ya'll life for those who despise him..if you don't like him don't buy his music and don't pay attention do what you do...but hey everybody has their own opionions and i guess a hater will forever be a hater.

Shindler I agree!
Also, folks don't want to admit it but there is a generational preconditioning going on here in my community the broken family and the AA men and Women at odds. We were taught to whip/spank if you will, be seperate favor... all through the awards "light skinned is back".... There is a scar there that can't be healed. But, I can say that my people are a forgiving people in some instances. all of those aforementioned artists and atheletes... can be seen on the Black circuit participating and attending events! Mike Tyson, R Kelly.... Heck, Todd Bridges was there (BET) last night. It's the media that tries to keep one down because the mojority isn't fortunate to have a world view of humanity.... Tsk Tsk Tsk... still trying to keep the family apart and make a bafoon out of...

I can add nothing to this wonderfully written article, I'm afraid, without detracting from the focus that AP has provided for us. As I read this article, even though the focus was CB, AP's writing skills in this article just astounded me. I love the depth that she explored his circumstances and this event. I am so thrilled that she bothered to create such a thought-provoking piece, that is also truly relevant to anyone interested in our entertainment industry or in cultural ramifications. I do absolutely believe that in those moments, the culmination of the last couple of years was achieved for Chris as the meaning behind "Man in the Mirror" and the honor that was bestowed upon him to even be asked to perform this special tribute was realized. Sometimes, it is absolutely appropriate to be merciful, and what we witnessed in that performance was a rare view of a man who sincerely desires redemption, and who are we to judge him at this point? His talent is exceptional, as I have always thought since I first watched him perform "Wall-to-Wall" on the Tyra show years ago. I'll never forget it, because I had no idea who he was, but when I watched that young man dance and sing, the degree of pure talent was unmistakable - and undeniable. Who is this man, still a young man at that, if he is not given the opportunity to perform once again? He is doing what he was designed and built to do, just like each one of us are hopefully doing. He has served a sentence for his crime. Time will tell if he will truly become a stronger, wiser man. Personally, I think he will. I wish him the best and am eager to witness a successful comeback by this very, very talented young man.

 
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