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

June 28, 2010 |  3:54 pm

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

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