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The singer or the song? Reconciling Chris Brown's 'F.A.M.E.' with his infamy

A few weeks ago, I was in the car with a female friend when Chris Brown’s song “Deuces” came on the radio. The song was probably my favorite single of last year -– its silvery synth chords, house-inspired vocal jitters and eerie harmonies made it one of the most sonically evocative tunes on mainstream radio. But that’s not why I turned it up. “It’s maybe the most narcissistic thing ever put to tape," I told my friend. 

For me, this was one of the song’s central selling points, albeit a kind of extra-textual one.  It so evocatively channeled the dark corners of the self-justifying mind that it became a kind of religious artifact from a lost civilization of sociopaths. No one writing a fictional character could compete with it for insight into the bleaker corners of the mind. "All that bull... is for the birds / You ain't nothin' but a vulture /Always hopin' for the worst / Waitin' for me to ... up." Edward Albee couldn't pen a more poisonous first-person take on a relationship.

Meanwhile, my friend sat in silence. By the time of the infamous Ike & Tina line, she demurred. “This is gross,” she said, and asked that I turn it off. “I just can’t believe he gets away with this.”

Related: Album review: Chris Brown's 'F.A.M.E.'

I spent the rest of the ride wondering whether I was secretly the jerk here. Music has a long history of great songs by hurtful people, and fans of entire genres such as gangsta rap and black metal have to listen with a constant cognitive dissonance between the art and the artist. Some people enjoy personal misanthropy as theater, others apologize for it and try to appreciate the rest of the music. But what does it mean when real-life bad behavior makes a good song even more compelling?

A nimble dancer with a thousand-watt grin and an increasingly adventurous ear, Brown seemed poised to take the King of Pop mantle as recently as 2009. Then he made some grievous mistakes. Then he kept making them. But an unexpected thing happened along the way -– his music got really, really good.

Even beyond “Dueces,” his other singles have been sneakily, unnervingly powerful in similar ways. His underperforming album "Graffiti" had a tangled, delirious single in "I Can Transform Ya," which made no mention of his 2009 assault on then-girlfriend Rihanna and felt audacious coming out mere months after it -- and others noticed.

But "F.A.M.E." is even better. “Look at Me Now” is arresting minimalist noise music, built on Diplo’s rubbery chromatic synths and processed drum machines that slither around to change the mood. Brown deftly treads between singing and rapping in today’s au courant way, and Busta Rhymes just shoots the lights out of his guest verse.

The swagger of “Look at Me Now” also comes from the bawdy sexual pursuit of the track -- "Better cuff your chick if you're with her / I can get her." It's sopping with the extra-textual context of his real life conduct and deep desire to return to his Cassanova status. That makes an already spooky, threatening song even more devilish.

Taken with the vicious worldview of “Deuces,” and when listened to alongside the facts of his life, these songs show a facade cracking, and are totally arresting for it. 

When Brown was the bring-home-to-Mom nice guy, he still had an allegiance to such boilerplate ballads as  “With You,” but in some way being the real life villain has charged his mind with a desperation that make his songs feel much more visceral and ambitious.

The domestic violence he pleaded guilty to is horrifying and inexcusable. But audiences have always had a fascination not just with “bad boy” artists (and this situation generally applies to men) but also with how real-life action changes the hue of someone's work. Nirvana felt weightier for Kurt Cobain's suicide; Michael Jackson's erratic life derailed some of the most perfect music in pop.

In today’s hyper-mediated culture, maybe the end result of constant public supervision is not more celebrity slip-ups but fewer. And in a primal way, maybe that’s why we still find Chris Brown fascinating -- he’s having a very rough time navigating the irreconcilable conflicts between his life, his public image and his music. So how unsettling is it that such turmoil seems to make his music more interesting?

Does that amount to an endorsement of awful behavior? Of course not. I wish I could listen to “Deuces” and not remember those leaked police photos of Rihanna’s face. But it does reinforce the notion that if art is supposed to reveal uncomfortable truths in its audience and about its creator, Chris Brown's deep troubles are informing some of the most revealing music today.


Chris Brown: No charges, a nice dinner, strong album sales and an invite back to 'GMA' [Video]

Chris Brown's 'GMA' outburst: Making headlines for the wrong reasons on release day

Live review: Chris Brown at the Avalon

-- August Brown

Comments () | Archives (5)

Don't care how catchy his new music is. Once an abuser, always an abuser.

I and my friend sat in a resturant and was talking about the keri Hilson cd No Boy allow. When two people across from the table decided to talk about Chris Brown in a negative way. They knew they were to close for us not to hear what they were saying. I in turn adore Chris Brown. I have also bought three FAME cd in supporting him. I think he is no where like Charlie Sheen, Mel Gibson, Eminem,JayZ, Alec Baldwin or one time woman beater tie them up Sean Penn. That have continuely escape jail time for the horrendous act of violence against women. I did say women and not woman. Unlike these men Chris Brown which has been involed in numerous charity events and even develop and symphonic foundation of arts for children . Over the past two years I have watch this young man try harder than any of these men who have more than violated women I mention. But, yet the person before me has to mention that once a woman always a woman beater. I believe t Nostradamus is dead. I have to laugh at the fact this commentator even cares to comment on Chris Brown. I believe Chris is one of the most powerful Entertainers this world will have the pleasure of seeing perform in the World. It's a shame that people are not giving him the chance to grow and learn from his mistakes. I believe and pray for Chris Brown to continue to develop and learn in becoming stronger and wiser as time go on. Good luck Chris. You are loved.

Sounds like melody would not mind being the next mrs c. brown.

Can you say "chris brown - beat down" 3x fast- with a fat lip?

I think that a lot of the people who can't forgive Chris Brown didn't really know much about him as a person before the incident.

That's why the true fans are still supporting him, because they know that he is truly a good fun-loving person.

People who don't really know him get angry with every step he takes, but his true fans love to see him happy and successful because he deserves it.

He is a very talented artist/performer and I support him.

I think people get caught up in the hype and 'oooh he can dance' and 'oooh he has a nice smile'...Do you really think that the one and only time he was violent was when he beat her in that car? Yeah right, his one and only act of violence. had it not went down publically he probably would have beat her (again) and not stopped until he ws caught.

Then he gets some soft ball questions, that were not even dramatic and he loses his temper again and acts out violently again? Hurling chairs, breaking windows....All that showed me was that he is still a violent person, his first reaction is to still act outin rage and the fact that he defended himself and said "I was just blowing off a little steam' makes me further know for certain that he has not changed. Blowing off steam and what he did at GMA was not at ALL even close. But he will be fine becauise obsessive fangirls can't see past the cute smaile or leaked nude pictures and are convinced he is thisgreat fun guy...

You all do not know Chris Brown, all you know is what he says in interviews and what you see on tv so how are you convinced he is this happy fun loving and sweet guy who 'made a mistake' I am convinved he is rage filled and faied anger management miserably because of his actions, you know FACTS, you know not just assuming he is so fantastic just because he is cute and can sing and dance...I hope he gets it together. We will see...


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