We live in a post-Winehouse world, where pop stars no longer hide their character flaws and pretend to be perfect (what’s up, Whitney Houston). They come out with them. They sing about them. Maybe they let the industry exploit them, but it’s not necessarily such a bad thing, this kind of dramatic honesty. If we’ve gone through something similar, it makes us feel less alone. If we haven’t, maybe it makes us think of certain issues in a new, less-judgey way. One of my favorite songs of the past few years is Eminem’s “Love the Way You Lie,” with Rihanna singing desperately on that brilliant chorus about being cyclically attracted to someone who’s very bad for her. It’s a beautiful song about sick love, which most of us have experienced on some level.
Rihanna’s new single “Birthday Cake (Remix),” featuring her abusive ex Chris Brown, isn’t the same sort of thing. First of all, it’s a bad song. It’s just some skeletal, grindy track about wanting to get it on. But that isn’t its greatest sin. We all have sex and hand in sub-par work at times, though I hope not as often with someone who has beat us to a bloody pulp and choked us until we couldn’t breathe.
Rihanna just turned 24. We know this because we heard all about Brown showing up at her birthday party, tweeting birthday wishes at her and her tweeting back, all apparently part of the buzz build up for last night’s shadowy release of the pair of singles they collaborated on: “Birthday Cake” and Brown’s somewhat catchy “Turn Up the Music.” Still, she’s acting like a teenager whose daddy doesn’t want her to be with the bad boy in school. “They can say whatever, Ima do whatever… No pain is forever,” she tweeted the other day, quoting “Hard” from her album Rated R. She must think she sounds so tough.
I never get like this. I’m not your grandma. I don’t expect pop stars to be models of morality and prudence, especially not when they’re still really young. As my friend Johanna Fateman, of the feminist electro-pop band Le Tigre put it, “None of us is so naive to think that the careers of popular artists cannot survive the exposure of despicable acts, but with Chris Brown, I am shocked by his lack of credible remorse.” It’s true. Jerks make good stuff sometimes (what’s up, Kanye), and Chris Brown has apologized for his assault on Rihanna, but he has also screamed at journalists, broken things in fits of rage and, more recently, gloated about winning a Grammy despite all of it. Rihanna, on the other hand, is forgiving, sexually pleasing and potentially self-destructive. She’s a much bigger star than he is. She could have gone on making epic club tracks with any number of male collaborators. “What’s My Name?” with Drake was great! They dated. He seems like an okay guy. What was wrong with him, RiRi? Better yet, do like Tina Turner and make it all on your own. Tina forgave Ike, and that’s important, but you didn’t see him singing on her stuff.
So why does Chris Brown get a piece of Rihanna’s action after he handed her a beat down? Because he apologized for it? Because he didn’t really mean it? Because the incident was partially her fault? Because he deserves a second chance? Because Rihanna has “moved on” and so should we? If the function of a pop star is to mirror society, at times cartoonishly, outlandishly, disgustingly, then these two win the game. They are playing out the cycle of abusive, effed up relationships that happens all around us, all the time. Unfortunately, this situation sends a destructive message about it. (If you really want to be horrified, look at this.)
It’s not clear yet who made the decision to get this troubled couple working together again, nor do we know for sure if they are hanging out in their free time. If this is Rihanna’s way of giving closure to the situation, then she has failed. We are all talking about it now. And if that was the whole idea, if this is a publicity ploy devised by her reps, then please, please let it fail. Let this pair of singles be an embarrassment to the people who greenlit them. They’re not even good songs.
Cristina Black has written about music, fashion, feminism and other cultural issues for Village Voice, Time Out New York, Nylon and Dazed & Confused among other publications. She is currently the entertainment editor for surf style magazine Foam. She is also a pianist and ukulele player who writes and sings uncommon pop songs, performing frequently in New York City and beyond.