On Pop Music and Violence Against Women
Stills from the "Stay" video
While we adults might have the ability to separate the artist from the what we perceive as the message (or realize that a song might not be autobiographical -- Rihanna didn't even write "Stay"), younger fans can't be expected to analyze in the same way. This song, and her defensiveness of Brown in the months following the attack, might best serve as insight into the psychology of an abused woman and the systematic and powerful methods of abusers.
Many people (mostly parents of little girls) were pissed that Rihanna seemed to make excuses for Brown in interviews following the incident. They argued that when you're an entertainer, you forfeit the right to deal with this kind of public situation in a private manner -- you may not defend or in any way stand by your abusive boyfriend. Parents argued that Rihanna was a role model and that sometimes entertainers actually do have a small responsibility to set an example for their younger fans.
I don't mean to blame the victim, but I, too, was disappointed with how that all played out. But I don't necessarily think that it's Rihanna's job to provide guidance to to young people and I wouldn't rely on any pop star to relay that message properly, either. So when this particular abuse story became public, I felt the need to talk to my pre-teen little sisters and make sure that they understood the situation. I wanted to make sure that they didn't think this was acceptable. I tried to explain to them the complicated and convoluted thought process that is common in victims of abuse. And I wanted to make sure they knew that Chris Brown is an asshole.
I can be reactionary, and if I had been a fan of Chris Brown I probably would've gotten rid of all of his music upon seeing those horrifying photos. I'd like to think that I couldn't be a fan of a man who would do that kind of thing to a woman -- but it's simply not true. Many, and I mean many, of my favorite artists are unsavory characters at best. Most of them probably have morals that aren't in agreement with mine. And if I think about it hard enough, some of them are known woman abusers.
My music collection contains absolute shitloads of jerks, creeps and murderers. In my personal life I have a zero-tolerance policy for men who hurt women, children or animals. I don't believe in rehabilitation for crimes against these groups, either. I'm of the opinion that men who cross these boundaries once will cross them again. But apparently this hard-line stance doesn't apply to my musical tastes. And if you think that every musical artist you love shares your same values, however serious or trivial they may be, think again.
I'm from St. Louis, which is probably considered a land of misogynists and apologists to outsiders because of the adoration we openly give to our hometown musicians like Chuck Berry and Ike Turner -- both known enemies of women. But still, I have tons of tunes by Berry and tracks from both Ike and Tina, separately and combined. (Tina Turner, another badass woman who was famously a victim of abuse.) Michael Jackson is in there, too. He was accused multiple times of inappropriate relationships with children, but that didn't stop him from being the biggest pop star in the world and having the majority of humans continue to hold him like the river Jordan. And though some referred to it as a "rape anthem," I've been known to shake it to Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines." Shit, even Charles Manson made some good tunes.
Phil Spector had a big long history of terrorizing women, until one day he finally went to prison for killing one. But that doesn't stop me from cranking the dial up to maximum volume any time I hear "Be My Baby." I think "Be My Baby" is the best song ever written and whatever Phil Spector did or didn't do in his life seems like it will never dampen my love for that song.
R. Kelly is accused of preying on underage females, which is particularly disgusting. (The Village Voice recently ran an excellent interview with respected music critic Jim DeRogatis on the subject.) But when I hear R. Kelly I don't usually think about his scandals. In fact, I've worn a necklace repping R. Kelly's "Ignition (Remix)" nearly every day since I got it last year. I love that necklace. And I love that stupid song.
So what the hell is wrong with me? Do I willfully overlook an artist's abusive past if I like to "bounce bounce bounce bounce bounce bounce bounce" to their song? Does a necklace really matter? Why do some artists trigger a reaction in me while others seem to get a pass? What gives here? Should I be thinking harder about all of this? Should I be thinking less about all of this?
There's a common criticism of feminists that we're too serious or can't take a joke or that every "little thing" doesn't have to be a fight, but I think some things are worth fighting for and that it's always appropriate to have a discussion about the safety of women.
Logically, I don't think that a pop star's personal life should influence how I feel about their music, but clearly, it's still an issue in my life. Maybe it shouldn't be, but there's something that's uncomfortable for me here. And when I'm uncomfortable I speak out. Or scream. Many thanks to the Riot Grrrls for teaching me about the power of the female voice -- I intend to keep using it.