“I hate that guy.” That’s what you’re bound to think first upon hearing that Chris Brown has announced a new album — if you reside in the camp that believes Chris Brown is a deplorable human, that is. It’s not his music that targets your animosity — not specifically, anyway. But him. You hate Chris Brown. And whatever you think of harmonic dexterity, you’re not willing to give the Fortune follow-up, which MTV reveals will be available later this year, a second thought. It doesn’t matter if his music is any good — you’re just not on board with him as a human being. Therefore, you have no room in your life for his art.
And while we’re hardly making this claim in the interest of attracting an audience to Brown’s next array of trash compactor sounds set to lyrics about lounge bathrooms, we can't help but wonder: should we try to take an ubiased look at Brown’s music before we cast it out? Or are we right to boycott all output from the artist based solely on the vicious act of violence he imparted upon his girlfriend Rihanna in 2009? Is this distinction — between the individual and his or her work — one that needs to be made?
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George Washington owned slaves and dabbled in drugs. Albert Einstein treated his wife like a servant and neglected his illegitimate daughter. Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, was vehemently in favor of detention camps for Japanese Americans. But we’re perfectly fine with glossing over all that.
We’re well aware of the transgressions of figures like those listed above — men whose toils resulted in the likes of modern democracy and Hop on Pop. We know that behind many historical triumphs there live imperfect characters, riddled with corruption, cruelty, and intolerance. But instead of honing in on personal maladies, we’re inclined to keep our eyes on the achievements in government, science, and the arts. At least when it comes to dead people.
Separating the individual from the work is none too prevalent a practice when it comes to contemporary figures. While the contributions of Washington and Einstein live on with vigor long past the expiration of these men (and their indiscretions) the public icons of today do not have the same kind of statute of limitations working in their favor. And as privacy is a luxury so few know in this day and age, we experience the influence of personal wrongdoings tenfold.
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We oust political figures from office over ordeals of sexual deviancy and blacklist actors for racial epithets. We can’t watch a Mel Gibson movie without recalling his infamous anti-Semitic rant or a Tom Cruise flick without braving thoughts of the allegations of psychological abuse with which his name has been associated — as such, many of us will abstain from watching altogether. But are Tom Cruise and his movies one and the same? Is there harm in shirking an artist’s work due entirely to the artist’s off-screen character?
Taking, for a moment, the quality of Brown's music out of the equation, it is the very idea of this alienation that conjures concerns. As expressed via the above examples, valuable achievements can come from objectionable sources: Washington, Einstein, Seuss. Roman Polanski, guilty of child molestation, is responsible for a number of cinematic masterpieces. Oscar Scott Card, an outspoken homophobe, created the popular science-fiction tome Ender’s Game. Ray Charles, an adulterous heroin addict, forever changed the genres of blues, jazz, and rock and roll.
The question is an especially biting one when it comes to the music industry. More than a piece of film, television, or even literature, a song seems to be inherently connected to the essence of its creator. When you’re listening to a Chris Brown song, you feel like you’re listening to — and as such connecting with, communicating with, supporting — Chris Brown.
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In Brown's case, the issue is greeted with even more jaw-clenching fury, however, because Brown doesn’t seem at all interested in separating himself from his work. Antics like announcing his new album just a day prior to girlfriend Rihanna’s 25th birthday exhibit a willingness to associate his work with his personal affairs. Brown constantly sells himself (and his music) under a label of rehabilitation, with a misguided Rihanna’s vigorously enabling his efforts. Brown seems satisfied with who he is, and, furthermore, with his listeners connecting to that very character. And what’s scary is, many of them seem to. A slew of legitimately terrifying messages hit the Internet in the wake of Brown’s crime, with fans of the singer/songwriter excusing his actions based on their affinity for his music and good looks.
Justin Bieber, a contemporary of Brown’s, rules in favor of judging Brown’s actions separately from his music. “Chris Brown. I’m a fan,” Bieber said, as reported by Hollywood Life. “His music is really good. That’s what they should focus on: his music.”
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The real meat of the debate asks whether support for Brown’s music entails support for his actions. Is any sort of propagation of his validity, as an artist, some form of a free pass for the disgusting act of abuse for which he is responsible? Even if we can distance our own judgments of Brown when considering his music, will said consideration be taken into account by the observers — society, and Brown himself?
Plain and simple, we’re not sure. With passion for artistic expression resting steadily in our hearts, we want to say that an individual’s personal life and his or her creations should be distinct entities. We grant this favor when watching Chinatown or reading Ender’s Game. We’ll even enjoy Mad Max on a rainy day. But not without a sheath of guilt — while their crafts might warrant merit, we don’t want to support the people who inspire this debate. We don’t want to put another dollar into the pockets of the men and women who propagate ideas we detest or enact deeds we can’t even stomach. We want to be able to look at a piece of art for what it is, not for who made it. But we might never be able to do so objectively and shamelessly.
But we’re in luck here, friends — because at the end of the day, Chris Brown is also a pretty crappy musician. Ergo, we don’t have to worry about liking any part of him. Problem solved.
[Photo Credit: Jeff Fusco/Getty Images]
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