Dearest Rih Rih:
A few months ago - before “Talk That Talk” gave you another Top 10 album on the Billboard 200, before you performed “We Found Love” and “Princess of China” at the Grammy Awards, before new rumors swirled that you were engaged in a secret romance with past flame Chris Brown, and certainly before yesterday’s reported news that Breezy was the guest star on your forthcoming “Birthday Cake” remix - you appeared on “Ellen” to discuss being named the sexiest woman alive by Esquire, among other things. During your interview, you shared your feelings on the concept of being a role model, and why, recently, you have not adhered to this expected albatross of musical stardom.
"I used to worry about it a lot. Then I realized the message I really want to send is not perfection - it’s individuality," you said in the November 2011 sit-down. "Being who you really are, knowing who you really are and being just that. There’s only one of you, so just be that."
An Open Letter to Chris Brown
Over the past few weeks, as new murmurs linking you and Chris Brown became shouts, I kept thinking about your words, kept rolling them around in my mind and trying to make sense of the key word in your declaration, “individuality.” Over the course of your career, your ability to adopt new looks and sounds without losing your indispensable sense of self has been nothing short of staggering, and has no doubt become the bedrock of your longevity. From the dancehall princess of “Pon de Replay” to the stylish hip-pop diva of “Umbrella” to the militant provocateur of “Hard” to the sex-starved rave maven of “S&M,” no one — not even Madonna! — has been able to strike so many successful poses in such a short amount of time. It’s been damn impressive to witness, and even more fun to listen to.
The unique malleability of your persona has informed your career, and you’ve continued your success recently without expressing yourself as a role model for kids. You drop immaculately produced ballads like “California King Bed” after parent’s-worst-nightmare fetish anthems like “S&M” without batting a beautiful eye. Musicians certainly shouldn’t have to be worried about who’s looking up to them when composing their art - some of the best music of all time, from the Beatles to Nirvana to Kanye West, has been morally questionable but intoxicating in its recklessness. You’re correct in underlining the importance of individuality in your music. The problem, of course, is when you try to translate that theory to the public sphere, which you have unwittingly done by associating with our good friend Mr. Brown.
No matter how many parents you tell to avoid taking their kids to your hyper-sexualized concerts, or how many times you command us to “Suck my cockiness, lick my persuasion” on your albums, you are a role model, Rihanna. Mostly because you’re cool! You’re effortlessly cool. You are Eddie Winslow, and the rest of us are Steve Urkels. When you’re shocking, it’s not off-putting. When you’re crass, it feels fresh. You’re the cool kid in school, and could top the Hot 100 by singing the phone book. And this whole Chris Brown thing could define your career, in the best and worst way possible.
I don’t care about the status of your current relationship with Breezy, or the reports about his attendance at your birthday party (happy 24th, by the way!), or how many seconds his voice will appear on the “Birthday Cake” remix. Those could be facts, or fabrications. What I do know, however, is that, in the three years and nine days since that infamous, brutal, incredibly disturbing Grammy night attack in 2009, there has never been a point where you’ve publicly proclaimed, “Go fuck yourself, Chris Brown; you will never speak to me again.” Not in the months after the attack occurred, when everything felt raw to everyone. Not when your fans freaked out when you two following each other on Twitter again last year. And not when Us Weekly ran a report that you were still harboring a romantic relationship with him - Brown’s camp denied the report, but you and your camp did not. Because that “fuck yourself” moment has never occurred, we can only deduce that, whether or not your current relationship with Brown is even slightly romantic, there is something holding you back from cursing this dude out of your life forever.
And to me, that’s… not the most PC stance to take, especially when millions of impressionable people are watching your every move, but it’s obviously an extremely personal decision to publicly deal with a situation not many people can understand (although far too many can). If you don’t want to call out Brown in the press or waste your breath on any of the rumors floating around, who is to say that’s the wrong way to handle things?
But the news about CB dropping by your “Birthday Cake” remix… damn. Three years and nine days later, it is officially implied that, no matter if you two are “single” or “in a relationship” or “it’s complicated,” a token of forgiveness has been earned by Brown. And that’s not cool, to a whole lot of people.
Look, you could do this one song with Brown and never work with him again, or go record “Watch The Pop Throne” with him. You two could become a couple again and get married in Vegas next week. Maybe you want none of those things, or all of those things; you certainly have the right to do any of those things. In your words, “there’s only one you, so just be that.” Do you, Rihanna!
But, in all honesty… you can’t do you, Rihanna. Not here. Not with Chris Brown. Because like it or not, millions of people are paying attention to you, trying to be as cool as you, attempting to find love in a hopeless place and wondering if it’s okay to walk down the same dark alleyway twice. Young girls look up to people like you to guide them through circumstances too complex for them to tackle on their own, and by granting Chris Brown an iota of tolerance, you implicitly encourage others to consider doing the same. “With great power comes great responsibility” is a schmaltzy sentiment, but it’s fitting here — like it or not, you have a different level of power than most of us schmoes because of your pop superstardom, and a different level of responsibility in your personal life than in your music because of the tabloid-infected culture we live in. It’s a burden that is not fair to you, or anyone in pop culture, but it’s one you have to accept.
If you continue letting Chris Brown slither into your work or personal life, nothing tremendous will happen - bloggers will blog and a backlash will form, but you’ll no doubt continue ruling the Hot 100 and the world will keep spinning. Yet if you grit your teeth, sacrifice instinct and decide to inspire… even three years removed from that horrific incident, that “fuck yourself” moment, that public banishment of the man who physically attacked you, will still resonate with so many people looking for their own morsel of strength. As essential as your voice has become in the pop landscape, you have the opportunity to deliver a message that transcends any lyric you could ever sing, to stand for something that lasts much longer than any three-minute piece of radio fodder. We, like you, all want to let our individuality shine - to know who we are, and just be ourselves - but in this one instance, we need your message to be perfect.
A concerned member of the Navy,
Jason Lipshutz, Billboard.com Staff