Thursday, March 19, 2009

Teenyboppers and Art

There's a mystifying article in the NYT Styles section about teen girls sticking up for Chris Brown, pop idol and, it seems, domestic abuser, and blaming his also-glam girlfriend Rihanna for having been out of line. The Times piece offers four main reasons why young girls are defending Brown, seemingly against their own interests, which Gawker lists here.

Contrary to the consensus, the explanation for the girls' behavior has nothing to do with the fact that the singers and their fans are young and of color, or that the genre in question is pop music, and has perhaps been overlooked because of these facts. The obvious answer is the following, pretty much universal, trope: an Artist - a male one, at any rate - lives by a different set of rules. Thinking for a moment about high rather than pop culture, it takes seconds to come up with Geniuses whose crappy behavior (wife-beating; collaboration with Nazis; general irritability) is excused or even denied. The thinking goes:

a) The Art is more important than the lowly artist.

b) A man with great gifts should not be expected to burden himself with everyday niceties, such as not being an ass to his muse. No matter if the muse has great gifts herself. (Any existential philosophers come to mind?)

c) The Artist is tempestuous, needing outlets for his superhuman stores of energy.

d) An Artist is too wrapped up in Art to fully understand, say, that Nazis are bad news, and will get excited about the aesthetics of fascism without bothering himself with the facts on the ground.

And so on.

This is, in short, nothing new, nor is it a Great Sociological Statement about Young People Today and their attitudes regarding domestic violence. (Will journalists be able to find quotes from teens who claim the situation does in fact mirror their own lives? Of course, but that's part of the defend-the-artist endeavor. Might there be greater problems with dating violence in inner-city communities? Perhaps, but the Brown-Rihanna Affair sheds just about no light on the matter.) Even those who would otherwise condemn Crap Behavior X might defend or ignore it when its perpetrator created something they consider beautiful.


PG said...

I don't think your explanation is sound, for a few different reasons:

1) Rihanna is also an artist, possibly a more famous one than Chris Brown. If we just wanted to protect the creative person, it wouldn't make sense to defend Brown at Rihanna's expense.

2) Can you point to an time/place where wife-beating was condoned just for artists but was deprecated for everyone else? Wife beating was *legal* -- not considered the criminal assault it would be if the victim weren't the wife -- in Europe and North America until relatively recently.

3) There seems to be a significant disparity between white kids and black kids on this issue, with the black kids more reluctant to want Brown to be arrested, charged, tried and possibly punished, even though he's a huge crossover success and hardly identified with the urban experience (dude was on three episodes of the O.C.!). I am inclined to agree with the NYT-quoted professor who said that there's a sense in many black communities that the boys and men are socially fragile and susceptible to being lost to the community, especially due to prison, so even women who may be their victims are protective of them when they are threatened by that possibility.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Ok, I'll do my best to respond...

1) Rihanna's the woman. I tend to think this matters more than who's more famous. (Before this I'd heard of Rihanna and not Brown, so I'm agreeing re: their relative fame.) The point is defending the creative man, not person. (Again, Sartre and De Beauvoir)

2) Many things are legal but considered despicable, and I'd imagine for much of, say, the 19th century, wife-beating was often - not always - one of those. But I'm more thinking about recent articles on V.S. Naipaul and other misogynistic but respected 20th C writers.

3)Are white kids even thinking about the issue (and not, say, Lohan's lesbianism)? Do they idolize Brown in equal numbers? Because if not, he is not 'the Artist' to them, so they'd be expected not to defend him on that count. Again, maybe there is a 'crisis of masculinity' in certain communities. But I don't see Rihanna-Brown as a useful window through which to investigate it, because there's too much else going on.

PG said...

1) I don't think Sartre and de Beauvoir are analogous to Rihanna and Brown, considering that The Independent could run a headline in May 2008 that Beauvoir only recently has eclipsed Sartre as a philosopher and writer, while during their lifetimes he was the bigger celebrity. His name certainly seems to be better known than hers.

2) I don't think you can compare psychological abuse and misogyny like Naipaul's and Sartre's to what Brown did, especially when talking about teenagers' morality. Psychological abuse comes standard for adolescents and teenagers as part of social life; if you can't stand that heat, you withdraw to books or video-games or some other solitary pursuit that doesn't require you to keep a poker face when the popular kids pick on you. Physical abuse, on the other hand, is pretty undebatable: those are bruises, that's a split lip, and if a stranger did that to you in the street you'd holler for the cops, so why are you accepting it from your boyfriend?

3) I don't think we'd be seeing this level of coverage if the matter were solely of interest to black people.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

One last, pathetic attempt...

1) Agreed, De Beauvoir and Sartre are not a perfect comparison couple. But that doesn't mean the notion that the Artist can get away with anything isn't specific to male artists, and that maleness might transcend relative lack of fame.

2)I'm not sure psychological abuse is all that standard. Middle schoolers especially are evil and all, but I tend to think the word 'abuse' refers to truly extreme cases. (The Myspace suicide case comes to mind.)

3)It's not solely of interest to blacks, nor (more importantly) to teenagers. But the fans themselves, who (by my theory) see Brown as The Artist who can do no wrong, might well mostly be black teenagers. (Plus, the argument could be made that, post-Obama, whites are slightly more willing to hear about situations involving only blacks. I'm not sure I'd be confident making that argument, however.)

I'm willing to accept I've been out-argued on all this. But I do think there's something to the idea that an artist is allowed to get away with more than a regular person, and that this doesn't stop being true when the art form in question is commercial teen pop, in other words, that the phenomenon is not specific to high culture. I just feel that angle was ignored in the coverage of the incident, because 'inner city youth and dating violence' is a sexier topic than 'Brown, Celine, and what we put up with in artists'.

PG said...

Someone who is regarded as an artist is indeed given more berth, but I'm not sure to what extent that's true for pop culture celebrities who seem to be admired just because they've made it rather than for their internal genius. Does anyone really think that Chris Brown is unique and irreplaceable? Michael Jackson got away with some weird stuff for a long time because it fit so well with his persona and he was perceived as a true creative who must be allowed his eccentricities. If Clay Aiken had tried having sleepovers with little kids, forget about it.

One hypothetical coming to mind would be if all the Backstreet Boys had been outed as gay at the height of their fame -- they wouldn't have gotten the "well you know artists are unusual" thing, they would have been wholly replaced by the next teenybopper boy band. Ditto if the Jonas Brothers admitted to being less than pure. They're all basically disposable and I think even the teenagers who love them aren't invested in their being geniuses.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Once again, the fact that I know who Rihanna is, but of Brown all I know is he beat Rihanna, I can't really comment on where he ranks on the Spice Girls to Wagner spectrum.

Your hypothetical brings up an interesting if slightly unrelated question. At least among white pop stars, it's been the thing for the last decade or so that they be Christians, virgins, 'pure', and so forth. (Leading, of course, to the inevitable OMG Britney's not a virgin anymore! Miley's almost nekkid! headlines.) This was not always the case of mainstream pop musicians, even those known to appeal to teens (my membership in the Nirvana-to-Green Day generation is showing). I'll confess that I don't know if the 'purity' requirement exists in the same way for black pop stars. For mainstream hip-hop artists of any race, being 'pure' is, clearly, not first priority. But I do not know what's typically demanded of pop stars who appeal to black 15-year-old girls.

Anonymous said...

Hmm. Tina Turner comes to mind, famous in part for having overcome the abuse of her equally famous partner. Maybe Turner benefited by/inspired feminism, whereas Rihanna is a distinctly post-feminist victim.

PG said...


I don't think that pop stars who are meant to appeal to the 13+ crowd are marketed with the purity thing nearly so much as the ones who are going for the tween market. Britney, 'Nsync, Backstreet Boys, and Miley Cyrus most of all were marketed toward kids who were younger than 13. The example for our generation would actually be New Kids on the Block, not Green Day. I thought the South Park episode on this was kind of brilliant: for it to be safe for pre-pubescent girls to be sighing over a pop star, the pop star must be aggressively virginal.

As for how this works with black pop stars... good question. I can't remember who would have been big around the same time as NKOTB, although I distinctly remember the mini-furor when Janet Jackson went "nasty" with her album janet. Maybe Boyz II Men? I liked them when I was in middle school, but I don't remember having the latency-phase romantic attitude toward them that I felt for NKOTB (Jonathan in particular). I'm pretty sure purity and innocence were important for the Jackson 5, but that was a group of actual children. And also in a time when celebrities' private lives were slightly less publicized; Jackie, Tito and Jermaine might have been screwing everything that moved while singing about their desperate desire to hold your hand, girl.


A good example, although the abuse in their marriage apparently wasn't known until Tina left him and accused him of it. People might have reacted differently if the abuse had become known while the relationship was ongoing -- it's hard to get past the "it can't be that bad or all his fault if she's still with him" reaction.