So Rihanna. My how much can change in 48 hours! Cut to two days ago and Rihanna was floating about as high as any modern entertainer could ever desire. Over the course of the past six years, she had slowly but surely built one of the most solid careers in pop music today: hits that literally keep on coming at nothing short of torrential pace, industry respect, a worldwide legion of fans, style, cool factor, an impenetrable brand, all while somehow managing to seem like a regular down-ass, fun chick who you'd actually wanna kick it with on your free time (at least I did). However, I see this trek to the top as not just the culmination of her entire hit-laden career, although it certainly is to some degree. Rather, the new stratosphere of stardom that Rihanna was recently enjoying was mostly resultant in all the the work she had done since ex-boyfriend Chris Brown famously left her bloody and swollen after a squabble on Grammy night three years ago.
In the years following their altercation, Rihanna went from being a faceless, airless pop automaton, a lovely if disposable vehicle for hit song makers and nothing more, to a fully fledged and powerful pop persona and icon. Her rebellious, rollicking personality began to shine through in spades in her music and her style. She even became a somewhat-believable and worthy heir to Madonna and Janet's fierce warrior-woman stance on female sexuality, throwing hers in our faces in a way that felt resolutely powerful as opposed to coquettishly submissive (To see this transformation, look no further than a comparison of the videos for 2006's "Pon De Replay" and 2011's "S&M."). It didn't hurt that in this period, she released some of the most indelible hits in recent memory including a couple of the most enduring and memorable pop songs of our time. It is a rare convalescence in popular music to have songs that almost everyone, male, female, middle America, hipsters, your mom, your niece can all get behind and Rihanna has at least 10 of them -- a truly rare feat. This was all capped off by 2011's "We Found Love" and it's accompanying video -- at least one of the most universally adored pop songs that I can remember in my lifetime and at best the one moment of pop nirvana that fully encapsulated the past five years in the genre.
So why, at what seems like the pinnacle of her redemptive march towards personal and professional achievement, would Rihanna risk it all by releasing two songs with the ex who had painfully brutalized her for the world to see? More specifically, why would she chose to collaborate with Brown on THESE two tracks? To further put the release of "Turn Up The Music (Remix)" and more importantly "Birthday Cake (Remix)" into perspective, both of these tracks come on the heels of widespread rumors, but no solid proof, that the two are back together. However, especially with her song "Birthday Cake (Remix)," the lyrical content here addresses approximately none of the reality of what occurred between these two before our eyes three years ago, what has transpired for them individually or together since then, and what has lead them back together beyond broad sexuality. Instead, the lyrics to "Birthday Cake" are simply utterly frivolous, immensely aggressive sexual come-ons exchanged between the two which, at least for this writer, do nothing but conjure the very painful images of what this very aggression lead too the last time around (Brown: "I wanna fuck you right now / can't wait to blow her candles out").
Here's what bugs me about this entire affair: Rihanna is a 24-year-old woman. I am of the opinion that what this lady does with her personal life is her own business. It is impossible for us as the general public, or on the outside of ANY relationship for that matter whether celebrity or otherwise, to judge what two people have with one another. If Rihanna wants to get back together with Chris Brown, that is her prerogative and while we might not agree with her choices, we are in no position to judge her (Personally, I think Chris Brown is a egomaniacal nitwit who thinks far to highly of his own talent and looks, but that's just me). What annoys me is how Rihanna has chosen to go about announcing her forgiveness of this man to the world, and more specifically to the fans who have supported her throughout this time.
When you look back at Rihanna's initial interview with Diane Sawyer following Brown's attack, it is abundantly clear that while she is shaken to the core by the experience. She is trying to do everything in her power to express that she does not wish to harm Chris' career (obviously, impossible given when transpired). Furthermore, I would go on to say that it is clear from that interview that the reasons she broke up with Chris following the incident were NOT because she felt inclined to do so personally. It was because of the responsibility she felt towards her young fans and the influence she had over them. "When I realized that my selfish decision for love could result in some young girl getting killed, I could not be easy with that part. I couldn't be held responsible for going back." These were Rihanna's carefully selected words on the subject back then.
So why now then, Rihanna? What has changed between 2009 and 2012 that has taken you from feeling like you have this responsibility as a role model to clearly not giving a fuck? Looking back on this sentiment expressed 2009 leads me to to a couple of conclusions about these two remixes and their implications. First off as discussed earlier, the Rihanna of 2009 and the Rihanna of 2012 are two very different ladies. Two thousand-nine Rihanna, at least in her music and public persona, seemed very much dictated and created by the forces around her. It is pretty clear from the Diane Sawyer interview that she was given absolutely no choice by her handlers but to publicly dump Brown and subsequently go on TV and discuss what had happened in gruesome detail. It was a carefully calculated PR move where a woman's personal life was being hashed out from behind desks, in boardroom meetings and on ABC News. Having one's personal life dictated to you in this way at age 20 can not be easy for anyone and I would venture to say while Rihanna understood the necessity at the time for such a discussion, she probably also had a certain amount of resentment towards the forces that required her to be placed in that position.
In light of that, the upside of these remixes in my mind is that they represent Rihanna saying a giant "fuck you" to her label and management for trying to control any aspect of her personal life, persona or musical output. Actually for the first time, and fully in standing with her newly minted, unabashedly rebellious female character, Rihanna is announcing that no one, no publicist, manager or label exec can tell her how to run her life or career anymore. Rihanna 2012 appears to have released these songs without the consent of her handlers (Roc Nation, Rihanna's management, did not tweet or post the link to the song until 24 hours after Rihanna tweeted free links to them. This is highly unusual behavior for a management company and even then it seemed merely an act to cover themselves and appear in solidarity with their artist.). This middle finger to the music business machine is something that it would have been hard to imagine Rihanna 2009, the requisite label drone, doing.
However, despite seeing this as, to some degree, a stark statement of independence, I cannot condone in anyway what Rihanna has done here. The reason is not, as I said earlier, that I feel the right to pass any judgement on Rihanna's personal life decisions. I don't and frankly as long as she keeps churning out music and visuals of the quality that she has recently, her personal life is of zero consequence to me. What bothers me to no end about these songs is the way that Rihanna has treated her fans. By releasing these two trivial songs about sex between her and Chris Brown, she is taking her personal life and putting it directly into her professional output and more importantly, is doing so in a way that makes ultra light of everything that very publicly happened between the two. Releasing these remixes is not just saying "fuck you" to her label or her PR company. It's actually a "fuck you" to her fans who have gone on this journey with her and supported her.
Rihanna invited us to watch her cry to Diane Sawyer and to listen to and buy songs like "Russian Roulette" that seemed to directly address the trauma she experienced on that night. Subsequently, she invited us to cheer and dance as she reclaimed her sexuality and her power in songs like "Rude Boy," "S&M" and "Cockiness." So for her to now turn around and not just privately rekindle whatever she had with Chris Brown, which again is her total and utter right as a human, but to present it to her fans with a "haha actually it's all good, now listen to us talk about licking icing off each other" sentiment, is a seriously fucked up judgement call on her part. Why present an image to your fans that makes it seem like this has all been a giant game to you? Why laugh in the face of the very people who you asked to stand by you in an incredibly trying and fragile time in your career? It is this attitude that permeates especially "Birthday Cake" and that makes these remixes tacky at best and pretty much despicable at worst. This is all not even to mention the message it sends about domestic violence.
Let's just also say there that there are a million and one ways in which Rihanna could have let the world know that she had completely forgiven Chris that would have been tactful, discreet and kept her private life mostly private which is exactly what it should be. I don't really know what implications if any these decisions will have on Rihanna's career moving forward but I've definitely lost a certain amount of respect for her, respect which I feel, or at least felt, she worked long and hard to gain. What she did was incredibly immature and while she obviously had her reasons, I think she could have thought a bit more about what this says about how she feels about her fans who have not only made her rich and famous but who, whether she likes it or not, look to her as a role model.
What Rihanna has done by releasing these songs really says nothing new about her personal life. Looking back it is pretty clear that even after the beating, Rihanna still loved and pretty much immediately forgave Chris Brown for his actions. What it says more about is how she feels about her fans which, at present, seems like nothing short of complete disrespect.