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Will Chris Brown Win the Publicity Battle?

Posted: 02/19/09 10:56 AM ET

Chris Brown's battle to return to viability began over the weekend when he and his father released statements expressing his remorse, contrition, sadness, and promises that the public story -- which alleges Chris beat his then girlfriend Rihanna until she looked, according to police, "horrific" -- was not what it seemed. (Chris's mother was conspicuously silent.) But is the battle winnable?

That campaign -- which is really a fight to reclaim control of his image -- exists apart from his legal trial, though of course not independent of it. He could win his legal fight but lose the image war because the rules of evidence in a court of law are more stringent than in the court of public opinion. Indeed Chris's legal needs and his image needs already seem to be fighting each other. From an image standpoint it was strange for Chris to let a week go by before commenting publicly, a week in which gory details seeped out day by day and were allowed to sit and fester in the public imagination. But that silence is to be expected when a trial looms and certainly Chris's lawyer Mark Gergagos muffled his client, not allowing Chris to poison his own legal case and put his freedom at risk with a revealing statement. (Hiring Geragos seems a curious choice for the image war -- sure he's a top-flight criminal lawyer but many minds immediately connect him with Scott Peterson, someone convicted of nightmarish domestic violence.)

There are several recording artists currently fighting similar battles, asking for fans' patience or forgiveness while they slog through major personal quagmires. T.I. is about to do a year in prison for attempting to buy guns illegally. R Kelly is letting the dust settle after a rocky 2008 where he was acquitted of child pornography then told me during a televised interview that even though he's 42 years old, "I have 19 year-old friends." Amy Winehouse is a perpetual drug abuser, arrested in England for appearing to smoke crack while paparazzi photos reveal an emaciated, skeletal, chemical- ravaged frame. And Britney Spears has gone from darling to punchline after a long string of bizarre incidents. It's hard to say any of these people are currently winning their battles and succeeding like they did before their troubles became known. Britney's last album sold more than a million copies but hasn't given her career the momentum it so badly needs. T.I.'s last album also went platinum and most of the hiphop cognoscenti don't expect his incarceration to derail his career but we won't know until he's out of jail. Kelly and Winehouse are both sitting on the sidelines, new albums overdue. But Chris's hurdle is perhaps taller than all of theirs because his incident was a shocker: the story runs so counter to his well- established image that it seems to attack it.

T.I. is a tough-talking ex-drug dealer whose gun arrest was disappointing and perhaps shockingly stupid but no one was shocked to discover T.I. buys guns. Amy's first big hit single had her cheekily and stubbornly refusing rehab. Britney's given us almost nothing but strange behavior since 2004 when she was married for 72 hours then six months later married again. And R Kelly's been widely rumored to like underage girls for almost 15 years -- ever since he married Aaliyah when she was 15. (This is not a rumor: I called the Cook County Records Office and got a copy of the marriage certificate back then, when I was working for MTV News.) None of those stars recent problems surprised us, none demanded fans rejigger their place in our minds.

But Chris had convinced us he was a nice guy. His mostly teenage fans saw him as the sort of sweet, innocent, trustworthy, chivalrous, pretty boy you could bring home to mom. R&B singers serve as fantasy boyfriends for their fans, many of whom imagine themselves to be in relationships with the star. Chris played that role perfectly: just shy enough to not seem like a player but confident enough to let girls know he knew what to do. But now the central part of his image has been shattered. How can he brand himself as a fantasy boyfriend with allegations of vicious domestic violence hanging over his head? How does that fit into a teenage girls' fantasies? He's forced his fans to either radically rethink his image or cling to the image they had, deny the news they've heard is real, and pray that some exculpatory details emerge, creating cognitive dissonance so great that it'll surely bring on a migraine. And instead of the boy you could bring home to mom, now moms are his enemy. Many will be unwilling to let Chris's picture stay on their teens' wall, or to allow his music to be played in the car, or, worst for him, to let allowance money be spent on his concerts.

Touring is the center of most artists' income -- at this point albums are almost loss leaders that hopefully motivate fans to buy concert tickets and merchandise from which the artist can profit handsomely. Ultimately Chris and the other troubled artists are really battling to get their image and appeal into a shape where fans will come to their concerts and interact with them face to face. Again, the hurdle for Chris is higher than for the others -- where they're looking for 20somethings to come to their tours (that includes Britney who crossed over from kiddie pop into adult pop years ago), Chris's audience consists mostly of teenagers, most of whom access money through parents who will be harsher judges of Chris's behavior.

It's impossible to say how many diehard fans Chris has already lost -- surely some but certainly not all. But few artists have enough diehards to make a national tour out of -- they also need to lure casual fans and what I'll call gadfly fans. Diehards consider a given artist their favorite and will buy anything they release. Casual fans like the given artist, probably put them in their top five, and will buy product or tickets when sufficiently motivated. Gadflies don't particularly like the artist, they fall into liking a particular song or album and buying a ticket if the buzz around the artist grows loud enough, but they'll never again be interested in that artist. While many of Chris's diehards will stick with him even if a trial begins, the less attached fan has probably already heard enough to sour them on Chris forever: he was alone with his girlfriend and she ended up in the hospital with bruises on her face.

Rihanna's physical pain is another major problem for Chris. When T.I. acquires guns or Winehouse takes drugs they're only hurting themselves and self-destruction is so rock n roll. Tragically, many believe that statutory rape is a victimless crime, thinking both of them consented to sex. But Chris allegedly inflicted severe pain on another person.

Chris's battle has just begun and it's impossible to know how it'll end. The comparisons to the Ike Turner situation fall short because Ike's heavy-handedness wasn't widely known about until years after his peak -- the instantaneous national awareness of Chris's situation and the modern multimedia echo chamber make this much more visceral. He's shocked his young fans and destroyed his sweet loverboy image while inflicting pain on a rich, beautiful female star who no one can denigrate as a golddigger trying to exploit him for money. Some music industry people say he's got no chance to come back -- an artist for teenagers has nowhere to go after breaking fans' hearts in this painful way. Others say there's a chance for redemption because fans are less attached to people than to their sound so a few great singles from Chris will wash away the stain. That strikes me as naive -- he's going to have to somehow remove the cloud before we can dance to his music with a clear conscience. Ask Michael Jackson about that. And Chris's also got to get the gatekeepers of music back on his side. Some radio stations have already banned his music.

Chris's biggest worry is that the pictures police took of Rihanna after the fight will emerge. If we ever see them he might as well go off to college. Rihanna has yet to make a public statement, though her father has confirmed that she has bruises and that their relationship is over. She could surely reveal a few things that would be career-ending for him. If Chris's case goes to trial and details about their fight and Rihanna's injuries are made public that could raze his career even if he's acquitted, especially without some detail his diehards can use to excuse his behavior. And if he somehow navigates all those valleys and is acquitted, what tone will he strike and how will he reshape his image? The old one is no longer credible. No one can be certain how this will end up because we've never seen a pop star fight through something like this in the modern media era. But I think his battle's unwinnable.