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Will Chris Brown Win the Publicity Battle?

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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.