Although details aren't clear, some have assumed Brown is guilty in his latest fight
The presumptions are attributed to his history of violence
Brown's trajectory raises age-old questions surrounding celebrity and accountability
We’ve yet to hear all the details surrounding Chris Brown’s alleged altercation with Frank Ocean, but it would seem in the court of public opinion, Brown’s already been tried.
If you’ve been following your celebrity feuds, you know there was tension between Brown and Ocean in 2011 thanks to an argument on Twitter. But with Brown’s history of violent behavior and the examples of questionable decision-making in recent years, the presumption by some is that the “Don’t Wake Me Up” singer is the guilty party in the standoff.
As with controversial celebrities before him, at the core of the reaction to Brown are those age-old questions: What are our behavior standards for our celebrities, who sets them, and can they be enforced? If someone does something heinous, should we cease to find them entertaining? And just how much should a star’s personal life override his or her work?
The answers to those questions are debatable and shift with the times, but they’re also made all the more charged by the context of Brown’s case.
Following his 2009 assault on his then-girlfriend Rihanna, which the world saw through a leaked photo of the singer’s bruised and beaten face and a detailed police report, Brown has developed a reputation to rival showbiz’s biggest repeat offenders. In the past four years, he’s created a baffling rinse-and-repeat history of misdeeds, with a few apologies to match.
Just within the last seven months, the R&B/hip-hop artist has been in two other highly publicized fights – one physical, with fellow musician Drake in New York, and one digital, with writer/comedian Jenny Johnson on Twitter – in addition to now being investigated for the third brawl over the weekend.
CNN hasn’t heard back from either Brown or Ocean for more clarification on what transpired in the 7200 block of Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood, California, but authorities have confirmed that it was a physical throwdown involving six men. As deputies work to get to the bottom of what occurred, they’ve said that Brown is under investigation for allegedly punching an unnamed victim – and over a parking space, no less.
Yet the frequent feuds are just the beginning of Brown’s tenuous public image. Equally damaging has been his defensive attitude, a brash, short-sighted bravado that he’ll sometimes temper with notes of aspirational positivity. The highlight reel of 2012 alone gives enough examples:
Last February, he won no favors by telling those opposed to his 2012 Grammy awards appearance to “hate” all they wanted to, because he’d won an award that night. (That, in his opinion, was the “ultimate f*** off.”) In October, Brown incurred skeptical looks with a Halloween costume that was perceived as emulating the stereotypical image of a terrorist.
The month prior to that the controversy was a tattoo of a “sugar skull” on his neck, one that made enough people think of a post-assault Rihanna that his rep had to clarify that the ink wasn’t of the pop star. In December, he again rankled onlookers by sharing a photo of himself in Amsterdam smoking enough “medicinal marijuana” for three people, which he later apologized for. (Perhaps realizing the pot-stirring effect his social media posts have, Brown pulled away from Instagram on Tuesday with the post: “Social media takes away the essence of why we are even special or icons. So with that, I’m detaching myself from that world.”)
As a result, any conversation that remotely mentions the 23-year-old star tends to push observers into two camps.
There are the defending supporters, who accuse Brown’s critics of being self-righteous and coldly disbelieving in an individual’s power to change.
And then there are the affronted, who see his defenders as dismissive of Brown’s influence and unwilling to hold the singer accountable for his actions – not to mention turning a blind eye to the gravity of domestic violence.
The media aren’t above taking sides. Marlow Stern of The Daily Beast offered a “preponderance of evidence” that Brown is “one of the most infuriatingly awful people in show business.” Gawker posited that “it’s not hard to choose between those two versions” in the Ocean/Brown fracas, because in one corner you have “a violent, angry, abusive a**hole,” and in the other, a singer who “has never been accused of assault and isn’t known for hitting people.”
Influential supporters like Justin Bieber – who recently told Billboard magazine that he’s pulling for the R&B/hip-hop singer on Grammy night – chime in, reminding consumers that it’s about a product, not a personality. “I’m a fan,” Bieber said of Brown. “His music is really good. That’s what they should focus on: the music.”
It might be tough to remember, but Brown caught our attention in 2005 with the promise of becoming pop’s next prince, earning the distinction at the time of being the first male artist in over a decade to land a No. 1 on the Billboard 100 with a debut single. He was top 40 radio-ready and appearing in Doublemint gum commercials, singing alongside an “American Idol” winner and charmingly chatting about wanting to be the next Michael Jackson.
Along the way, he’s developed a strong fan base – sometimes referred to as Team Breezy – that’s been consistent in his corner even as we’ve watched that careful artist package come apart at the seams. One thing that’s held his ship upright in waves of backlash, said Yahoo! Music senior editor Billy Johnson Jr., has been his music.
“It does help when you have really good products in the marketplace, because I think at the end of the day that will supersede everything,” Johnson said. “You’re trying to repair a damaged image, one way to shift the focus is to put out good music.”
Whether you personally find Brown’s music to be “good” or not is a matter of taste, but it is clear that he’s being accepted by both the industry and the music-buying public. The same month he allegedly broke the window of his “Good Morning America” dressing room after storming off the set, he notched his first No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 with 2011’s “F.A.M.E.”
That same record also earned Brown a best R&B album Grammy the following February, and his 2012 album, “Fortune,” was another No. 1 and is nominated in the best urban contemporary category at the 2013 ceremony.
Brown is far from the first to whip us into a backbiting frenzy over where we, culturally, can and/or should draw our lines, and it’s seriously unlikely he’ll be the last. Charlie Sheen is one of the most notorious examples, and while he’s a touchy subject when it comes to public acceptance, he’s nonetheless been successful in terms of output.
Even before he was “winning,” Sheen cultivated a bad-boy reputation thanks to his predilection for paying for “sexual services” and time spent in rehab. In the mid-to-late ’90s, his shine further lost its luster with allegations of domestic violence. In 2009, Sheen’s then-wife Brooke Mueller alleged that he threatened her, a storyline that was the precursor to his at turns confusing, laughable and upsetting meltdown in 2011, during which he was let go from the popular show “Two and a Half Men.”
In Brown’s case, he’s similarly continued to press forward with his music and acting career. Prior to making his Instagram account private, he posted that he’s at work on a new album, showing once again that what happens for a star personally doesn’t always interrupt what occurs professionally, even while we continue to hash out whether it should.