A few of these pieces have popped up in the past week. I find it bizarre as it was clear long ago that Chris Brown’s career wasn’t particularly going to suffer – I wrote my own piece on his ‘rehabilitation’ back in March 2011. Yet here we are and this Observer piece is particularly interesting in that both ‘sides’ trot out some well-worn but rather unchallenged arguments. A few comments arising from it:

  • Peter Tatchell’s comments about how he should be forgiven were harmful for exactly the reason we see here: he’s viewed (wrongly, in my view) as a totemic ‘liberal’ and someone who would be expected to condemn Brown. So his comments are seized on as being evidence that ‘even’ right-on folk like him want to move on, implying that anyone who doesn’t is some bitter crank. Yet Tatchell, not for the first time, had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. It quickly became clear that he had absolutely zero knowledge of Brown’s career, his disgusting lyrics referring to Rihanna and the incident, his bleating, self-pitying tweets and comments, his tantrums and recurring violence. I think it’s fair to say that if another ‘celebrity’ had dismissed homophobic actions with the ignorance Tatchell brought to this issue, he would have been incensed.
  • ‘People find it hard that his apology wasn’t “sincere” enough’. I’m not really sure why sincere deserves those sneering quotation marks – as I wrote in my piece above, only the most ignorant or most idiotic of observers could possibly believe that Brown had sincerely understood the gravity of what he did and apologised for it. His response has been and continues to be insulting and degrading at every turn. This is the crux of the matter. Despite how they are presented, I’ve encountered few people who believe that there is no way back from his actions. Of course there should be – yet it requires a bit of effort and humility on his part. This is additionally important due to his status and his young fanbase, whom we have already seen taking very disturbing messages from the whole thing.
  • Yes, it’s completely outrageous that white men such as Charlie Sheen appear to get a free pass for their actions. That’s a reason to attack hypocrisy, not excuse Chris Brown.
  • It’s also bizarre that Cheryl Cole received such an easy pass for her assault – one which, lest we forget, she pleaded ‘not guilty’ to. From what I can gather she’s never properly accepted responsibility for this. While there are clearly very different dynamics and relations going on with domestic violence, we can expect that a man convicted of a similar assault would have received a far more damning and lasting response from newspapers like The Guardian.
  • Laura Snapes instantly begins her argument with the observation that Chris Brown’s music is rubbish and so it should have been easy to forget him. It’s inexcusable that this is not developed further as the question of whether we should be more forgiving of musical geniuses is a very interesting and pertinent one which has a lot to offer to the argument. Andrew Emery is correct that the issue of whether or not we like Chris Brown’s music should not cloud our responses to his violence; the fact that our personal preferences for artists sometimes do cloud our judgment is one worth considering more fully.
  • Andrew draws a distinction between the law and music, arguing that being punished in the former sphere is enough to allow enjoyment of the latter. I would argue that music is not separate from morality and that popular culture has a far more powerful impact than a single conviction could ever have – especially a conviction in a sphere where the wealthy tend to receive preferential treatment.
  • Laura Snapes inadvertently highlights some of the dodgy racial politics bubbling beneath the surface of this discussion with her already trite contrasting of Frank Ocean’s ‘smart’, civilised work with Chris Brown’s. I still find it breathtaking how swiftly Ocean’s blog has led to his adoption as a totemic example of intellectual, humane r&b in a genre of barbarians. As Andrew quickly points out in response, this is nonsense and relies on a heavily selective view of Ocean’s work indeed.
  • John Lennon is typically wheeled out by Brown defenders of a certain age as an example of the shocking hypocrisy of his detractors. I think it’s unreasonable to expect people to have an equal response to (heavily disputed) events which took place before they were born. The implications and connections are hugely different. Of course we should be able to discuss them but it smacks merely of more cynical obfuscation of the issue rather than a sincere attempt to examine responses to domestic abuse. In Lennon’s case, the fact that the allegations of abuse came in two books which were printed long after his death makes comparisons even more irrelevant and impossible.
  • I wouldn’t particularly say that people have been demonstrating great willingness to give Mel Gibson another go.
  • The news in the comments that Chris Moyles actually re-recorded Chris Brown’s parts in a single he liked as he refuses to play Chris Brown made me like Moyles that little bit more.

Is Chris Brown’s rehabilitation now complete?

Punk, Lennon and 2012

I’ve been watching the BBC’s brilliant ‘Punk Britannia‘ series for the past few weeks. I always tend to love such potted histories of genres, especially when they attempt to link the musical trends to wider socio-political issues. Of course this is particularly easy with punk, yet the eagerness to draw comparisons between the late 1970s and the present day has at times been rather clunky. A country on the verge of economic collapse, workers on strike, a ‘nation coming together’ to celebrate a royal jubilee – you get the idea. Nonetheless, it’s been striking to watch the artists of the period being interviewed. They speak of reacting against not only the politics of the period but also the culture. A picture is painted of a smothering, pervasive banality; a mass of artists with nothing to say and no interest in saying anything anyway. Glam rock, once a subversive pleasure with sinister undercurrents, had already descended into a neutered pantomime of self-parody. David Bowie had notably left glam behind with the dystopian hell of ‘Diamond Dogs’, moving swiftly onto the ‘plastic soul’ of ‘Young Americans’.  T Rex were already in terminal decline, while Roxy Music were on hiatus and would return with ‘Manifesto’, a move towards accessible stadium acceptability. Even to look at a list of the biggest hits of the period is to wade through treacle – a mass of saccharine rubbish which would soon be forgotten alongside brilliant pop so removed from any societal context that it could feasibly be released tomorrow.

In this context, then, ‘God Save the Queen’ truly was radical. It’s easily forgotten (or in the case of us who weren’t yet born, not understood in the first place) now that time and distance has led to it becoming a ‘classic’ (that worst of capitalist detournements) but the storm which surrounded the Sex Pistols and this, only their second single, was something which felt truly dangerous. Indeed, it’s widely accepted now that the charts were fixed in order to prevent the song from reaching number one and even its title was blanked out on some chart run downs.  It is no small irony that, 35 years later, the song was the only note of radicalism and dissent in a top 100 filled with songs about absolutely nothing.

Yesterday I also watched ‘The U.S. vs John Lennon’. There can be little doubt that in 1977 Lennon was one of the patriarchs of pop music which punk railed against yet, once again, his activities look unimaginable today. One of the biggest stars in the world not only associating with but also funding radical groups like the Black Panthers and campaigning for the release of the head of the White Panthers? Using his position to campaign against war and speak eloquently about capitalism and class (not least in ‘Working Class Hero’, included on his first post-Beatles album)? The documentary is hagiographic and certainly overstates its case but the fact remains that it’s simply impossible to imagine a 2012 equivalent of this. It’s certainly impossible to imagine John Lennon being so revered in 2012 if he was still around and still being outspoken – as with ‘God Save the Queen’, time and distance allows an easily-digestible version of Lennon to be adored.

We need only look at today’s politically and socially engaged artists and the reactions to them to see this. They don’t tend to be engaged in radicalism as Lennon was, yet even their involvement in mainstream politics is viewed with ridicule and contempt. We try and tear them apart, looking for evidence that they are hypocrites, that they aren’t living perfect lives – indeed, whenever anyone criticises John Lennon’s politics these days, it’s almost inevitably to make the trite observation that he couldn’t be a radical as he was wealthy (‘Imagine no possessions’!). I wrote earlier in the year about this exact response to Plan B for deigning to have an opinion. I have absolutely no doubt that if any of today’s stars became involved with radical politics, they would be absolutely crucified. In our post neo-liberal world the only ‘opinions’ we tolerate are those which enforce consensus politics. Thus artists will be praised for expressing utterly tedious support for gay marriage or supporting Children in Need; if they go beyond this, however, and start speaking about power and economic structures which lie behind these issues, they quickly run into opposition.

More than this – the anti-‘authenticity’ brigade would be out in force. Statements about the banality of mainstream culture such as those made by artists in ‘Punk Britannia’ would be pounced upon as ‘snobbish’, ‘superior’ and ‘sneering’. The funny thing is, they’re meant to be sneering, even superior. They aspired to something more. There was undoubtedly a streak of nihilism running through punk, yet as a movement it ultimately railed against apathy and detachment. They believed that people could shape their own destiny and that, together, people could change things. As one interviewee succinctly put it, “It’s not ‘negative’ to think about politics and the way our lives are run”. No, it’s actually hugely positive, borne out of a deep respect for people and their potential. We are capable of so much more than banality.

Yet in 2012 we undoubtedly live in an age where banality and mediocrity is encouraged. As I’ve noted, we jump on anyone who goes against the grain and our individualistic entitlement encourages a race to the bottom where any respect for popular music as an art form, capable of effecting real debate and even change, is discouraged. That horrendous Gary Barlow and Cheryl Cole debate was more representative of our time than anyone involved could ever have possibly imagined.