A fraught relationship still divides the public

Ben Sisario/ New York Times   | April 29, 2013 21:12 IST (New York)
Bonnie Fuller

Four years ago, Chris Brown was charged for physically abusing Rihanna.

As Rihanna goes from arena to sold-out arena on her latest tour, the news media and her fans have been eager for updates on her relationship with the singer Chris Brown.

As Rihanna, one of the pop world's most successful women, goes from arena to sold-out arena on her latest tour, the news media and her fans have been eager for updates on her relationship with the singer Chris Brown.

"Rihanna's Love Has Given Chris Brown Confidence to Boost Career," said the gossip site last Sunday amid seesaw reports around the Web about whether the two had split up. The latest consensus? Still together. ("How can u doubt love," one fan asked on Twitter after an interview in the April issue of Elle UK in which Rihanna suggested she may want to have children with Brown.)

The attention was not always so positive. Four years ago, Brown's career as a boy-next-door pop star seemed to come to a sudden end when he was charged in the brutal beating of Rihanna. Excoriated by every sector of the media, he pleaded guilty to felony assault and was given five years of probation.

But now Rihanna, 25, has publicly embraced the boyfriend who once abused her, creating perhaps the most polarizing spectacle in pop culture. To their fans, the couple represent a story of forgiveness and happy endings. To a ravenous celebrity news media, their every affectionate tweet or late-night indiscretion is reliable hot copy. And to many others, Rihanna's decision has inspired fear and worry about the example she is setting in what has become the signal domestic abuse case of the social media age.

"This is the case that has defined dating and domestic violence for the hip-hop generation," said Salamishah Tillet, an assistant professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania who co-founded A Long Walk Home, a support group for female victims of physical abuse.

Brown, who turns 24 on Sunday, was not welcomed back - at least in public - all at once. His and Rihanna's fans have been primed for their return by more than a year of hints on social media, song leaks, public appearances and tearful interviews, a process that has unfolded with all the conspicuous regularity of a disgraced politician's public relations campaign.

"From a crisis-management standpoint this campaign has been well executed; the question is who it is for," said Jeffrey Rabhan, the chair of the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at New York University.

"The fans have forgiven her," he added. "The world hasn't."

One of the first signs of a detente, in late 2011, was the video for Rihanna's song We Found Love, in which she flirts and fights with a Brown look-alike; it drew headlines and raised eyebrows. After the Grammys a few months later, at which Brown won a prize for best R&B album, the stars each tweeted links to remixes of their songs on which they both appear (with 29 million followers, Rihanna is the fifth most followed person on Twitter).

The story was carried along that summer with Rihanna telling Oprah Winfrey that she had forgiven Brown, and an apparently impromptu embrace - and was that even a little kiss? - while Rihanna was returning to her seat at the MTV Video Music Awards.

Before long Rihanna's Instagram feed was hinting at intimate contact. Rihanna confirmed their full reconciliation in a Feb. 14 Rolling Stone cover story, in which she seemed to brace for criticism.

"Even if it's a mistake, it's my mistake," she said, adding, "I can handle it."

Several people close to Rihanna and Brown, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect their relationships, described deep concern among the stars' advisers as they realized that the two were heading for a reunion. And while some steps, like magazine and television interviews, were made deliberately and after much planning, these people said, social media allowed the couple to make some impulsive moves all on their own.

Representatives for Rihanna declined to comment for this article.

In a recent statement to The New York Times, Brown said, "I don't make personal decisions based on public demands. My efforts to improve as a human being are strictly for my own personal growth and to honour my responsibility to my fans."

Rihanna is by any measure one of the most successful women in pop. She has sold 63 million tracks in the United States and has as many No 1 hits as Madonna and the Supremes. Her annual income is estimated at $53 million, much of it through corporate sponsorships like the one she recently announced with MAC Cosmetics.

In addition to shout-outs to fans and the occasional shot of her face in a swirl of marijuana smoke, her Twitter feed has included images of her with Brown, their limbs intertwined.

The role of the media in stirring public opinion was carefully built into a recent episode of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," a thinly veiled fictionalization of Rihanna and Brown's relationship that ends with her death. Spin said it "aptly depicts our worst fears"; Gawker found it "despicable" and exploitive. On Sunday, The Daily News in New York quoted Clinton Brown, Brown's father, as saying, "I personally really didn't want him and Rihanna back together."

Approving messages have also been part of the discourse., run by Bonnie Fuller, the former editor of US Weekly, Cosmopolitan and other magazines, has a "Rihanna & Chris" section full of supportive headlines: "Chris Brown Won't Disappoint Rihanna: He'll Visit Her Really Soon."

Fuller said that after studying the issue with experts, she and her staff concluded that "there are definitely men who can turn their lives around."

"Our audience really wants to know: Could this relationship succeed?" she said. "They are very interested in relationships in general, and they wanted to know: Could they go on to have a healthy relationship if they got back together?"

Laurel Eisner, the executive director of Sanctuary for Families, a nonprofit group in New York that serves victims of domestic violence, criticized Rihanna's decision to return to Brown - and gossip outlets that cheer it on - as a "fantasy message to young girls" that is at odds with the realities of domestic violence.

"A magazine that sends out the message that it is OK is taking a risk with girls' lives," she said.

"There is almost nothing to support the notion that a man who is as impulsive and as close to anger as he is, and who continues to repeat misogynist messages - there isn't any evidence that men like that will change."

Radio programmers say that listeners want to hear her music no matter their opinion of her personal life.

"Their relationship pops up almost once a week," said Ebro Darden, the programming director at Hot 97 in New York (WQHT-FM), a top hip-hop and R&B station. "But people are beyond them being back together for now."

© 2013 New York Times News Service