Rihanna's songs with Chris Brown were manufactured in the pop music world. They don't tell us a thing about how she's feeling or healing.
Since Monday, a lot of music fans have been mad about Rihanna's two collaborations with one-time boyfriend and very public abuser Chris Brown. We're pissed at Brown for expecting us to forgive him without any evidence of rehabilitation, disappointed with Rihanna for welcoming him back into the fold, and angry on behalf of abused women everywhere. Commentators have been citing statistics of how often battered women go back to their lovers, writing open letters to the pop stars, warning that this sends a damaging message to young girls—and young guys. On Twitter, some people dropped bombs like "When he beats you this time, you can blame yourself," or "Chris Brown and Rihanna: The New Bobby and Whitney." I was mad, too—mad that people appeared to be angrier at Rihanna than the person who beat her, mad that Brown will probably never have to face the consequences of his actions.
Brown and Rihanna dismissed the peanut gallery with a friendly Twitter exchange. Still, there's no denying that this collabo makes a statement. The question is, whose statement is it? Did Rihanna decide that working with Brown was a good idea, or did her producers and handlers push her in this direction? Rihanna is notoriously "handled"; in a 2009 interview for GQ about the incident with Chris Brown, she chose her words haltingly as a publicist hovered at arm's length, thrice interrupting her. Even her tweets shouldn't be assumed to be her genuine reactions; both stars have been coached every step of the way.
Billboard.com solicited a comment from The-Dream, the producer behind the new remixes, who said that the track's were "Rih's idea." He went on to explain the collaboration this way:
For me, it's just music—two talented people doing a record together, doing two records together, and that's what it was...it wasn't about an incident that happened. The true thing really is to forgive, and… you want to believe in people.\n
Translation: It's just business. Regardless of who suggested the collaboration, multiple people surely weighed in on the decision—how it would improve Rihanna's image, how it would sway public opinion, how it would allow both stars to move on from some very, very bad press. Rihanna and Brown didn't write these lyrics. They didn't plan the media blitz. They may not have even been in the studio together. These remixes say very little about what Rihanna's feeling and how she's healing. For The-Dream and everyone else profiting off the release, it's "just music," not a statement about "an incident." At least that's what they'll tell the press.
The fact is, the music industry requires pop stars to eschew their own emotional processes in favor of crafting—and preserving—a particular image. Let's be honest about Rihanna's options and autonomy. Ta-Nehisi Coates, writing in The Atlantic, wrote that "[n]othing about being able to sing or dance or entertain guarantees sound thinking." And nothing about show biz guarantees that one artist's thought process shapes her decisions or the public narrative about her. That's more than reason enough to get mad.