Flip the Switch

Separating Rihanna from Chris Brown, again

I know how it is. You’re drawn magnetically, like Ron Swanson to a box of black market Twinkies, to the new Rihanna album. Unapologetic, out this week, is the Hostess with the mostest, promising pretty piano ballads (“Stay”), lurking love duets (“Loveeeeeee Song”), and a phenomenal re-up of Ginuwine’s “Pony” with dripping choruses and Skrillex-style brostep drops (“Jump”).

But there’s that nagging discomfort. There’s no other way to say it: in public, Rihanna has basically forgiven Chris Brown for beating the hell out of her. I’m all for guilty pleasures, but the “guilty” part takes on a whole new meaning when buying Rihanna’s new album; you’re sorta co-signing on forgetting about that whole slamming-her-head-against-the-window, punching-her-in-the-left-eye, beating-her-mouth-until-it-filled-with-blood thing.

I love this new Rihanna album, which ranks among the most engaging pop music being made currently, but in the same way that I love Elia Kazan films: I flip the switch in my brain that connects an artist’s personal decisions with his or her output. Why deprive yourself of On the Waterfront or A Streetcar Named Desire simply because 60 years ago, Kazan named names in the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings?

Flipping that switch is a very easy and grownup thing to do; almost as grown-up as making a personal decision to forgive someone who did terrible things to you and hoping, in vain, it turns out, that this decision can be a private one.

And really, Rihanna’s only transgression is setting a questionable example for your 13-year-old daughter and forcing you to have an uncomfortable but serious talk about the dangers of domestic violence. Kazan, well, he destroyed entire careers and livelihoods. One could make a case that Elia Kazan is worse than Chris Brown (but with better hair).

Luckily, Brown’s music is so phenomenally awful that there’s no temptation to flip the brain-switch the way one can do with On the Waterfront. Unapologetic, on the other hand, all but dares you to shut it off; four or five bona fide, inarguable hits fly by before Chris Brown charges in with a middle-finger-to-the-haters duet, “Nobody’s Business.”

And if you can’t reconcile this kissing-and-making-up between Rihanna and Brown with the brutal police report from Feb. 8, 2009—you want to point your daughter in the direction of other artists, or you yourself want some non–Katy Perry dance jams—a new crop of singers like Elle Varner, Sky Ferreira, MNDR, Solange Knowles and Jessie Ware are more than happy to rush into your self-inflicted vacuum.

But before that, give “Loveeeeeee Song” a shot. Don’t ask Rihanna what the extra six e‘s are for—some personal things are better left unexplained.

Sonoma County Library