Last night, Rihanna and Chris Brown leaked two collaborations, a remix of her dessert-fetish track “Birthday Cake” and a rework of his Generic Club Banger No. 86 “Turn Up The Music.” The releases inspired much rending of garments and gnashing of teeth, but how do they fit into the pantheon of trollgaze? A subjective yet scientific analysis below.
Rihanna feat. Chris Brown, “Birthday Cake” (remix)
Chris Brown feat. Rihanna, “Turn Up The Music” (remix)
THE ARTISTS (10 points): Rihanna, the Barbadian pop princess; Chris Brown, the youthful, fleet-footed R&B singer. Back in the late ’00s, the two dated and performed together and were a beloved-by-the-gossip-press couple; then three years ago this month they got into a Grammy weekend fight that became so physically intense, he was charged with assault and sentenced to community service and probation.
The evolutions of their personae since that incident have been viewed through its lens almost obsessively by the gossipsphere, which never met a “tragic” narrative that it could also cluck its tongue at that it didn’t love. After the somber Rated R—accompanied by a 20/20 interview where she called going back to Brown post-assault “a mistake”—dropped like a rock in 2009, Rihanna’s been yelling “SEX! Now that I have your attention… er, SEX!” increasingly louder with each single. Meanwhile, Brown’s profile has become more and more petulant with each successful attempt at public redemption; most recently, he followed up a successful night at the Grammys (his 2011 album F.A.M.E. won Best R&B Album and he was the only non-old-white-guy to merit two performances on the telecast) last week with a battery of “eff the haters” tweets. Now that the two are at least collaborating, there are rumors of them being back together, head-shaking over Rihanna returning to her abuser, and lots of paparazzi photos. The only way this whole saga could be more click-friendly would be to have the ghosts of Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson somehow intervene. (10/10)
THE SONGS (5 points): “Birthday Cake” was originally a 78-second interlude on Rihanna’s most recent album Talk That Talk—a brilliant move in an age of content oversaturation, because the deafening “WE WANT MORE” overpraise for it from the peanut gallery was instant. The track, co-penned and co-produced by The-Dream, sounds like a more crowded, less entertaining take on Beyoncé’s “Video Phone”; in its full version, it goes around and around a la Ri’s loop-de-looping “We Found Love,” never really resolving itself but allowing Rihanna to bleat a bunch of no-wink-required references to “icing” and “candles.” (No fondant allusion, though. Maybe that’s for the “S&M” mashup?) For his part, Brown starts off his verse with the subtle come-on, “Girl, I wanna fuck you right now.” Who’s a charmer, ladies? (1/2.5)
“Turn Up The Music,” the first single from Brown’s forthcoming Fortune, sounds like a less charming version of “Party Rock Anthem.” Rihanna, sounding like she’s transported herself to the Good Girl Gone Bad, era, sings about being turned on. (Surprise!) Perhaps Shufflebot would have been a better guest for this remix, at least musically? (.5/2.5)
DIVISIVENESS (5 points): You know how some fervent fans of TV shows try to “ship” their characters, making up backstories about their romantic histories and stuff? The firestorm surrounding Rihanna and Chris’s relationship has been sort of like that, only with police reports and incoherent tweets and “fan wars” by people who let the Internet turn them into rabid 12-year-olds and lots of deep reading into things like Rihanna singing “I love you” on the Brown remix. And it’s only intensified over the past week.
Led by their respective fanbases—the Rihanna Navy and Team Breezy—Brown and Rihanna have been “whatever, we do what we want”-ing at all comers since news of these remixes first leaked late last week. Meanwhile, the media response has been generally stomach-pit-kneading thanks to its combination of rubbernecking, fan fictioneering, simpering, and moralizing (and of course galleries of paparazzi shots); one gossip item about Brown allegedly picking up women by telling him he wouldn’t beat them was, as Chris Weingarten noted, “the media safely enjoying a woman-beating joke behind the lens of feigning concern,” while an open letter from a Billboard writer in which Rihanna was told that because of her role model status she was barred from making her own decisions came off as somewhat paternalistic. (Rihanna, for her part, responded to that with a “Kanye shrug.”) Those are only two examples; from comment-section invasions by diehard fans of both artists to general Facebook moaning to Chris Crocker weighing in, these songs and the artists responsible for them have been the top topic for Arguing On The Internet (Non-Political Division) for the past few days. (5/5)
VIRALITY POTENTIAL (10 points): If this blog post is the first you’ve heard of these two remixes, please send me your bookmarks list for those days when I just need a break. Thanks! (9/10)
“FUCK THE HATERS” QUOTIENT (10 points):
— Rihanna (@rihanna) February 21, 2012
BACKLASH POTENTIAL (5 points): At least one of these remixes will be a massive radio track, and every blog post decrying the pairing will be part of the reason why. (2/5)
THAT EXTRA JE NE SAIS QUOI (5 points): Leaking the “Birthday Cake” remix on Rihanna’s birthday, even though the first lyric is “It’s not even my birthday”: Genius bait and switch or another sign that the track’s central metaphor is hopelessly confused? (4/5)
TOTAL: 41.5/50. Trollgaze.
Look, I get that Rihanna—long painted as a puppet of her label overlords—has spent much of the last three years publicly taking control of her life, and making this “unexpected” move is the latest example of that. (Note, also, that in “Birthday Cake” she delights in making the cake-eater her “bitch,” thus implicitly reducing Brown to said role.) But I can still be grossed out by the notion of using the worst tendencies of a hyperactive media obsessed with turning its celebrity fixations into chess pieces as a way to get publicity for songs that are, on their face, mediocre. Sure, their celebrity status means that the Rihanna/Brown relationship isn’t wholly private; still, we don’t know what goes on behind closed doors between these two, and why should we, really. I just wish that instead of the fuck-the-haters Tweets, the two were straight-up in their responses to naysayers, or even would just let the music—as not-good as it is—do the talking.
Thinking about this topic brings up a lot of volatile and personal emotions on all sides; that’s evident from the passion shown by everyone who chimes in. Adding to that fact is that these are seriously uncharted waters we’re dealing with here, celebrity-industrial-complex-wise—both the always-on media and the clear channels for both artists responding to their critics fan flames on both sides in a way that’s much faster than Walter Winchell could have dreamed. Lingering over all this is the ugly spectre of the photos taken three years ago after Rihanna was attacked, those pictures that were leaked against her will and showed her at her most bruised and vulnerable. Is this outcry a reaction to people trying to separate artists and their backstories from their art, as well as from those onlookers’ personal reactions (which are themselves tied up in their own histories) to that backstory’s most horrific lows—and being unable to do so? (Obviously the twinning of art and artist is a problem particularly endemic to pop music, as Sasha Frere-Jones noted during the Lana Del Rey debacle, and here it’s even more pronounced.) Or is it the result of feeling grossed out? Or both? Every time I think I have an answer, my brain comes up with a counterpoint. Although I’m very solid in my belief that the songs are just not any good at all.
Note: These songs are our first Trollgaze Index entrant to pass the test! To celebrate, I’m going to take a lye shower.