He beats me up but how he can love
I never loved like that since the day I was born
I said for fun I don't want you no more
And when I said that, I made sweet papa sore
He blacked my eye, I couldn't see
Then he pawned the things he gave to me.
But outside of that, he's all right with me.
—"Outside of That," Bessie Smith
Blues women had a habit of taking masochistic delight in wallowing in the arms of an abusive man. But some feminist scholars say we often ignore the role that irony plays in the black performance tradition. The song lyrics — usually written by men — are often totally transformed in the live moment into a scathing critique of patriarchy.
For a moment I thought that was where Rihanna was going as I listened to her latest single, "Birthday Cake," featuring Chris Brown. She addresses the man who assaulted her in Los Angeles three years ago with an ominous growl: "I wanna make you my bitch."
No? OK. You're right. She's definitely disturbed. He's definitely disturbed. And watching their forbidden-love melodrama publicly unfold tweet by tweet, and reaching a crescendo with the release of twin singles, it's hard to feel anything but depressed.
I'm way past Billboard magazine's painfully earnest open letters to Rihanna and Brown to stop using their celebrity platforms to model self-destruction and pain to young followers who clearly don't know any better. As I watch Chrihanna shove a bratty finger in the eyes of people with genuine concern for their well-being, the mother in me would like to ignore them as I would a 3-year-old in the deep throes of a temper tantrum. I honestly just wish they could have some time off Twitter so they could be given the time and space to battle their own demons and heal, or to indulge their human frailties in private.
Unfortunately for artists from Bessie Smith to Tina Turner to Whitney Houston, their private lives have always been part of the show.
When we watch these women on the emotional roller coaster, wrapped up in a swirl of conflicting emotions about their lover-abuser, there is also an opportunity to truly open up a conversation with our girls and our boys about the choices we make and the cycles that are perpetuated.
Fame has a caustic effect on relationships. And for popular musicians in all genres, those offstage tensions create the narrative tension that compels audiences to tune in and watch what happens next.
The allure of forbidden love brought heat to many of Houston's performances. During a 1999 performance celebrating the 25th anniversary of Arista Records, she sang a slow, defiant rendition of "I Will Always Love You." In the middle of the performance, she pauses for effect as her beleaguered husband, Bobby Brown, swaggers onstage carrying a glass of water. They spend a few long seconds locked in a passionate kiss. He hands her the water, then Bobby saunters off the stage while his wife blows the roof off.
Bobby Brown, his own career stalled, is the kept man, literally carrying her water. With his bad-boy stance, he's telling the audience: She's gorgeous. She's mine. She's working for me. Big middle finger to all of y'all who don't think I'm good enough for her!
He couldn't resist sending a similar message at his ex-wife's funeral. He played out the good girl-bad boy melodrama to the very end by kissing Whitney's casket and storming out in a self-righteous fury over seating arrangements.
Still, I'm not convinced that, despite Houston and Bobby Brown's carefully crafted public personas, it wasn't a good boy led astray by a bad girl. And we may never know.
But unlike Houston or any other of their historical predecessors flouting forbidden love, what makes the Chris Brown-Rihanna affair so heartbreaking is that we do know this: Rihanna was beaten and left for dead, and we have seen the photos to prove it.
Many of us would like Rihanna to fall into the narrative of the über-strong survivor in the Tina Turner mold who moves on to bigger and better things and never looks back. But for whatever reason, she's not that person. And as an artist, she does not have to be that person. She just has to be herself.
I'm glad we can learn from her choices. I just hope that the story of the promising young artist with a penchant for self-destruction ends differently this time.
Natalie Hopkinson is a contributing editor to The Root. Follow her on Twitter.
Natalie Hopkinson is a Washington, D.C.-based author whose current projects deal with the arts, gender and public life. She is the author of Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City. Follow her on Twitter.