The painful, pathetic Chris Brown and Rihanna collaboration

A nauseating pair of remixes is a cynical train wreck for two pop stars with a history of domestic violence

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published February 21, 2012 4:45PM (EST)

Chris Brown and Rihanna       (Reuters)
Chris Brown and Rihanna (Reuters)

Few things in life live up to expectations. But when rumors started flying after the Grammys that Chris Brown and Rihanna were collaborating, the collective shudder of revulsion seemed to indicate that the result would be a truly unholy mingling. On Monday, the two debuted guest spots on the remixes of their new singles: Brown's "Turn Up the Music" and Rihanna's "Birthday Cake." And by God, nightmare it is.

Brown and Rihanna are no strangers, of course. Brown is still serving his five-year probation stemming from a 2009 felony plea after an altercation with Rihanna. Back then, the haunting image of Rihanna's bruised and swollen face was splashed all over the Internet; Brown laid low until the inevitable, damage-controlling Larry King interview several months later.

Then, for a moment, it seemed the two might have moved on. In December 2010, Brown proudly boasted how he'd completed his anger management classes, and two months later, Rihanna eased the terms of her restraining order against him. But human stories are far more complicated and tangled than any paperwork can reveal. By last March, Brown was pitching temper tantrums on the set of "Good Morning America," and just this month he was aggressively gloating of his Grammy win by tweeting "HATE ALL U WANT BECUZ I GOT A GRAMMY Now!" Perhaps that anger thing isn't quite all better yet.

Rihanna's obvious fascination with the imagery of violence, meanwhile, has been dissected endlessly over the past few years. From her "extreme" photo shoot for Italian Vogue to her bold vocals on Eminem's domestic abuse anthem "Love the Way You Lie" to her murder fantasy video for "Man Down," she's teasingly played both victim and avenger, toying with empowerment expectations as she straddles tanks.

Most provocative, though, has been the way the two estranged lovers have never seemed quite through with each other. Brown told Larry King back in 2009 that he was still "definitely" in love with her and would spend a lifetime with her, and Rihanna has been cryptically tweeting about love and relationships for months.

Now there's this most public atrocity. Perez Hilton wrote Monday that the collaboration was "genius" -- and if by "genius" he means "gross," then yes. On Brown's eminently mediocre "Turn Up the Music," Rihanna serves mostly to add a few more "turn it ups" to the mix, though her "I love you" at the three-minute mark and again at the end seems poignantly awful. And on "Birthday Cake," when Rihanna teases, "I know you want to bite this, it's so enticing," Brown replies, "Girl I want to f--- you right now, been a long time; I been missing your body."  No wonder the Vimeo clip of "Turn Up the Music" is labeled "YIKES!" Yikes, indeed.

The duo have also been playing out a coy back and forth on Twitter, where Brown recently wished Rihanna a happy birthday by familiarly addressing her by her real first name, Robyn. Rihanna cheerfully announced her guest appearance on the Brown track by declaring herself #teambreezy. Ironically, Rihanna also tweeted Monday the Maya Angelou maxim that when "People show u who they are....believe them!"

That two young people with a volatile dynamic might still be drawn to each other is perhaps understandable. The idea that a person would continue to associate with the man who beat her -- either professionally or personally -- is a lot more difficult for most of us to fathom. It might appear marginally less self-destructive were Brown himself not continuing to make such a fantastic show of being an arrogant creep, a guy who tweets, "Don't like it, don't listen!" And it wouldn't be so thoroughly nauseating if the whole enterprise didn't smack of opportunism, a clever way of leveraging domestic violence into two awesome dance tracks. Based on the Vimeo commenters gushing "awww I love them," it seems to be working.

You know what? Screw that. Most abusers don't get to win Grammys, and most victims don't get to top the charts. They don't get gold records for their fights and their reconciliations. They're not romantic or sexy, they don't drop remixes. They just get bruises and restraining orders and emergency-room visits and cops pounding on the door. And though Brown's and Rihanna's songs are different, they both sound exactly the same. Cynical. Painful. And unbearably pathetic.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Chris Brown Rihanna