This weekend brought about two major developments that proved pop music has undergone some big changes – at least, since the days when I was bopping to Top 40 in my first car, making hand-waves out the window with a wrist covered in Puka shell bracelets. (What? They were totally hip.)
One: it was confirmed that Britney Spears is (almost certainly) going to be taking up a residency in Las Vegas. Yes, America’s most popular high school cheerleader is now about to become a casino act. Getting a Vegas show tends to be the entertainment world’s equivalent of being shipped off to Shady Pines. Which I guess is better than Briarcliff, which is where it looked like Britney was heading for a while there.
Two: Frank Ocean won two Grammy Awards. And he received a standing ovation. (Minus one notable outlier who remained seated. More on that in a second.) And he performed his song “Forrest Gump,” a love song about his teenage infatuation with a man. And he kept the male-specific pronouns in place, and the lyrics about watching from the bleachers while his “buff” honey owns the football field. And Frank Ocean, in case you have been living under a rock while the media rightfully extols his courage, is a singer-songwriter who works primarily within so-dubbed “urban music markets” — a music industry catch-all for R&B, hip hop, rap, and other genres where there are a lot of particularly successful not-white artists – in which homophobia tends to be particularly tolerated, even celebrated.
Dorothy, we’re not in 1999 anymore. Then, pundits debated over whether or not the anti-gay lyrics of Eminem were “offensive.” Now, the recording industry is rewarding 25-year old Ocean not only for his music, but also for instigating a major sea change in the visibility of out artists within certain music circles. Yeah, his great album, Channel Orange, has a lot to do with it. But if you’re going to tell me his trophies didn’t have something to do with symbolic recognition, I have a mediocre-yet-lauded movie named Brokeback Mountain to sell you.
In a day and age when dance-pop anthems like “Born This Way” can go multi-platinum, you could write a book speculating on why urban genres like hip hop and R&B have largely been the last safe frontier for the dropping of f-bombs in hit songs, and why the artists within those genres have clung more firmly than others to outmoded anti-gay attitudes. (In fact, I’m pretty sure plenty of people have. Written books about it, that is.) My theory, in short: manhood in American culture tends to be linked to money, muscles, and sex. These are the avenues through which guys can prove how guy-like they are. So in music genres that have historically been used to express issues affecting marginalized minority groups, for whom institutionalized forms of discrimination can make it more difficult to succeed economically, men are even more likely to assert their value by declaring how many chicks their chiseled bodies have banged. (Hence hip hop’s lyrical obsession with misogyny and rat-a-tat-tat roll calls of brand name possessions.) Anything that somehow feminizes male sexuality – like being gay (eye roll) – is therefore deemed to be especially awful.
So yeah, Ocean’s coming-out was a big deal. No doubt about it.
And by and large, the response to it has been positive —which is probably as big a deal as Ocean’s coming-out to begin with. Artists like Jay-Z, Beyonce, Kanye West (a longtime Ocean collaborator) and industry mogul and vocal ally Russell Simmons all offered support. And the standing ovation that he received at Sunday’s Grammy Awards surely had as much to do with the industry applauding his courage as it did with applauding his win for Best Urban Contemporary Album.
On that front, though, there was a notable holdout. (I told you we’d get back to that.) Conspicuously seated was Chris Brown, the professional douche and sometimes-singer who has simultaneously become one of the most loathed and successful young men in showbiz. Brown’s fall from auto—tuned grace began, of course, when he physically assaulted his girlfriend Rihanna, with whom he has recently reunited to the great dismay of everyone sane. Afterwards he made the inevitable Public Apology Tour via talk shows like Larry King Live, but the insincerity of his repentance has been laid bare by a string of subsequent incidents: raging and breaking windows backstage on Good Morning America, trading anti-woman slurs with critics on Twitter, and getting into physical fights with other artists like Drake and Frank Ocean. (Professional PR tip: when attempting to remediate reputation as sexist and violent person, it’s best to avoid saying sexist things and being violent.)
According to the reports about his January spat with Frank Ocean: the two got into a fight over a parking spot at a West Hollywood recording studio. A police statement indicated that Brown punched his victim; Ocean claimed that Brown threatened to shoot him, and that a member of Brown’s entourage called him a “faggot.” He declined to press charges, though, posting on his website in February, “I’ll choose sanity. No criminal charges. No civil lawsuit. Forgiveness, albeit difficult, is wisdom.”
Classy move to follow, right? Not if you’re 23-year old Brown, a fellow nominee in that Grammy category. He kept his butt firmly affixed to his chair when the rest of the crowd felt inclined to salute. (For what it’s worth, a photo of fierce and fabulous crooner Adele appearing to ream Brown out for his rudeness has been making the rounds online.) Did Brown stay sitting because he was bitter about losing the trophy to another artist? Or because he was specifically bitter about losing it to a faggot?
Do his motives at that exact moment matter? Whichever way you slice it, Brown has proven himself to embody the worst of the industry’s past immature, misogynistic inclinations. Ocean, so far, seems to represent a more thoughtful, egalitarian future. And judging by the leap-to-your-feet response he elicited on Sunday, plenty of people are excited by it.
Chris Brown, enjoy your seat. Soon, you’ll be the last man standing.