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.