Regan McMahon, COMMON SENSE MEDIA
When R&B singer Chris Brown was arrested for beating up his then-girlfriend Rihanna in February 2009 and later pleaded guilty to an assault charge, parents were blindsided by the situation and presented with a teachable moment. We faced a choice: Either say nothing, and let our kids make sense of the news themselves, or talk to them about the difficult and complex issues of domestic violence and whether celebrities make good role models.
Three years later, the troubled couple has made news again, and it may be important to have another talk. This week, these two dubious role models revealed leaked (via Twitter) steamy remixes of two singles, his "Turn up the Music" and her "Birthday Cake," each featuring a vocal by the other.
What's troublesome is whether Brown -- who enjoyed a squeaky-clean image before what he has called his "big mistake" -- feels genuine remorse and has changed. Is Rihanna, who broke up with Brown after the assault, trapped in a cycle of abuse and forgiveness, as is true for many victims of domestic violence? Interestingly, her always overtly sexual material has increasingly mixed sex and violence on her past three albums, including on the hit "Man Down," a revenge fantasy about gunning down a rapist.
We can't know the truth about any couple's private relationship, but we can talk with our kids about the kinds of messages that these bestselling young artists (Brown is 22, Rihanna, 24) are sending. "Forgive and move on" could be a positive message. "In your face, haters!" maybe not so much.
Here are some tips on how to approach this topic with your kids:
Ask your kids what they know about this story. Listen to what they tell you about how they get their news. Is it from Facebook, Twitter, TV, the Internet, the radio? How do stars try to control the message via social media (each star has millions of Twitter followers)? How does the news reporting bias the issues? Do your kids think there might there be a commercial reason for releasing these songs together?
Talk about the messages in the songs themselves. On Brown's rave-up "Turn up the Music," Rihanna sings, "Turn up the music, cause I feel a little turned on. / Turn up the music, don't you try to turn me down. / Turn up the music, can I feel it just a little more. / Turn up the music, turn me up and take me down." She ends the track by purring, "I love you, baby." And Rihanna's "Birthday Cake" is overtly sexual throughout, including Brown's explicit opening line: "Girl, I wanna f--k you right now. / Been a long time. / I been missing your body."
According to their history, he's been missing her because she left him after he beat her up. Has he reformed, or does he just miss her body? Are these two songs more about physical attraction than love? Ask kids why they think the couple is hashing out their relationship through their music. What are the artists trying to tell listeners with these remixes?
- And, finally, talk about the power celebrities have to influence behavior. In 2009, Rihanna spoke out about not wanting to encourage women to go back to abusive boyfriends. Now she sounds as if she's gone -- or would go -- back to hers. What message does that send?