By Cleo Bergman
For those who are unfamiliar with Rihanna’s song, “Birthday Cake”, it’s a catchy and incredibly bold song that boasts of the singer’s sexual appetite towards a willing individual. More than the sexual explicitness of the song, the controversy surrounding its production is its featured artist in the remixed version: Rihanna’s ex-boyfriend and superstar, Chris Brown. Mixed reactions from fans included shock and outrage over Rihanna’s collaboration with Brown due to a now infamous domestic violence incident between the couple that occurred back in 2009. On the other hand, there was also some expressed relief that the two artists were able to go beyond their sticky past and jam together on a professional level.
Photo by Eva Rinaldi.
In response to the negative reactions to her song, Rihanna was frustrated by her listeners’ inability to separate her music from her private life. In her eyes, working with Brown, who is one of the top R&B artists of today, was a valid choice in terms of what she wanted for her track. While Rihanna was able to forgive her former boyfriend and abuser enough to collaborate with him musically, there are many who have refused to forget the violent history between the two artists, and therefore, refused their attempt to move on.
In a case like Rihanna’s, should the expectations of fans supersede the personal choices of the artist? Ultimately, the fans are the reason for why music artists make it big in the industry. However, once an artist gains a strong following, to what extent do they owe it to their fans to live up to their expectations musically and personally—or at all? For those who look up to Rihanna as a powerful, self-assured woman, her decision to team up with Chris Brown for “Birthday Cake” as well as Brown’s “Turn It Up” was an act of betrayal. In Rihanna’s defense, she claims that the collaboration was “innocent” and completely “professional,” and that she was unaware of how “this was going to be a problem.” The question is: if Rihanna knew it was going to be a problem for her fans, would she have asked Brown to be featured in the song at all?
Rihanna is very clear on how she doesn’t want to be a role model to anyone. To her, being a superstar has nothing to do with fulfilling people’s expectations of her to be a role model–all that is required of her as a singer is to make music, not to be perfect. However back in 2009, her decision to leave Brown for good after returning to him for a brief time was because of how conscious she was of her influence on young girls looking up to her. In her interview with Good Morning America, she stated, “When I realized that my selfish decision for love could result in some young girl getting killed, I could not be easy with that part. I couldn’t be held responsible for going back.”
In Rihanna’s eyes, her music and her personal life are black and white, but her fans see a very grey area when she decided to invite her former abusive boyfriend into her music. Whether Rihanna likes it or not, as long as she stays on the radar of popular American culture, every decision she makes will have an impact on her fans. She cannot “just want to make music,” she has to deal and try to sympathize with her fans when her decisions, innocent or not, cause a reaction. Singers are always dealing with criticism, so it’s understandable when they throw their hands up saying, “haters gonna hate” and keep doing what makes them happy. However, in Rihanna’s case, she might consider going back into the proverbial shoes of the girls that she wanted to protect back in 2009 and look at her decision through their eyes. At the same time, her fans should reevaluate their image of Rihanna if a role model is what they are looking for.