Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Chris Brown's Modern Love

Chris Brown- "With You"

Chris Brown's "With You" is tearing up top 40 radio right now, and you'll be hard-pressed to find a vocal as delicate and winning anywhere else.

Up to this point, Chris Brown--even down to his name--has seemed generic: more of a football for pop-R&B marketers to play keep-away with than a living artist. Equal parts Tiger Beat pin-up and Pro Tooled lothario, he was the type of guy who put out good songs but was never seen as a good singer. At least to anyone under the age of eighteen.

Of course, he was and is a near-perfect dancer, but even that seems too calculating and exact for its own good. While Justin Timberlake is obviously going as hard as he can, creating a sense of danger with the authenticity of his effort, and Usher has a certain mellifluous verve, Brown seems almost too glossy, too rehearsed, too robotic. And, of course, he always feels the need to bring back the Michael Jackson aping, as if there's no possible way we can accept him based on his own talent. It was twenty-five years ago, but people still believe that Michael Jackson was the beginning and end of contemporary dance for some reason.

This is probably a post in its own right, but have you noticed that we've already decided--tacitly, as an audience--that it's okay for Chris Brown to lip-sync? He doesn't even pretend to try to sing as he dances, and no one complains. Why is it permissible for some people but not acceptable for others? Chris Brown can lip-sync on every stop of his tour, but if Bruce Springsteen did it once, ever, he would be burned at the stake. If, say, Michael Jackson lip-synced as he danced, people would be mortified. Hell, Ashlee Simpson, an artist far less accomplished and credible than they are, had a lip-sync snafu and it was national news. Why is it okay for some people but not for others? And how is that decision made?

I haven't been able to escape "With You" over the past few weeks, and I've been listening to it with all that baggage in tow. But during the course of the song, Chris Brown transforms into something completely different from what he has been for most of his short career.

Musically, the song is scaled down. Before the strings sweep across, you can probably pull the thing off with two instrumentalists. (In fact, change that line about wearing "Jordans on a Saturday," and you've got yourself a banger of a country cover.) But calling the song itself simple would be doing it a disservice.

Through the first verse, we're subjected to the same pablum we've come to expect. Lil' mama's a stunner and Brown's speaker wants her. It's competent delivery of platitudes. But as the chorus ramps up by describing how every kiss and hug makes the speaker want to fall in love, Brown flashes us with an unmistakable note of inclusion and universality:

"I know I can't be the only one/I bet there's hearts all over the world tonight/With the love of their life/Who feel what I feel when I'm/With you with you with you with you with you"

It's not often that the selling point of a superstar's prom-ready single is that he's exactly like everyone else, at least not in the current pop music landscape. But that "uncommon thought on a common matter" that Bukowski wrote about is exactly what's going on here. Although it's the most ineffable, powerful, stupefying emotion there is, all love does for the speaker is remind him of how much he's like everyone else. Love hits him the same way it hits all of us. So for all the girlies in the place, the sentiment is empowering enough to make them believe anyone can fall head over heels. Yet at the same time, the song kind of denies a transformative power of love that has been exalted in music for generations. I thought it was a many splendored thing.

By convincing us that he's not all that special, Chris Brown proves himself all the more singular. What's more, by presenting such a position, deigning to be less than he has a right to, it's the first time he's felt real.

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