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Rihanna, Chris Brown, and pop music's female trouble

Whether the subject is contraception or M.I.A.'s middle finger, America wants to keep women in line

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Internet leaks of songs by major artists have become so commonplace—and faked leaks such an integral part of the publicist's tool kit—that hardly anyone makes a fuss over them anymore. But on February 20 what looked like coordinated leaks of a remix of Rihanna's "Birthday Cake" featuring Chris Brown and a remix of Chris Brown's "Turn Up the Music" featuring Rihanna sent pop-culture observers the world over into paroxysms of disgust, titillation, and horror. The response was immediate and impassioned, largely fueled by the fact that a likable pop star had reunited artistically (and, it's rumored, romantically) with the unapologetic abuser who just three years ago had beaten her till she required medical attention.

If Rihanna's decision to collaborate with Brown is no more than a ploy to convert outrage into bankable buzz—and it doesn't take a hardened cynic to suspect that this is at least partly the case—it's a masterful move, especially considering the social climate. Lately the ongoing culture wars have centered on women's bodies and minds and what they're allowed to do with them, and while congresspeople, clergy, and other ostensibly politically engaged Americans argue—in 2012, mind you—over access to birth control and what qualifies as rape, the country as a whole seems to be working out its issues through female pop stars.

For instance take the strangely intense reaction to M.I.A. giving the camera the finger during the Super Bowl halftime show. A large swath of the population reacted to a gesture that at this point in history is only a couple of notches more profane than "dang it" as though it were a full-frontal assault on American decency. (Even Madonna, whose show it was, clucked her tongue.) It's hard to imagine that audiences and media outlets would have responded with quite the same fervor if a male star—like for instance Johnny Cash, in that famous photo from San Quentin—had flipped us the bird. It's even harder to imagine that their response would have included allegations that he was a bad parent.

Though M.I.A.'s former fiancee, Benjamin Bronfman, quickly refuted claims that she routinely (and, it was implied, blithely) went weeks at a time without seeing their child, the very fact that the charge was leveled against her—and that it isn't directed at the great many musician fathers who tour without their kids—sends a clear message that her real crime in many people's eyes isn't deploying a quaintly rude hand gesture but rather stepping outside what they consider a woman's role in society. It's the same fear of female autonomy that led Representative Darrell Issa to convene an all-male panel to speak to the Republican-controlled Committee on Congressional Oversight and Government Reform about the threat to morality and religious freedom posed by requiring insurers to cover birth control (a panel later in the day included two conservative women). It's the same fear that poisons everything that comes out of Rick Santorum's mouth on the subject of female human beings.

NPR music critic Ann Powers says that our treatment of female pop stars and our current political climate are related in more than just an abstract way. "It doesn't seem like a coincidence that in the midst of a very contentious presidential election campaign, in which different candidates are struggling to gain control of the process, that difficult-to-grasp and very inflammatory issues of economic inequality have now been pushed aside in the general conversation by these issues of morality and sexuality," she says. "This is something that's happened throughout our history."

How does that relate to pop music? "Pop music is always a reflection of and in dialogue with the larger political conversation," says Powers. "On one hand you can say that the music and the culture around it is distracting us from what's important. But you can also say that it's a lens through which it's refracted, and these anxieties that these issues bring up are coming out in a different way."

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