When I told my best friend I was obsessed with Chris Brown’s Loyal video, she cut me off. “What? I cannot listen to that song. A wife-beater complaining about how these hos ain’t loyal? No.”
Have you seen it? Loyal is a hymn. We’re at the altar of money and male sovereignty. The video is both good-natured and violent (the song is mostly violent). There are white girls, fake titties, black girls, big booties, couplets about the treachery of hookers (girls) and, central in the tempest, Chris Brown.
It’s hard to put my finger on what, precisely, Chris Brown is projecting in the video, though he’s projecting strongly. He kicks at the camera. Then he smiles. At times his eyes flash with a caustic ire I associate with violent mental illness (like the eyes of the tattered woman who, without provocation, sprinted to my mom’s Dodge Dart in the Safeway parking lot and screamed obscenities inches from the backseat window, where eight-year-old I sat, before spitting a saliva-sopped bran muffin onto the glass). Then he smiles.
He is sly, loping, and fluid as he swivels and juts before choreographed women and a copse of male peers. He dips, for split seconds, into caricatures of blackness, vividly rolling his neck and summoning the beautifully hammy, physical patois of street corners and cyphers. He quotes Tupac’s jocular sex. And he plays with Michael Jackson’s expressions of masculinity. (Jackson and Brown are interesting foils on this front: Jackson’s performances of hetero-cis male sexuality — the crotch grabs, the neck snaps, the sneers — seemed always exhausting and feckless to me; Brown’s are agile and potent.)
Have you ever seen a skinhead? Brown is dressed kinda like one in Loyal. It’s subtle and I doubt it’s conscious. It might just be style, nothing more. He’s got a few costumes, but the protagonistic one includes work boots, black jeans, a white t-shirt, a black leather jacket, and a red, checkered flannel tied around his waist. He has, of course, a shaved head.
When I was nine or ten, a group of skinheads walked through my house and into the back yard. It was the fourth of July, my brother’s birthday. There was live music. There were saucy barbecued oysters and kegs under the grape arbor. The front door was open all night.
(The memory of our open front door on this night is vivid. I’ve read that children who grow up without dads believe the world is unsafe. It’s as if, instead of a loving protector inside the house, a man-shaped shadow hovers outside. Maybe this explains why, before bed, I always checked the locks, approaching the gold deadbolt with a penumbral dread of psychos on the other side. I then needed my mom to check, too.)
The open doors must have caught the skinheads’ eyes. I was sitting on the arm of our new Good Will couch. They wore boots laced tight, black jeans, and white t-shirts. One had red suspenders. One had a red-checked shirt — like a flannel but not — over his t-shirt. One had a black leather jacket. They were white, but not the inaudible white of most white people. They were a piercing white, a sort of screeching white.
They crossed the living room. The music continued but guests quieted. The guests, I should say, were mostly white; normal white people are unsettled by skinheads.
The skinheads weren’t unfriendly (per se?). Nothing happened. Maybe they grabbed a beer or just left. But I remember a palpable fearwave, twitching like a gazelle’s flank when she senses a lion, as they clomped into the dining room where our family photos — so many black people — hung.
I called my mom the other day to ask about that party. She’s white. She didn’t have a clear memory. I’ve never forgotten.
Seeing Chris Brown dressed in that skinheady style intrigues me. Is he using it, even unconsciously, like a costume? Or is it just style?
We wear costumes to suggest membership in a group; to elicit whatever cultural memory and reflexes are tied to who we’re pretending to be. Chris Brown is no skinhead; but maybe he’s playing with their power, the fear they spurt into the air. Maybe he’s a peasant dressed as the king so another peasant will do his bidding, so he stands taller, and more frighteningly, despite his own low station. As a black guy, how much power does Chris Brown really have? More than the average black woman, to be sure; but the ultimate power — including over women — resides, for now, in white maleness. Slip into that silky, primal garb and who will stop you, wife beater, from kicking the camera and reciting your poem, wild-eyed, about hookers who want your money?
. . . More likely, a fashion director’s intern pulled those garments, selected the tawny Timbs and icy-white t-shirt, tied the red-checked sleeves around his hips so they hung, loose but phallic, in front of his fly. So he looked hot.
And he does. What to do with my own attraction to the video? What can I say? Oh, how it grosses me out!; yet there it is. We idolize what we hate; it’s part of being oppressed. That’s why relaxer and Spanx and woman’s magazine sell. Some defeated — or maybe pitifully hopeful — part of us longs to touch the shined leather of the boot pressing into our necks, even to put the boots on our own feet and, in bitter madness, find a lower neck to stomp. Part of being a woman, after all, is having the male gaze wedged, like a pointy cyst, into both eyes. It’s being able to see yourself as the oppressor does, and even to appreciate the view, as if you, by identifying with the oppressor, can be free.
Maybe a part of me watches this video because I slink into Chris Brown’s costume just like he slides into someone else’s, and feel his power, and like it.
We are all agents of patriarchy.
(Or maybe it’s just style.)