Five winters this has been going on, a story that has infuriated, sickened, exhausted, a story that can’t seem to wrap itself up in any kind of bow, no happy ending, no ending at all because it keeps finding new ways to disappoint us.
It starts with a pop star repeatedly punching, then choking, then biting another pop star. She was unlucky enough to be sitting in his car on a Saturday night in February 2009, unlucky enough to be in love with him.
The sun rose over Los Angeles the next morning, and the organizers of the 51st annual Grammy Awards announced that neither singer would perform at the evening’s big show. Knuckles sore from delivering multiple contusions to her face and arms, he turned himself into the authorities, was booked, then released on $50,000 bail. Eventually, he was charged with two felonies for which he was quickly forgiven or forever despised.
No matter where you fell on that spectrum, at Sunday night’s 55th annual Grammy Awards, you will be encouraged not to think about any of it.
She’s expected to stride onto the Staples Center stage to sing alongside Bruno Mars and Sting. He’s expected to be out in the crowd, next to her empty seat, cheering her on. They’re both up for minor trophies, but the biggest news is that they’re officially back together, a decision only an industry that stands to profit from their senseless reunion could smile upon.
“I decided it was more important for me to be happy,” she recently told Rolling Stone. “I wasn’t going to let anybody’s opinion get in the way of that. Even if it’s a mistake, it’s my mistake.”
Starry eyes read that as “owning it,” but either way, she’s profiting from it. She dominates headlines as a superstar who’s sold more singles than any artist of the digital era. So as long as we’re buying her hits at $1.29 apiece, this will continue to feel like our mistake, too.
Because she never appeared to grasp the significance of his brutality. Because he never came across as truly sorry for it. Because they both know the world keeps them under 24-hour surveillance. Because this entire ordeal seems to feed on our sustained, rapt attention.
And when we feel like we’re doing something wrong, we can stop. We can boycott products, turn off televisions, give up sugar and caffeine. Can’t we do the same here? Ignore them? Would it be rational? Ethical? With any chance of success for them or for us?
Just as their reconciliation refuses the redemptive narrative, it refuses a simple response. But five winters deep, even saying their names feels like complicity.
Grammy night has been a sparkly mile marker in this fog, annually updating millions of couch-sitters on their progress, or lack thereof.
She made a low-key return to the Grammys stage in 2010, dressed in a white, feathery frock, Jay-Z standing by as her tuxedoed guardian. Together they accepted an award for their collaboration “Run This Town.”
In 2011, three months after “What’s My Name?” became her seventh No. 1 single, she performed it at the Grammys, the song’s refrain sounding more like a search for her own identity than bedroom trash talk.
He had his turn last year, performing two vapid dance tunes on a terraced stage that looked like something out of the ancient arcade game Q*bert. Later in the program, his fourth disc, “F.A.M.E.,” won the Grammy for best R&B album, and when he approached the podium with an opportunity to win back the planet’s goodwill, he merely thanked the Grammys, his fans and his higher power.
Then he rushed to thumb out taunts to his critics on Twitter: “HATE ALL U WANT BECUZ I GOT A GRAMMY Now! That’s the ultimate [expletive] OFF!”
Later that same month, February 2012, new music leaked into the world — the two had been collaborating on remixes of each other’s singles. Hers, “Birthday Cake,” had been transformed into a carnal duet between an abuser and his victim. It seemed way too insane to become a a hit, which of course it did, earning millions of YouTube views and endless radio spins.
And now we’re back to February. The collaborators are a couple again. Maybe she’s forgiven him because he’s deeply contrite, profoundly changed, but the headlines make that difficult to imagine.
On Tuesday, he was accused of failing to complete the court-ordered community service for his assault conviction. (On Wednesday, she accompanied him to a Los Angeles County courtroom for the hearing.) That news came less than two weeks after he and his entourage allegedly assaulted R&B singer Frank Ocean over a parking spot outside a West Hollywood recording studio — which should surprise no one who read about the Manhattan nightclub brawl he stoked last summer with Drake.
These are the episodes we know about. It’s easy to dread the ones that might be coming and just as easy to pretend that everything will end up fine.
We’re not really a part of their lives the way they’re a part of ours.
Yes, there’s a harmful culture of silence and shame that hangs over domestic abuse in this country, but after four years of failing to squeeze them into the frame of a cautionary tale, it now feels perfectly reasonable to tune them out. They both have real lives populated with real friends and real families and real support. Leave it to them. (It should also be noted that she has a trove of resources that the countless battered women who idolize her do not.)
This entire thing has thrived on an audience, and our participation seems to only spur more bad decisions, more defiant attitudes, evidenced by what they share on Twitter and Instagram. He’s prone to tantrums. She recently tweeted a verse from the Book of Psalms. They live on the defensive, you and I against the world, recidivism poorly disguised as rebellion.
And the songs don’t feel right. Pop music is the stuff we turn on to make sense out of our biggest, messiest emotions. But his is high-gloss dance fuel that’s become impossible to smile about. Hers is now characterized by a blank-eyed aggression that, in big, repeated doses, becomes a numbing agent.
Four years later and everything has circled back to where it began, a fresh start at a dead end where there’s nothing to learn, nothing to hope for, nobody to root for, nothing for us to do other than stop feeding their miasma with our money and our attention.
We can probably stop right here.