Railroad Accident

We haven't exactly grown up with Bobby Brown, but it seems like he's always been there for us. We have grown accustomed to that confident gaze, forever fighting to compensate for the fuzzstache just below. His occasional handle, “King of the Stage,” may not be quite as universal as “King of Pop,” or “Godfather of Soul,” but in all his incarnations—teen sensation, pop star breakout, slobbering train wreck—Brown has given this nation more than its fair share of quality entertainment.

“Train wreck”: under the force of repetition (Googling “Bobby Brown” and “train wreck” nets 24,000 hits), these two words have lost almost all meaning. In the future, Amtrak investigators may well arrive at the scene of a nasty derailment and find they no longer have the verbal tools to describe what they are seeing. Bobby Brown will be blamed.

It's been like this for 15 years now. Brown's 1992 marriage to Whitney Houston ushered in an era of wrecked Porsches, public arguments, violated paroles and a general suspicion of a Publicity Marriage between diva and delinquent. Worse, by the mid-'90s, Brown's accumulation of troubles took on the air of incompetence, as if he was less a bad boy than simply a confused oaf who couldn't quite seem to figure out how to make adult life work right (Mr. Brown was unavailable for comment; his manager's voicemail box was full and her website was down).

Then came television's Being Bobby Brown. Any lingering doubt over the authenticity of their marriage crumbled before the hideous asscapades of Bobby and Whitney's actual lives. Hand in hand did the married couple stumble through the grunting, mumbling, sobbing, sweating humanity that they, together, fashioned from marriage. With his own show, Bobby may have held hopes of finally stepping out from under Whitney's 120 million album shadow. Instead, this imbalance loomed like a mushroom cloud over all 10 episodes; where we might have expected Audrey Hepburn, we found only Courtney Love. Houston's behavior—huffy, brittle, insane—eclipsed Brown many times over.

I don't like writing about reality TV any more than you like reading about it. But it's mildly important that fault for this particular kind of train wreck is correctly assigned. Too often, blame for reality TV is placed either on the viewing public or the participants. This ignores the vast army of producers, marketers, publicists and all-purpose wretches who have fashioned lasting careers out of beaming Bobby and Whitney into our homes. When Brown earnestly reminded Houston of the time he “dug a doodie bubble out of your butt,” the moment said far less about them or us than it did about the raw economics of late-stage capitalism forcing two stars to wring more and more juice from overburdened careers and lives. These two have less in common with Borat than they do the duped Romanian villagers of Borat's movie.

Neither husband nor wife have ever made particularly autobiographical music. Whitney's liner notes in 1998's My Love Is Your Love even offer a disclaimer that “the events and characters depicted in this album are fictitious.” Now that their divorce has been fast tracked by Houston's lawyers, Brown may want to take stock of his situation and start writing songs that hit closer to home. (Sudanese writer Kola Boof, the alleged former mistress of Osama bin Laden, has claimed that the Whitney-obsessed bin Laden has repeatedly discussed having Bobby Brown killed. This would be a good topic for a song. Or the doodie bubble bit.)

Brown turned 38 earlier this week. Having just cleared statistical middle age, he still has half his life to go. The embarrassments of the past may have inoculated him from the embarrassments of the future—it wouldn't take much effort for the man to pleasantly surprise us. Reality shows are gaining ground as the new Vegas, the final stop for exhausted performers. But there is still Vegas itself. It's hard to think of a better match.

Saturday's concert, by the way, will be filling the time slot originally slated for the late James Brown, whose name lives on in the February 10 box of the House of Blues calendar next to an elegant “cancelled.” Facing the cancellation of his own TV show, followed by the pending cancellation of his marriage, Bobby Brown may well feel like the guy who has just stepped out of the nasty railroad accident unscathed. All he has to do is avoid those Amtrak investigators and he's home free.


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