How do you spin this?

Those in the industry assume Chris Brown’s music career will survive this brush with the law

How do you spin this?

Sunday night was supposed to be yet another public-display-of-affection milestone in the romance of young music superstars Chris Brown and Rihanna. Both were scheduled to perform at the Grammys, with the 20-year-old Rihanna nominated in three categories, the 19-year-old Brown in two. Then, to everyone’s surprise, they cancelled. Soon after, the reason for their bailout made headlines: Brown had been arrested on the suspicion of making a criminal threat against a woman believed to be his famous girlfriend, and he could be charged with domestic battery.

The story, or as much of it that is known, proves once again that no one knows what goes on inside an intimate relationship, especially not People magazine, which gushingly called the one-year Brown-Rihanna union a “fairy-tale.” What we know is this: The couple appeared affectionate at a pre-Grammy party in Beverly Hills on Saturday night.  According to police reports obtained by the Los Angeles Times, Brown and a woman (who remains unnamed though sources have claimed it was Rihanna and no denials have come from her camp), began arguing while driving. Brown stopped the car and the fighting escalated. An unidentified witness called 911. Brown was gone by the time officers arrived at the scene but the woman (who numerous witnesses claimed suffered grievous visible injuries) identified him as her attacker. The popular R&B singer turned himself in later in the day, and was booked on suspicion of making criminal threats, a charge that carries a maximum penalty of four years. The case has been sent to the district attorney’s office and further charges could be filed. Brown, who has retained L.A. heavyweight criminal lawyer Mark Geragos, was released from jail after posting US$50,000 bail. He’s now believed to be holed up in a Hollywood hotel. Today, his management announced he was cancelling appearances at events associated with the NBA All-Star Game this weekend in Phoenix.

Rihanna, known for her indulgence of the paparazzi, has also gone underground, though her publicist released a terse statement Sunday night that indicates she and Brown are no longer a united front: “Rihanna is well. Thank you for concern and support.” They both have different publicists so they’re competing to get their messages out, says Toronto publicist Carrie Sager of Flip Publicity: “Rihanna’s people won’t be too interested in working with his people at the moment.” Yesterday, she canceled an appearance in Jakarta later this week. Today, a bash celebrating her 21st birthday later this month was cancelled. Sources at her record label Def Jam have said she also may scrap an upcoming Asian tour.

The fact the high-profile incident took place at the tail end of National Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Week has served to ramp up the irony and pathos. The organizers of the three-year-old effort to publicize the warning signs of violence among 16- to 24-year-olds say the biggest red flag is the common tendency to conflate jealousy and possessive behaviour with “love.” (Others include excessive text-messaging or calling; monitoring calls and emails; frequently showing up unannounced; telling the other person what to do and wear; frequent accusations of “cheating” or flirting; keeping the other from doing things they enjoy; and threats of suicide or self-injury in the face of a breakup.)

What is known about the famous young couple suggests red-flags existed. Brown has spoken candidly about growing up in a home in which his mother was beaten by her partner. “I remember one night he made her nose bleed,” he told Giant magazine in 2007. “I was crying and thinking, ‘I’m just gonna go crazy on him one day.’ ” Rihanna was known to be passionately possessive of Brown, who she met in 2007 when they collaborated on a remix of her hit, Umbrella. As a source told OK! Magazine last year: “She has to have Chris around her 24/7. If Chris is with her on a photo shoot and steps away for a second, she starts saying, ‘Where did he go?’ If Chris isn’t with her, she wants to call and check in every second. She’s crazy about him.”

Within the industry, it’s assumed Brown’s music career will survive—even if he were to be found guilty. (Brown’s other endorsement deals, however, could be in jeopardy. Yesterday, Wrigley announced they would “suspend” the Doublemint gum commercials starring the baby-faced singer until the matter is resolved.) Steve Waxman, a publicist with Warner Music Canada in Toronto, believes  the music trumps any personal drama for the public. “As a parent I think one way,” he says about the assault charges. “But as a non-partisan person who sees the way the music industry works I see it another way. If any artist makes a great record they’re judged on the quality of that record. Their personal lives are their personal lives. You could say Mickey Rourke has f—– up as much as any actor could f— up but he was given a chance and he made a film that people recognize as a great piece of art.”

Certainly there have been plenty of high-profile cases of alleged spousal assault in which wrists were slapped, all was forgotten and careers soared. James Brown pleaded no contest in 2004 to spousal abuse. Rapper Vanilla Ice was arrested twice for domestic battery; in 2001, he was given one-year probation after pleading no contest. In 2007, the actor Josh Brolin was arrested for spousal battery in a conflict he and his wife, actress Diane Lane, later dismissed as a “misunderstanding.” Whether the stakes are different because of the high profile and popularity of the alleged victim in this case is a question mark. When Rihanna does finally surface, and if the stories circulating are proven to be true, expect the pressure to be on for her to speak out about dating abuse. “Hopefully, she’s going to leave him, and hopefully she’s going to get out there and tell girls that they don’t have to be in relationships like this,” says Sager. “I hope she will take up the mantle, I really do, because people will listen to her.”

But it’s Brown, who has had a first-hand glimpse of the cycle of violence, who potentially provides a more telling glimpse into social attitudes toward relationship violence. No one expects him to do jail time, for example: if he pleads “no contest” to misdemeanour battery, he could face two years of probation, fines, enrollment in a domestic violence treatment program, and attendance in counselling sessions. He’s scheduled to appear in court March 5 for arraignment on one felony count. After that, expect a redemptive couch-sit on Oprah. Maybe he’ll even sing his hit Forever,  which he was going to perform at the Grammys. The song, which celebrates everlasting love, includes the line: “Tonight is the night/To join me in the middle of ecstasy.”