Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Chris Brown: not the first pop star with a God complex

Brown's latest Instagram compares himself to Christ, causing outrage … but aren't pop stars meant to be worshipped?
Chris Brown
Unrepentant … Chris Brown. Photograph: Katy Winn/AP
It's actually exhausting trying to remain surprised about each new episode in Chris Brown's life. Yet today's developments have reached a new level of ludicrous for R&B's public enemy number one, with his extraordinary reaction to his spat with Frank Ocean.
It already takes a special kind of self-involvement to pick a fight with the most revered man in music. And now, Brown has taken to Instagram to post a painting of himself as Jesus on the cross with the charming caption, "Painting the way I feel today. Focus on what matters!"

It's an astonishing move on all kinds of levels. But of course, the Pop Star God Complex has a long and illustrious history. Although first coined by psychoanalyst Ernest Jones (in his 1923 collection Essays in Applied Psycho-Analysis) simply as 'a belief that one is God', a God Complex is not a diagnosable condition. So it might be just as useful to look to's present-day definition as "a psychosis based in uncontrolled narcissism, inflated arrogance and a perceived need to subjugate and/or ridicule other individuals deemed to be inferior or unworthy".
In that light, it sounds a lot more like the everyday kind of narcissism we often admire and even expect in our pop stars. Different beasts from the mere "musician" or "celebrity", they exist like indulged superheroes. Yet there are still gradients of this behaviour, which their adoring public are prepared to put up with.

When John Lennon declared in 1966 that the Beatles were "bigger than Jesus" there was uproar and radio boycotts followed, but in hindsight it was the kind of socially-minded Scouse sarcasm we've come to adore him for (though Lennon has also been accused of having some very unsavoury qualities). The ruck over Michael Jackson's rendering of himself as a Christlike figure in his Brits performance of Earth Song spoke more of the perceived worries about his mental state. People were appalled, but also concerned, since the memories of an innocent and childlike Jackson just did not square with what was unfolding. But when Madonna performed onstage, chained to a metal cross and wearing a crown of thorns, it didn't have anything like the impact. She'd already made a career out of subverting religious imagery and, besides, that near-heroic self-regard is what much of her persona has been built on.

Perhaps the most startling example of all, however, comes from 1960s British rock'n'roller Vince Taylor, David Bowie's muse and originator of Brand New Cadillac. Taylor's already erratic tendencies were exacerbated by an athletic consumption of booze and drugs, which led him to be convinced he had astral connections with alien incursions and Christ. At one career-crucial show in London, he took to the stage in white robes and declared he was the apostle Matthew. Taylor's substance abuse did much for his career (although, he ended his life in 1991, as an aircraft mechanic in Switzerland). But just as Christ was supposed to have died so we might live, Taylor lived the dream so you didn't have to, and was rewarded by history by becoming a key ingredient for Ziggy Stardust, with Bowie declaring "if Vince Taylor didn't exist, you'd have to invent him".

Which to an atheist, is the exact reason why a humanity uncertain of itself felt the need to create the idea of an interventionist God in the first place. Me, I prefer to worship pop stars in general. While remembering that one should probably draw the line at Chris Brown.
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