I can’t believe I just bought that damn Chris Brown song

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I can’t believe I just paid $1.29 to download that damn Chris Brown song, “Forever.” Not because it’s the kind of thing you’d expect to find on Elle Woods’s iPod—I’ve long come to terms with my weakness for Top 40 NutraSweet—but because Chris Brown is, by his own admission, an abusive mofo. That St. Paul wedding video is just so freakin’ happy, it makes you want to hear the song again and again. (And by “you,” I mean the thousands of buyers who have sent the months-old song climbing the charts.)

Anyway, though the Chris Brown case is especially fresh—and the contrast between the song’s lyrics and Brown’s behavior so acutely ironic—it’s just the latest illustration of the general principle that you have to separate an artist’s life from his or her art, lest you start down a very slippery slope and end up listening to nothing but the greatest hits of Helen Reddy. In recent weeks we’ve been reminded that Michael Jackson’s public artistry transcends the extreme sketchiness of his private life, and I didn’t notice any public burnings of “Be My Baby” 45s when Phil Spector was convicted of murder. In fact, if Chris Brown had any doubt that his career could survive the Rihanna incident, he could have assuaged his fears by paging through any history of rock ‘n’ roll. There are a lot of things you really don’t want to know about the life and, er, loves of Jerry Lee Lewis; Ike Turner is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame despite inflicting epic cruelty upon his wife Tina; and even Elvis Presley, the original King, was known to get handsy (and tonguey) with his underage groupies. Go back to rock’s hardscrabble roots, and you’ll find all manner of unbecoming offstage mayhem: this month’s Spin reports that grizzled bluesman R.L. Burnside was once imprisoned for murdering a man over a game of craps, being sprung only when his help was needed with the cotton harvest. Like Brown, Burnside offered a public apology: “I didn’t mean to kill nobody. I just meant to shoot the son of a bitch in the head.”