The New Year is only a little over a week out of the gate, yet Chris Brown and Soulja Boy have wasted zero time in bringing exhausting displays of traditional masculinity to 2017, mostly involving promises of violence and social media genital-measuring in the form of creative threats.
The feud started on Instagram, but has now snowballed into a Floyd Mayweather, Mike Tyson and 50 Cent-backed celebrity boxing event. Currently, the working tagline for the affair is, “put down the guns and put on the gloves,” which, as far as the threat of violence goes, at least opts for the less immediately-deadly option.
Tension started last week when Soulja Boy took to Twitter to claim that Brown FaceTimed him with threats because he’d “liked” a picture of the singer’s ex-girlfriend, Karrueche Tran.
Brown swiftly responded…
Soulja Boy then fired off a series of tweets maligning Brown and insinuating that while he’d actually shot someone, Brown’s violence was limited to physically abusing women. It was a clear reference to Brown’s near career-ending assault of former girlfriend Rihanna in 2009.
Next, in a live-feed from somewhere in Compton, Soulja Boy gloated that he was safe in any neighborhood and challenged Brown to come to his location and fight. The stream was short-lived though, as Soulja Boy’s companions seemingly turned against him, shoving him to the ground and allegedly stealing his phone. Rumors soon began circulating that he’d been jumped at Brown’s behest.
After several more exchanges, Soulja Boy extricated himself from the online beef to focus on music and prepare for the boxing match both parties suddenly agreed to hold. The rapper returned to social media last Sunday to claim that he was fighting Brown to avenge Rihanna. The revelation came in response to the news Mike Tyson would be the “Fine China” singer’s trainer.
As an outsider, one can’t help but feel as though we’re watching two kids playing dress up: a former teen heartthrob and an excitable, dance-loving, once-adolescent rapper attempting to throw off the shackles of the past and completely transform into the archetypal alpha-male figures they want to be viewed as. It seems that in the tradition of many ex-child stars, both are suffering one prolonged identity crisis.
The idea that child stardom breeds adults who are fragile, empty shells of potential is a concept that has seeped its way into the bedrock of our consciousness. Sometime over the last two decades, phrases like “the Disney curse” and “child star statistic” have become an oft-echoed part of our lexicon. As the number of promising young entertainers turned troubled adults rises, so too has our interest in understanding how these bright-eyed youngsters with money and the adoration of the world could become perennial malefactors.
There are many commonalities between Brown and Soulja Boy and other familiar child actors of old. Lindsay Lohan, for example, rose to fame after playing a set of brassy red-haired twins in a reboot of The Parent Trap. She has now become the definitive cautionary tale for the millennial generation; her very name is used as a catch-all verb for a life that has fallen so far off track that it may never recover.
Another of these tales comes in the form of Jake Lloyd, who played the young Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. He was collared for leading police on a high-speed chase in 2015. During his arrest, he initially gave the false name Jacob Broadbent in order to avoid becoming fodder for gossip.
Lloyd was merely a child when the restart of the Star Wars franchise came to the big screen, a release that (to put it mildly) was met with mixed reviews. Many staunch fans blamed Lloyd for ruining the movie, so much so that when he returned school he claims to have suffered intense bullying. He was only eight-years-old at the time of filming.
Similarly, Brown was a young unknown from the small town of Tappahannock, Virginia, when he burst onto the scene and secured himself as the newest teen R&B heart throb. His meteoric fall from grace was precipitated by the now-infamous 2009 physical assault of Rihanna. Though he has since regained a foothold as a singer, his public perception seems forever tainted. It’s a fact that Brown frequently acknowledges in lengthy social media rants and video posts.
Soulja Boy’s journey to stardom also started in a small town, this time in Mississippi. As a teen he used YouTube and MySpace in a truly revolutionary manner. By leveraging the platforms, he managed to gain internet notoriety and connect with kids and trends originating in more cosmopolitan areas.
Unlike Brown, Soulja Boy’s decline seems more the result of having difficulty finding an identity post-adolescence. His last charting song, “Pretty Boy Swag,” was released in 2010 when the rapper was 20-years-old. Since then, he’s dropped the occasional musical project, found a permanent spot on reality television, and partnered with several brands and businesses.
There is no denying that Brown and Soulja Boy are immensely accomplished for their ages. There is also no denying that from an age-only perspective they are adult men; the former is even father to a young girl. Despite that, both have a rather juvenile history of public outbursts and minor scrapes with the law that are often explained away as the efforts of people out to get them.
One could explain such incidents, and the lack of accountability around them, as a natural part of growing up. However, the truth is that very little was natural about either artist’s adolescence. It’s far more likely that their behavior is the only way they felt able to act out against the labels and immense responsibilities imposed on them at such an early age.
What many of us easily forget is that being a child star is still a job. And as with any job, it comes with expectations and realities that children, for the most part, aren’t prepared to process or deal with maturely. Following such stringent, often tiring, hours at such a young age can do the opposite of instilling a sense of responsibility and discipline. Instead, it can send the message that the child is so special they don’t need the normalcy of school or friends, or even a consistent home life.
Even child stars who have successfully transitioned into adulthood speak openly about the difficulties of such early scrutiny. Emma Watson, who played Hermione Granger in J.K. Rowling’s beloved Harry Potter series, has repeatedly said the industry forced her to grow up too fast. Watson even told Daily Mail that she was 25 before she found a semblance of happiness and normalcy.
From an early age, industry children are also surrounded by people who acquiesce to their every request. Not because it’s the right thing to do, but because they represent a means to potential gain. Who can forget the stories of Drew Barrymore’s mother using the young actress as a bargaining chip for entrance to exclusive late night parties? Barrymore would go on to spiral into alcohol addiction by the age of nine, have her first stint in rehab at the age of 14, and emancipate herself from her parents by 15. When fame comes early, it’s all too easy for it to create an unnatural and unhealthy dynamic in which to raise a child.
As a result, many of these children develop a skewed sense of reality. Their self-worth becomes directly connected to praise, attention and recognition. To them, all of these things are further connected to money, success and a string of people always saying “yes.” So sure, the baby boomers think millennials are all afflicted with special snowflake syndrome, but you could also argue that child stars are the OG special snowflakes. Which to be fair, isn’t exactly their fault.
Early experiences have led them to the understandable conclusion that they are exceptional and different. In many ways they are: Soulja Boy displayed incredible ingenuity in using the internet as the ultimate marketing tool. Chris Brown showed so much promise as an all-around entertainer that he was frequently compared to iconic performers like Michael Jackson and Prince.
The new generation of child stars is also facing an obstacle their forerunners didn’t: social media. In the past, social platforms were never such a fixed part of daily life. Being able to deliver by-the-moment news, opinions and rants to a sea of faceless admirers only makes a former child star’s desire for recognition easier to fuel. The evidence is in Brown and Soulja Boy’s habitual use of social media to vent their anger and frustration about matters that influence their private and public lives.
This seeming inability to deal with conflict privately, coupled with anger that stems from feeling misunderstood or overexposed, share characteristics of the past behavior of child stars like Amanda Bynes, Justin Bieber or Miley Cyrus – all of whom have been deemed troubled at some point or another.
But these two young men have an additional aspect to their identities not found in many of the other child star catastrophes, one tied to a very certain perception of masculinity. It is one that puts forward gunplay, fistfights and physical forms of aggression as the ideal way to display dominance and superiority. For that reason, the upcoming spectacle can easily be perceived as far more than a simple grudge match. On some level, it is yet another attempt to definitively find a unique identity while garnering attention and respect.
As spectators, we’ve doubtlessly made their transition to adulthood all the more difficult. Not only have we continued to impose our own ideas of their identities, we’ve also enabled their erratic behavior by providing a constant stream of responding commentary for them to dissect and further rage against. Our unsolicited opinions – including this piece – stem from feeling entitled to take part in Brown and Soulja Boy’s lives because they are public figures.
It seems that escaping from a life under the microscope requires demanding privacy and setting personal boundaries. Last year, Justin Bieber took a hiatus from Instagram for this very reason. An overwhelmed Bieber also went on to claim that social media was like being in hell.
Similarly, Kristen Stewart, whose breakthrough role came when she was only 14-years-old, refused to have a Twitter or Instagram for many years. Though she now has an Instagram, the account is kept private. Keira Knightley is another former child star and avowed technophobe. In a 2009 interview she stated, “I hate the internet. I find it dehumanizing to constantly check emails or social sites, which have become so fashionable.”
For those of us who watched the breakdown of former Nickelodeon darling Amanda Bynes in realtime via Twitter, the concerns of those like Stewart and Knightley make sense. Often we react to the misfortune of others in the same way we do to a car accident. We either rush to be helpful – when former Disney star Demi Lovato admitted herself to rehab her fans sent an outpouring of well wishes and support – or we become morbid spectators.
Brown and Soulja Boy’s war of words devolving into a profit-turning fight that has spawned memes, GIFs and jokes for days, indicates that we have no problem participating in the further exploitation of two people, who, if anything, need to take a long break from social media.
For more of our music op-eds, take a look at our prediction for the biggest trends in music of 2017 right here.