Chris Brown Essays

“Christopher Brown is emerging as a Ballardian John McPhee.” — Mark Dery


“A Natural History of Empty Lots”
Texas Architect
September/October 2017


“The Summer of Living Dangerously”—Sirens of Suspense, July 17, 2017


“The Persistence of American Folklore in Fantastic Literature”—, July 13, 2017


“The Big Idea” Behind Tropic of Kansas—Scalzi’s Whatever, July 13, 2017


“Dystopia is Realism”—LitHub, July 10, 2017


“Earth Day in the Edgelands”—Medium, April 22, 2017

You’re Fired—Democracy, Dystopia and the Cult of the CEO
NewCo Shift
March 15, 2016


“Rule of Capture”
Reckoning 1
December 2016

“Winter in the Feral City”
Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet
#33, July 2015


“Borrowed Palantirs”
Review 90: Literature and Arts of the Americas
Latin America and the Technological Imaginary in the Digital Age
May 2015


Global Ear—Austin
The Wire
November 2015


“Science Fiction in the Edgelands”
New York Review of Science Fiction
April 2012

“Mexico and the Atemporal Future”
Revista Digital Universitaria UNAM
February 2011

“Book Notes: Three Messages and a Warning”
Largehearted Boy
December 2011

“SF for MFAs”
Necessary Fiction
September 2011

“Some Monster Manuals for the Evasion of Capitalist Networks”
New York Review of Science Fiction
April 2011

“Revolution, Utopia and Science Fiction”
Castálida, 2009

“Feeling Very Estranged: Science Fiction in the Aftermath of the Twentieth Century”
Mundos Paralelos, 25th Annual Festival de Mexico en el Centro Historico
March 2009
New York Review of Science Fiction
November 2009

“Science Fiction in the Year Zero”
The Wiscon Chronicles, Volume Two
Aqueduct Press May, 2008

“Child of the Diaspora: Sterling on Ballard”
October 7, 2005

“Mixmaster of the Cranial Museum: Paul di Filippo’s Serious Whimsy”
Nova Express
Summer 2002

The Crime Studio, by Steve Aylett (review)
Nova Express
Summer 2002

“Catastrophically Cozy: J.G. Ballard’sSuper-Cannes”
RevolutionSF, 2001

Earlier this week, for reasons that aren’t clear or coherent to me, the Internet was feverishly debating whether Chris Brown is a better dancer than Michael Jackson, and a comparable singer, and a comparable entertainer overall. The proposition is ridiculous, of course. Far-flung South African daughters and Belarusian villages aren’t fucking with Breezy to the degree that entire U.N. conferences were bumping MJ in the 1980s. “New Flame” ain’t ringing off like that. Granted, that’s just an assessment of Michael Jackson’s global audience reach. For the sake of the wack-ass cross-gen comparisons, there are other factors we might consider.

What’s got fans of both artists tripping over this comparison, I think, is the dichotomy between (a) “singer” as specific assessment of a particular talent and (b) “entertainer” as a broad assessment of a singer’s style, athleticism, narrative, general impact, and penchant for spectacle. If we’re talking about chops, I'd characterize Chris Brown as a hitmaker and powerful dancer who, alas, couldn't outsing Ne-Yo or Trey Songz, much less Michael Jackson. Rarely does anyone step away from a Chris Brown single and think, Wow, this guy sings like no one else could!

As entertainers, however, Michael Jackson and Chris Brown are more evenly matched than reactionaries would like to admit. They're both supremely athletic showmen. If Michael Jackson briefly resurrected and—in a “Devil Went Down To Georgia”-type situation—challenged Chris Brown to a glittery dance-off, Chris Brown might could moonwalk off with MJ’s fedora. Not necessarily, but the competition would be close. You never know. Additionally, Chris Brown can rap. Michael Jackson couldn’t rap. Oh, well.

You know who’s a fantastic singer that more of us ought to sporadically compare to Michael Jackson? Usher.

Unlike Chris Brown, Usher Raymond could belt the brakes off a Benz CLA.

Can you sing the hook to “Climax”? Can you hit those notes?

No. No you can’t.

(Please. Please don’t.)

Only Usher can properly channel Usher, who, coincidentally, can do a pristine MJ cover when tribute and ceremony require it. Usher is Michael Jackson's spiritual successor, and that's damn near according to MJ himself. If Usher's twenty years of hit records aren't persuasion enough, I urge you to revisit the music video for “Good Kisser” and appreciate that, at this point, you are watching a 35-year-old man in flawless action. This is eleven years after motherfucking Confessions, mind you.

How many excellent, thoroughly impressive albums does Chris Brown even have to his credit? One? Two, tops? Who among you heathens is prepared to front as if F.A.M.E. is Thriller? Granted, critical retrospect on Chris Brown albums is distorted by the reality that Chris Brown is a black leather straightjacket animated by rage and auto-tune—but just on musical terms, Breezy doesn’t have an album that’s contesting Usher’s Confessions, or even his homeboy Trigga’s Ready. Breezy's vocals are inferior to far too many of his R&B contemporaries for us to be seriously comparing him to Michael Jackson.


In fairness, I suppose I should include (above) some superb dance footage of Breezy, who, sure, is adept at approximating Michael Jackson’s intonations and stage presence but isn't blessed with MJ's chops, hence why comparing Chris to Michael Jackson is kinda like comparing Janet Jackson to Whitney Houston. Two great singers with a full deck of hit records, obviously, but only one of them could crack a planet into halves just on the strength of a vocal warm-up.

Chris Brown is a Millennial avatar of black pop, perhaps, but I doubt that “Run It” and “Loyal” will age as gracefully as “P.Y.T.,” “Thriller,” or “Bad,” which aren’t even my favorite MJ songs. (“Off The Wall,” “Dirty Diana,” and “Remember The Time,” duh.) Michael Jackson was a tremendous singer and revolutionary pop performer who desegregated MTV and set several dozen international music sales records in the course of his 44-year career. He was the template for Usher Raymond, the greatest male pop singer of the past couple decades—though, to be sure, he's no Beyoncé.

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