Is It Morally Wrong to Like an R. Kelly Song? Further Investigations into Moral Asthetics

by Belle Waring on July 3, 2012

Oh, I know what y’all are going to say. You’re going to say it’s wrong to like R. Kelly because his music is bad. No. Unnnh huuh. “But it’s got T-Pain in it!” You like “I’m on a Boat,” don’t you Sherlock? Further, “I’m a Flirt” is insanely catchy. Now you object that the Venn diagram of insanely catchy and bad has a large overlapping area, because you wrongly hate hillbilly-from-the-future Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe,” but nonetheless, “I’m a Flirt” is just a good song. No. You know why else? Because I told you so. Also, everything silly you wanted in a video. Expensive cars? Stupid big jewelry? Honeys up in the VIP room? So many honeys. I’m gay for this video.

But it might seem as if it’s wrong to like R. Kelly’s music because he’s committed statutory rape on multiple occasions.

Tapes of him having sex with (and urinating on; see, you knew I would tie this back to discussions of libertarianism in the workplace) an allegedly underage girl in his house in Chicago became public in 2002. R. Kelly denied being the man in the video, and the girl in question came forward to say that the sex had been consensual (?!). Police searched his house in Davenport, Florida and found 12 photos of an apparently underage girl on a digital camera. He was indicted in Chicago, but the warrant was bad, the arrest delayed, the trial protracted, and the jury deliberated for less than a day before acquitting him of all charges in 2008. Fans (fairly legitimately) complained that he was being singled out by the prosecutor’s office because of his race. But, dude, he married R and B singer Aaliyah when she was 15. And there were plenty of other complaints. Kells is guilty.

The thing is, if I look through my iTunes library at random, the possibility that someone in a given band has taken advantage of an underage fan is…pretty high. I’m totally making this up, mind. Let’s see, shuffle: The Beatles, yes! Devendra Banhart, no! Super Furry Animals, no! Albert Ammons Rhythym Kings? Um? Prolly? The Ramones! uuh. It must be yes, but I want to say no? Crap, yes! Jurassic 5, objection, relevance! Edith Pinder, Geneva Pinder, Raymond Pinder and Joseph Spence NO!* Hole, maybe! Wilco, maybe! Michael Jackson, ow, awkward, yes! Led Zeppelin, I win iTunes! Also, “Over The Hills And Far Away,” awwyeah baby. The guys in Led Zeppelin have had sex with enough underage people to notionally hand a few out to the rest of all the bands. The only reason I don’t know about the peeing is the lack of digital video recorders.

For real, I listen to the Rolling Stones all the time. I’m getting snippy now? Bill Wyman, who is widely reputed to have had sex with over “1000 girls” married Mandy Smith when she was 18 in 1989. They had been going out since she was 13. Her mom apparently decided to play matchmaker and had Mandy transferred to a middle school that was more convenient for Bill. That’s quality parenting right there.

The funny thing about the song “I’m a Flirt” is that, like many of R. Kelly’s songs, it’s all about female agency (despite having a few desultory hip-hop-isms (“cuff your bitch”). R. Kelly is announcing that he’s so overcome with love of women that he’s going to flirt come hell or high water, and the solution is not to come around with your girl unless…”your game is tight and you trust her.” Wait, that’s it? You just trust your girlfriend? That’s…pretty low key and awesome, actually. His most charming moment is at 1:04 when he announces that if it were possible he would just love all the laydeez in the world: “I would probably fuck with all of y’all.” This nominally lustful sentiment is accompanied by a puppy-dog smile that suits him much better than the SERIUZ RAPPIN NOW face he puts on otherwise. And the mad game he’s bringing? What’s he going to say to your girl? “I’ma be like ‘cousin!’” Arms akimbo, palms up, in the international gesture of OMG I didn’t even know you were coming to this party this is soooo great! This truly is the flirting technique of an 8th grader.

He just published an autobiography that sounds like a load of crap, in which he doesn’t accept that he ever did anything wrong, and neglects to even mention Aaliyah at all, which is cold. (She died at 20 in a plane crash when her puddle jumper was taking off in the Caribbean overloaded with people and luggage. She had a pretty great voice, actually.) I’m a little mystified as to why I don’t dislike him more, as I usually have a sharp personal intolerance for the statutory rapists of the world. I guess I listen to plenty of Michael Jackson, and by all accounts he was a pedophile. Boring true artist something petit bourgeois morality something? Eh, lame. I was moved by this: “he writes about going to Mickey D’s with his mom, dreaming that he’d be able to buy her a full breakfast to supplement her usual coffee.” Goddamn some people are poor. McDonald’s breakfasts are so cheap. She must have drank the coffee that came with his meal and he had water. That makes me feel sad. I am a privileged person, so much so that I don’t even know anyone who has this serious of money woes. Being born poor and being shamed for being illiterate, and then becoming a child star in your church, is no blank check for having sex with young teenagers when you’re an adult. But I do feel for the man. I could also imagine not knowing how to be a grown-up, in some important sense, after coming out of that, with all that that entails.

*Everyone should buy the album The Real Bahamas. Recorded in 1965 and 1967, it has some of the most soulful, amazing music of all time. The music of my childhood. Joseph Spence was an extraordinarily talented guitarist, and he is the playing the only instrument in the music, I think. The rest is a cappella style vocals with a lot of call and response and improvisation, but very spare. A number of the songs were covered without attribution by British bands like the Incredible String Band, most notably Edith Pinder’s “I Bid You Good Night” (part of “A Very Cellular Song”). All the subsequent versions of that song by the Grateful Dead (who made it a signature song), Aaron Neville, the Soweto Gospel Choir and so on stem from this borrowing ripoff. And what’s so annoying is they were contemporaries, it’s not as if you had the excuse that this was some old blues album and who knew blah blah. This is just stealing black people’s music tout court [updated edit]. The original is so bare that you may find it prickly compared to the lush covers, but you will come to love it, I promise. Think of little Belle on the screened porch facing the river in Bluffton, South Carolina pleading with her father to spread his newly made shrimp net on the painted wooden floor in a circle, so she could walk on it. The twisted nylon tickled the soles of my bare feet, while outside the sounds of the cicadas drew itself up to the full height of the trees, a metal saw shine shine shining almost as loud as the record player. My father would play it on the guitar, too, 12-string bottleneck slide, and my whole family would sing, and if we had my godfather there he would play the fiddle. “Lay down my dear sister, won’t you lay and take your rest/Won’t you lay your head upon your savior’s breast/Well I love you, but Jesus loves you the best/And I bid you good night, good night, good night.”

{ 77 comments }

1

Belle Waring 07.03.12 at 3:58 am

The T.I. rap is funny too; it suggests that you probably aren’t giving your girl enough oral sex and are liable to lose her to the more sexxing it up T.I. I briefly had a mental mashup problem with this and the “Comic Sans is the Best Font in the World” song, during which the thought suggested itself to me that I had better “treat my font like another man will/better eat you font like another man will,” but I wouldn’t even mind if Comic Sans left me for T.I., so whatever.

2

Tom 07.03.12 at 3:59 am

Is it not simply naf to rate someone’s output in and of itself based on whether they’re naughty or nice?

In R. Kelly’s (or, say, Chris Brown’s) case, while we know with great certitude that they’ve done reprehensible things in their relationships, I have a distinct sense that there’s an extra helping of stacksies in the press which is (gasp) based on their blackness.

I saw a review of Bowker’s new Joyce biography objecting to his status as a writer the other day because his “great humanism” was invalidated by his abusive relationships with women. Just read the books, dudes.

Same goes for … ? Reciting anecdotes from Marvin Gaye’s private life over Sexual Healing would sure be a buzzkill. Are Pollock’s canvases tainted by his having been, by all accounts, a mega jerkwad? Lovecraft, Heidegger, etc.

Your paragraph about McDonald’s breakfasts gets to the heart of it. We all lead damaged, imperfect lives, some more than others, and among them plenty of the great artists. Take value where you can get it.

Although I confess it’s disturbing that in so many of these cases it’s misogyny or child abuse being condoned.

3

Vance Maverick 07.03.12 at 4:05 am

“Sexual Healing” is, by itself, a buzzkill. Also, no mention of the Mudshark Incident?

4

Belle Waring 07.03.12 at 4:16 am

I…somehow didn’t know about the mudshark incident. or rather, I must have forgotten since I vaguely remember the Zappa thing but maybe I didn’t know it had a real basis. Tom, I do think racism plays a large role in which artists get condemned for their criminal or liminal behavior, and I’m inclined to push back against that. Nor do I think you have to like an artist to like his work in general. However, for me personally I take certain crimes very badly and am inclined to wash my hands of the artist who committed them. I’m under no obligation to listen to the works of any particular musician, after all.

5

Vance Maverick 07.03.12 at 4:20 am

Or Steven Tyler becoming the legal guardian of his underage girlfriend, or Jerry Lee Lewis.

Or, for a change, Clementi being purchased as a teenager by a visiting Englishman.

6

V 07.03.12 at 5:05 am

I take it Belle never reads Roissy (or Chateau Heartiste) as otherwise the answer to why R. Kelly and his ilk are pardoned their sexual misdeeds while others are not is pretty obvious.

7

Belle Waring 07.03.12 at 5:10 am

The veldt? Alpha males? Do tell.

8

Belle Waring 07.03.12 at 5:13 am

No, I know, because he’s hot? It could be that.

9

Tom 07.03.12 at 5:24 am

@Belle I’m the same in some cases, but I love art by enough jerks to be unable to reconcile with the idea that that loving it is – separate from the rest – a wrong.

It’s troubling when it’s obvious that the successful art produced by those living abhorrent lives relies for its success on its representation of those lives, and in doing so gives rise to abhorrent imitation.

This is pretty obvious in hip-hop / R&B, not to mention in the annals of Byronic “lustful tormented genius” types through history, the sordidly unpleasant imitators of whom I’m sure many of us encountered at university. On the other hand, their art, like Byron’s, is often somewhat mediocre considered separately from their lives on its own merits.

10

Belle Waring 07.03.12 at 5:28 am

In all seriousness, I have read much more Roissy than I ever wished to because I am a textual masochist; it was my understanding Heartiste is his new pseud though I’m not 100% certain on that. Both sites are characterized by a troubling lack of logic and conceptual rigor. Armchair theorizing coupled with a link to an “experiment” an “altsphere” blogger “ran” on OKCupid “data” does not a very convincing argument make. A comment section frothing with anger directed towards the “females” and sycophantic approval towards the genius blogger: likewise distasteful and indicative of authorial malice. No, thank you.

11

Bruce Baugh 07.03.12 at 6:00 am

Tom: yes, actually, I do preferentially give my money to people who seem like they’re not being net blights on the world. Particularly when they’re alive and may create more works and not-blight the world some more. And you know, I have more great music and reading and viewing on hand than I have time for. Some of it’s well-known to people interested in whatever the field is, some’s obscure, but damn there’s a lot of great art out there.

As for Lovecraft in particular: C’mon. In a world with Caitlin Kiernan, T.E.D. Klein, Thomas Ligotti, and Laird Barron, Lovecraft is of purely historical interest. Actually, speaking of Barron, I noticed something interesting while reading his novel The Croning and then noticed it again while re-reading his earlier short stories: Barron never writes characters with described orientations. There are no straight, gay, or other people in his work. There are people with boyfriends and girlfriends, husbands and wives and so on, but people just have the relationships they have without any labeling. It’s a subtle but nifty thing I’d like to incorporate in my owns citing.

12

Bruce Baugh 07.03.12 at 6:02 am

Follow-up: Tom, I’d phrase less as “it’s bad to reward artists with awful lives with your money and attention”, and more as “it’s good to reward artists with good lives, or neutral ones, with your money and attention”. Not “shun this” but “seek out that, and enjoy”.

Negative principles tend to grind me down; positive ones make me feel better at each step toward them.

13

Salient 07.03.12 at 6:31 am

Is it not simply naf to rate someone’s output in and of itself based on whether they’re naughty or nice?

Depends if you’re paying for the stuff?

Or maybe it’s a bit more subtle, since the goal would be to circumvent contributing to their royalties with your purchase-money. So it’s arguably morally neutral to own CDs by R. Kelly so long as you bought them used (moreso because your purchase incrementally increased the resell rate of those CDs, which means used CD stores are more willing to buy ’em off people, making it easier for owners of the CD to burn a copy to their computer and sell off the disc, which increases its presence in used CD stores, making it easier for people to find and pick up a used copy rather than buy the songs new over iTunes or whatever). By extension, it’s arguably morally neutral to have copies of Michael Jackson albums that you snagged off a peer-to-peer service, and it might even be morality-neutral to possess Roman Polanski films so long as you’re continuously seeding torrents of them.

…I dunno. But anyway agreed that “Call Me Maybe” is nice and kind of refreshing on the radio, they’ve been playing too much “here is the epic tale of my rise to sufficient prominence to justify telling the epic tale of my rise to prominence” stuff.

14

Tim Worstall 07.03.12 at 6:52 am

Separating the art (for a loose definition of art) and the artist is difficult: what the heck should be done about Eric Gill for example?

This did come up a few years back, does his behaviour mean that something should be done about his Stations of the Cross in Westminster Cathedral?

15

Phil 07.03.12 at 6:58 am

I was never into the String Band; the first time I ever heard “I bid you goodnight” it was being performed (wonderfully) by David Byrne backed by the Les Miserables Brass Band. He didn’t attribute it properly either, but there was a degree of fidelity in his delivery which made it pretty clear that this was folk music, and not just because there wasn’t a horse singing. (Originally it was a Methodist hymn called “Sleep on beloved”, but that’s folk song for you.)

As for R Kelly, I believe he’s a rap singer.

16

Both Sides Do It 07.03.12 at 7:11 am

Is there a word for the technique in which a post starts with a certain tone/argument and the last sentence before the link to the full post switches things drastically?

Because this is a fine example of that technique, whatever it’s called, if it’s called anything.

17

Scott Martens 07.03.12 at 7:46 am

The father of a member of one of the bands not listed as a “yes” – a man in his early 50s at the time and a well-known VIP in a large city – once made a pass at my 19 year old housemate in a bar, including an offer of cocaine for sexual services. I won’t name him or the band because he’s dead now and has a Wikipedia article. He had something of a reputation for this sort of thing, so I doubt his still living musician child would be shocked.

Yes, if we demand moral rectitude of our iTunes list, it’s gonna be an awfully short list. At least R. Kelly has the honesty to admit that he likes sex and isn’t all that picky about it. Claiming “high standards” is such an ego boost for men, especially rock stars and men wealthy enough to have trophy wives, that it’s kinda refreshing to see someone admit to just liking sex. Contrast with Donald Trump, for example.

18

Tom 07.03.12 at 7:50 am

“So it’s arguably morally neutral to own CDs by R. Kelly so long as you bought them used”

Or, perhaps, even commendable to buy an R. Kelly record new, in order to aggressively seed it on P2P networks so that no one else does?

Similar to a vegetarian agreeing to eat a piece of meat because it’s “already dead”!

Sort of ignores the social consequences of behaviour – in my view, if it matters at all, it’s probably worse to own up to peers that you appreciate the works of Candidate Famously Morally Compromised Artist, thereby increasing their likelihood of seeking out said artist’s work, or emulating said artist’s behaviour, than it is to quietly pay for one of said artist’s works.

It’s a very typical move to announce such a liking as a guilty (or somewhat difficult to reconcile) pleasure. A way of ducking the perceived moral implications of aesthetic sensibility – but anyway, I’m perhaps more comfortable denying those implications exist.

As we reduce this idea to its bare bones, what is the difference between:
* buying a film made by a person who is, coincidentally a murderer
* buying a film made by a murderer because it’s made by a murderer
* buying a snuff film – or other work in which the associated wrong acts are actually a direct element of its production?

“As for Lovecraft in particular: C’mon. In a world with Caitlin Kiernan, T.E.D. Klein, Thomas Ligotti, and Laird Barron, Lovecraft is of purely historical interest.”

Historical interest has plenty to offer! Despite his miserable prose, repetitiousness and small-mindedness, Lovecraft offered something pretty new and cool back in the day. I’m glad I read his works, even if I hardly return to them time after time.

19

Neville Morley 07.03.12 at 7:51 am

Do we need to draw some finer distinctions, e.g. chronologically – the difference between (a) artist has always verifiably been an unspeakable human being and would have acted on this regardless of success, and (b) artist was corrupted by money and adulation, and would otherwise never have even thought of indulging occasional immoral urges? And then sub-divide on the basis of whether artist’s character was formed by (i) abusive childhood in extreme poverty or (ii) nice middle-class upbringing in suburban England? Which is basically to agree that Led Zep and their ilk get a free pass mystifyingly often, while still thinking that Led Zep I is a great album.

20

Belle Waring 07.03.12 at 7:52 am

Don’t you “[o]riginally it was a Methodist hymn called ‘Sleep on beloved’”-Missy me!! This song was “originally” a Methodist hymn for when they let you down into the grave sort of, but the Pinder song and the hymn diverge after the first verse, and even this has but a family resemblance, and then all the cool stuff is hers. “B for the Beast at the ending of the world/Good night, good night/And it ate up the children that would not be good/Good night, good night.” I can’t explain the feeling of mystery it gave me to hear this: “I remember quite well, I remember quite well/Good night, good night/I went walking in Jerusalem just like John/Good night, good night.” I knew that lady had never been to Jerusalem. But she had seen all those things! And the album with her songs came out in 1968; this isn’t like “I found this 78 of Angola Prison spirituals on the ground! It’s just folk music. Who knows who these mysterious Negroes are?” This is just a direct ripoff, like if you were is the US and you said, hey, I decided to cover this great folk song called “Day-Tripper.” Indefensible. Somebody better have gone to the Bahamas and gave the Pinders and Joseph Spence and them a lot of money.

21

Belle Waring 07.03.12 at 8:08 am

I see they got on some “Roots of the Grateful Dead” compilations and a Rounder Records release of Joseph Spence. Hopefully they made something off it.

22

ponce 07.03.12 at 8:09 am

“The guys in Led Zeppelin have had sex with enough underage people to notionally hand a few out to the rest of all the bands.”

I have read the lewd antics of Led Zeppelin were greatly exaggerated to increase their appeal to suburban middle class white teenagers.

23

ajay 07.03.12 at 8:34 am

The father of a member of one of the bands not listed as a “yes” – a man in his early 50s at the time and a well-known VIP in a large city – once made a pass at my 19 year old housemate in a bar, including an offer of cocaine for sexual services.

Adult man makes pass at adult woman in bar. Good heavens! Tell me, does this sort of thing happen often? Does the President know?

24

Phil 07.03.12 at 8:47 am

It’s just folk music. Who knows who these mysterious Negroes are?

You seem to have wildly misread my comment. I have enormous respect for artists working in traditional forms – using the f-word doesn’t mean I don’t think sources should be credited or that it’s OK to rip them off. Perhaps it was unclear, but when I said that David Byrne “made it pretty clear that this was folk music” my implication was that he effectively credited it better than the ISB did; they may have owned up in the sleeve notes, but they incorporated the song into their own material pretty seamlessly, in a “hey it’s folk music! and we’re folk musicians!” kind of way which is only slightly less objectionable than what Moby did. (And yes, “Sleep on beloved” is a pretty conventional piece of work, and “I bid you goodnight” is wonderful by any standard.)

25

Phil 07.03.12 at 9:01 am

From the Dept of It’s Just Folk Music And Who Cares Anyway. Possibly.

26

Gareth Rees 07.03.12 at 9:46 am

Clementi being purchased as a teenager by a visiting Englishman.

This is a different kind of case, isn’t it? It’s hard to see how Peter Beckford’s abduction and sexual abuse of the young Clementi (if true) should make us think the worse of Clementi’s music.

27

Steven 07.03.12 at 10:54 am

In your private transactions, reward and enable people who do things that you believe are good. Do not reward, or enable, people who do things that you believe are bad. Even if they seduce you with catchy little ditties.

This was apparently a three sentence post crammed into several paragraphs, and it came to the wrong conclusion, at that.

28

Steven 07.03.12 at 11:08 am

And fwiw, there’s a certain tone here, along the lines of “Can you blame a repressed black man from the ghetto for not realizing it’s wrong to f*ck children, especially when white people do it too?” which is, itself, racist, considering that most repressed black people from the ghetto, despite everything working against them, are morally-grounded people who correctly take it at face value that it’s wrong to f*ck children.

People get caught up in due process arguments too often. Let’s say our society goes after the sins of its darker skinned members more frequently than it does those of the lighter ones. Does that mean it should stop doing so? No, it should continue to do so with the same abandon, and also make a better effort of policing the whites as well.

R Kelly is still a tool. People watch his videos and think it’s how they should behave. If you don’t believe that… well, then we’ll just have to disagree. This is fine if you’re educated, worldly and affluent, i.e., if you are the type who dwells here. There are ample mechanisms in place to correct your stupid judgments. If you’re not, if you’re some kid in a trailer or project somewhere, emulating what you see as normal in his videos will lead to two or three life decisions that could well ruin you.

I guess I’m old-fashioned about this.

29

Chingona 07.03.12 at 11:28 am

it’s kinda refreshing to see someone admit to just liking sex.

That’s a very disingenuous way of describing what Kelly likes. Kelly appears to like raping and urinating on children, and seeks out sexual relationships in which he possesses disproportionate social and economic power over his “partners.” No one is complaining that he likes sex–if there is a complaint to be made, it’s that all the sex he likes is rape, and that he should be forgiven this harmless and natural compulsion because he’s an eccentric genius and Racism.

30

Andrew Brown 07.03.12 at 12:11 pm

I was very tempted, during the height of the Catholics-cover-up-sex-abuse hysteria, to write something about Bill Wyman in this context. Ffs, we knighted Mick Jagger for singing, amongst other things, Stray Cat blues (“I know you’re just 13 years old, but I don’t want no ID”) and yet feel entirely entitled to condemn Cardinal Fascisti di Bastardo for rather less of the same thing.

Sometimes I think that if you could just boil away all the “It’s different when we do it” there’d be nothing left of public morality at all.

31

Barry Freed 07.03.12 at 12:26 pm

I’m so disappointed; discussion of pop stars having underage sex involving urination and no mention of Chuck Berry? ! Why I hear tell there’s even a video (he wants to know if it’s “nice and salty”).

32

Belle Waring 07.03.12 at 1:38 pm

Steven, it’s not racist to be mildly sympathetic to R. Kelly. It’s racist to imagine that black people don’t know better than to behave immorally if they see white people doing immoral things too, which you apparently do imagine for some reason.

People get caught up in due process arguments too often. Let’s say our society goes after the sins of its darker skinned members more frequently than it does those of the lighter ones. Does that mean it should stop doing so? No, it should continue to do so with the same abandon, and also make a better effort of policing the whites as well.
Policing against blacks committing statutory rape should go on “with abandon” while those charged with policing whites should just “make a better effort”? I think your racism is showing, friend. I mean, really.

R Kelly is still a tool. People watch his videos and think it’s how they should behave. If you don’t believe that… well, then we’ll just have to disagree. This is fine if you’re educated, worldly and affluent, i.e., if you are the type who dwells here. There are ample mechanisms in place to correct your stupid judgments. If you’re not, if you’re some kid in a trailer or project somewhere, emulating what you see as normal in his videos will lead to two or three life decisions that could well ruin you.

You didn’t watch the video, Steven. If you had, you would have learned about life decisions like wearing really stupid sunglasses, having beautiful braids, and flirting with your girlfriend’s friends when she brings them out to lunch. Also, getting told that if you don’t go down on your girl enough she’s likely to leave you for someone who will. I don’t think the vicissitudes of trailer park life are going to render any of that particularly toxic, though they are some dumbass sunglasses.

33

David J. Littleboy 07.03.12 at 1:53 pm

Hmm. To a certain extent, pop music is about group identification (current generation) as opposed to being Great Art For All Time. So I don’t get bent out of shape at hip/hop or whatever, since it isn’t speaking to this (sort of) child of the 60s. There’s always been music with over-the-edge lyrics, it just seems that in those days more of it had a bit of intellectual content.

34

rea 07.03.12 at 1:56 pm

They had been going out since she was 13. Her mom apparently decided to play matchmaker and had Mandy transferred to a middle school that was more convenient for Bill. That’s quality parenting right there.

And of course, just to confuse things, somewhere in there Mandy’s mom became engaged to Wyman’s son . . .

35

Walt 07.03.12 at 2:14 pm

Dave Chapelle would like to comment in video form. (I don’t agree with his overall argument, but it’s still funny.)

36

Orange 07.03.12 at 2:20 pm

Every man defending capital-A Art from the prissy people who care about the Artist’s misdeeds (typically predations harming women and children) recognizes that he’s steeped in male privilege, right? If it were women defending the Art made by female Artists known for emotionally and physically abusing their male romantic partners and maybe sometimes cutting off penises, I bet men would be less likely to buy the argument that Art is a realm far above mere human misdeeds.

37

Salient 07.03.12 at 2:26 pm

Or, perhaps, even commendable to buy an R. Kelly record new, in order to aggressively seed it on P2P networks so that no one else does?

You might be taking an not-very-serious argument too seriously, but also, the suggested principle was that it’s okay to own R. Kelly’s stuff provided none of your money goes to him and you help others make sure none of their money goes to him. This also means that renting from Netflix would violate the principle in a second-order way, for example, ’cause if Netflix sees an uptick in popularity they’ll buy more new copies. It’s an argument about as watertight as an uncoated sponge and half as sanitary, but there’s so sense criticizing it in a way that misses the spirit of the thing (the two questionable ‘wrongs’ of owning reprehensible person’s stuff and enabling piracy making a ‘right’ was the punchline). Now if you stole the record new and then seed it…

In your private transactions, reward and enable people who do things that you believe are good. Do not reward, or enable, people who do things that you believe are bad.

Okay, sure. Provided you define ‘reward’ and ‘enable’ reasonably and coherently, this doesn’t conflict with anything Belle said (and doesn’t even conflict with any of the stupider things I said, for that matter). If you’re going to write a hostile ‘Shorter so-and-so’ + ‘FTFY’ post (which is not to say that you should) you could at least try to get the ‘shorter’ part in the right ballpark at least, don’t you think?

38

Chingona 07.03.12 at 2:55 pm

Policing against blacks committing statutory rape should go on “with abandon” while those charged with policing whites should just “make a better effort”? I think your racism is showing, friend.

Agreed. Thing is, if there’s an argument to be made about the inherent racism in the Kelly story, it’s that when WoC are victims of sexual assault and molestation, their rapists and abusers are less likely to be charged and much less likely to be successfully prosecuted, and this in the wider context of a rape-enabling culture in which rapists in general are rarely convicted at all. Had Kelly’s victims been middle-class white teenage girls, at the very least there’d be less nonchalance about the whole thing, less of a desire to see the lighter side of his “shenanigans,” which is how they’re being discussed here.

39

Jeffrey Davis 07.03.12 at 2:58 pm

Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?

40

bgn 07.03.12 at 3:22 pm

So…is there a list somewhere of musicians whose work isn’t morally compromised, and is therefore OK to enjoy? And what happens if one doesn’t like the music that made the list?

41

Tom 07.03.12 at 3:24 pm

@Salient I was taking a not-very-serious argument not-very-seriously, I hope. But, if the goal is to ensure Kelly isn’t maximally financially remunerated for his output, by any means necessary … then flooding the market with cheap pirate copies makes sense.

To be honest, though, I don’t think that is the goal. For one thing I’m not sure that depriving Kelly of some proportion of his wealth by instigating a minority boycott of his work achieves anything much. It might well have a counter-productive effect, drawing attention to him while encouraging a reactionary contingent of supporters.

But the whole notion of us sitting here on a bloody metablog discussing works of art having morally ‘damaging’ content or being compromised by histories for which their creators should be reviled requires a first, somewhat occluded inequality to hang together—the one that allows us, the arbiters, to decide what the audience can stand.

It’s characteristic of these online discussions about the ‘problems’ of popular works that dialogue occurs between those who (by mutual and happily validating agreement) see beyond the deliberately blatant flaws of the works, but about the works as experienced by a presupposed thronging audience of impressionable naïfs who can’t see so far, whether they be children or (more or less equivalently) some hypothetical mass of under-equipped adults subject to the condescension of the political class.

Dually, popular works increasingly both possess and simultaneously problematise flaws in their sensibility, titillating shamelessly on the one hand while inviting a conflicted ‘advanced’ critical reading that resounds partly with moral indignation, and partly with praise for the ‘subversive’ use of relatively generic fantasies of sex and violence.

That’s the HBO modus operandi in a nutshell: ultimately rather repellent but terribly clever pulp fiction with a literate, pre-emptive, embedded self critique which deflects and preoccupies any assault. Is there something similar to be found in the self-consciously ironic excesses of R. Kelly?

In this argument we’ve debated whether the appraised ‘body of work’ of the artist should include the artist’s own life history, which would perhaps be consistent with the commodification of celebrity, especially when it comes to pop music, especially when these artists’ histories and public lives are the essential component of their success. I started off arguing it shouldn’t be included, but on reflection, it sometimes has to be in the case of pop music, when you’ve got people like Morrissey knocking about.

@Orange Yeah, aware of it, but not painfully so—that being the nature of privilege, unfortunately. You’re absolutely right, of course, and that’s sort of what I meant when I raised the sordidly unpleasant nature of the Byronic artist myth, and alluded to the way it propagates misogyny.

42

rea 07.03.12 at 3:52 pm

Is there a statute of limitations on all this? If Anna Magdalena turned out to be 16 rather than 20 when she married the middle-aged Bach, would that alter our opinion of his music? Can we like Schubert without endorsing whatever conduct caused him to die of teritiary syphillis? Do we need to see proof of age of Tchaikovsky’s sex partners in order to decided whether the 6th Symphony is meritorious?

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js. 07.03.12 at 4:38 pm

All I’m going to say is: Trapped in the Closet

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Steven 07.03.12 at 4:39 pm

“Policing against blacks committing statutory rape should go on “with abandon” while those charged with policing whites should just “make a better effort”? I think your racism is showing, friend.”

Yes, of course, because I am against giving black rapists a pass out of a due process argument, I am a racist.

I am simply saying that everyone should be arrested for committing rape against people who are meaningfully too young to consent, and it is wrong to say we should do less of it overall until we can do it more equitably across races.

Why? Because doing so would fail to take seriously the needs, rights and concerns of the victims who are raped by black men, because of the arbitrary reason of the race of their predator. These victims are most often young women of color, and they deserve to see their predators held accountable for what was done to them, especially in a society that falls short in addressing their needs in so many other ways.

In fact, to the extent that they are disproportionately women of color, we might want to say that they deserve special attention due to their disadvantaged status. To say we will give their victimizers a pass until we can rope more whites into the equation says to me that weare letting a particular conception of procedural justice trump the substantive requirement to take the needs of black rape victims seriously.

“To be honest, though, I don’t think that is the goal. For one thing I’m not sure that depriving Kelly of some proportion of his wealth by instigating a minority boycott of his work achieves anything much.”

This misses the point. It is that you shouldn’t let certain things into your life, such as the art of a mysogenistic child rapist. To the extent that you do, you have dirtied your hands over something as common as a pop song.

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rea 07.03.12 at 4:46 pm

you shouldn’t let certain things into your life, such as the art of a mysogenistic child rapist.

So you ARE going to withhold judgment on Tchaikovsky’s music, until historians sort out the exact nature of his relationships with all those 15-year-old boys?

46

Uncle Kvetch 07.03.12 at 5:02 pm

47

P O'Neill 07.03.12 at 5:10 pm

Less morally troubling but disconcerting nonetheless is the Kanye-Kim situation. Something ain’t right there.

48

QS 07.03.12 at 6:17 pm

Are you kidding? The genius behind Trapped in the Closet and “Real Talk” has transcended morality.

49

lemmy caution 07.03.12 at 6:22 pm

R. Kelly’s Ignition (remix) is my favorite Karaoke song. It is surprisingly easy to sing with lots of fun lines.

Some poor bastard tried to sing “life on mars” at karaoke last time. That is a surprisingly difficult song to sing. It is Anthony Newley-esque to the point that Barbara Streisand has good version of the song:

http://www.songstube.net/video.php?title=Life%20On%20Mars&artist=Barbra%20Streisand&id=212652&artistid=16242

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QS 07.03.12 at 6:23 pm

As he says at 1:03, it’s not about “who’s right and who’s wrong, but what’s right and what’s wrong — real talk”.

51

Steven 07.03.12 at 6:57 pm

Who is Tchaikovsky? Is he hip-hop, house, industrial? Can you send me a link to his videos?

I have to say, and some smart person here can put a finer point on it, there is something about whether a person is alive or dead, and how long he or she has been dead for, that makes a difference. I’m not saying this merely to defend my argument, but because I think there’s something to it.

In any case, without doing all of the explanatory work, I think Thomas Scanlon’s account of blame obtains here. I think it’s excellent. There is something to the idea of truncating your relations with blameworthy people that obtains in cases such as these. I think this problem collapses a bit when those people are dead.

52

Marc 07.03.12 at 7:40 pm

You certainly can ignore art based on the personal lives of performers. You should also accept that you’re then ignoring, and missing, a lot of great art. Edroso (over at Alicublog) and Coates (over at the Atlantic) have written a lot of thoughtful things on this front. (see him and Hilzoy at http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/06/pride-and-prejudice/239908/)

Faulkner, Nietzsche, Hemingway: who would I be hurting with a boycott? Should I reject Mark Twain because he used language that would be racist today? Can you read a fascist like Pound, or socialists like Satre? Are all of those rockers who died from drug overdoses bad examples, thus to be shunned?

For me the difference is whether the art itself celebrates something hurtful, and whether I should admire the artist themselves. The electric shock of genius is too rare for me to demand that it show me the proper papers.

53

Salient 07.03.12 at 7:51 pm

Tom–thanks, I think I get what you mean.

Steven, I don’t think you’re trolling intentionally, it seems more like you’re struggling with (or blind to) precisely what “with abandon” and “make a better effort” connote. If I’m reading correctly I’m pretty sure that you think

everyone should be arrested for committing rape against people who are meaningfully too young to consent

is communicating the same thing as

Let’s say our society goes after the sins of its darker skinned members more frequently than it does those of the lighter ones. Does that mean it should stop doing so? No, it should continue to [go after the sins of nonwhites] with the same abandon, and also make a better effort of policing the whites as well.

…in my ear those are ‘obviously’ saying two completely different things. Consider though, while “let’s go smoke some endo” and “let’s go smoke some chronic” are ‘obviously’ saying two completely different things, but I can understand and sympathize with thinking too broadly, enough to conflate the two and get frustrated. “What do you mean those are saying totally different things?! They both say, let’s smoke marijuana! What do you mean those are saying totally different things?! They both say, let’s not deliberately abandon/neglect any child rape investigations or deliberately ignore/dismiss any child rape accusations!”

Rest assured, Steven, nobody’s proposing that the police should deliberately abandon/neglect any child rape investigations or deliberately ignore/dismiss any child rape accusations. None of that whatsoever. If you don’t see how that’s not what Belle said at any point here, I dunno how to help further clarify; the best I can do is something like, you’re interpreting a statement about a second-order phenomenon as being about a corresponding first-order phenomenon.

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Steven 07.03.12 at 8:14 pm

Salient- agreed. Thank you.

55

Kosimba 07.03.12 at 8:35 pm

Holey moley. A lot of people putting an expensive education to profitable use on this thread. Hows about you enjoy the song if you like it and quit worrying – it seem to me like a great tub of shite but then I don’t have the benefit of a classical education…

56

Anonymous37 07.03.12 at 8:36 pm

I should note that R. Kelly went to the same high school as I did (Kenwood Academy, home of the mighty Broncos, always working on a victory but never winning State, except for that one time the chess team did it). I’m not noting it because it has anything to do with this conversation, but because this one fact made me feel much better about my life.

Back when I was in graduate school in physics, I quickly came to the realization that I would never end up winning the Nobel prize. I realize this is an eyeroll-inducing statement, but people who were students at the same time as me ended up winning the MacArthur Genius Grant and may end up winning the Nobel yet, so it wasn’t completely ridiculous to think I had an outside shot.

Then at some point I realized that even if I did win the Nobel prize in physics, I would still not be the most famous person who went to Kenwood, because for the most part (Steve Chu being an exception), physics laureates aren’t that well known even months after they win the prize. It would still be R. Kelly.

And now I feel a lot better about myself. Thank you, R. Kelly. And thank you, Belle Waring, for this post. I look forward to more Crooked Timber content which will allow me to talk about my favorite subject: me. Me me me me me me me me me.

57

Igor Belanov 07.03.12 at 8:38 pm

Of course it is morally wrong to like R Kelly’s music.

Not because of anything he might have done in his private life though.

58

Anonymous37 07.03.12 at 8:41 pm

(Sorry — just read the comments policy about providing a real, working e-mail address. I did not do so in my previous comment, but am doing so here for the reference of the CT site owners/operators.)

59

rf 07.03.12 at 8:44 pm

“it seem to me like a great tub of shite”

I’m surprised it took over 50 comments for someone to point this out

60

nick 07.03.12 at 8:52 pm

I can’t bother to read the whole thread, but–

if “Ignition (Remix)” is morally wrong, I don’t wanna be right.

61

lemmy caution 07.03.12 at 9:46 pm

62

bianca steele 07.04.12 at 1:20 am

Belle, Have you seen An Education? Not quite Mandy level but I was shocked.

I don’t think it’s a big secret what R. Kelly’s songs are like. I would find it hard to go back to an artist who’d, for example, presented a novel about child rape as if he identified with the victim, even as if it was based on his own victimization, and it turned out (after the statute of limitations had run out) that he had been the rapist. I might also start looking, in the same case, for descriptions of the circumstances of the rape that made them sound like a good thing.

63

Bruce Baugh 07.04.12 at 2:09 am

Marc: Well, duh. The basic point is that there’s more good art than any of us can possibly engage with. Being willing to engage with great art by people who were personal shits means giving up the time and attention to engage with other great art, just like refusing to learn more languages means giving up things, learning more about modern than classical history means giving up things, and on and on. It’s not like if only some of us were willing to spend more time on the work of shits, then we’d Get It All and our joy would be complete. Everybody makes necessary tradeoffs.

Likewise with the argument that, well, these particular shits are crucial to the canon of whatever field it is. But canons aren’t objective. They change over time, and not just for aesthetic reasons. We make judgements about what’s important, and sometimes share them with each other; some catch on, others remain minority or individual tastes. It’s good to know where consensuses lie at any given moment, but they’re never a last word that all must heed.

64

MPAVictoria 07.04.12 at 2:26 am

People are flawed. Enjoy their music or not. I refuse to eat at a local Indian restaurant that I used to enjoy because he put up a number of signs endorsing the local conservative candidate. The thought that some of my money might end up going to those bastards was too much for me to stomach. Is this rational? Of course not! Probably a number of places I shop give money to conservative causes. So what? Be irrational sometimes if it makes you feel good.

65

Belle Waring 07.04.12 at 2:48 am

I think the problem with looking past the flawed artist to the art in this case is that the music is, if not a load of shite, not an anthem for the ages either. Should you suppress your moral and quite natural squeamishness to listen to a silly song that isn’t the greatest thing ever?

Also, I’m not sure if he had committed statutory rape with a lot of white teens that we would, in fact, be much more angry. People are just sexist like that. But it’s true that crimes against young black girls run into a lot of hyper-sexualization of WoC, like “they mature so fast” and a bunch of bullshit along those lines.

66

Belle Waring 07.04.12 at 2:50 am

Yay I got a comment that’s a power of 2! Good luck for me! I’m superstitious, you know. Really. You can’t take salt out of the air (you have to set the salt down when passing it at the table so you don’t give horrible bad luck to your recipient.) No hats on the bed, especially not if the bed is bade, then your just doomed. Lots more besides. And lucky numbers.

67

Tom 07.04.12 at 6:32 am

I think I’ve worked out one thing that bothers me about the idea that we should avert our eyes, or our wallets, even from good, beautiful art if it was made by bad people.

It’s the dubious idea that we have an ability in the sphere of the personal-political where we can meaningfully and explicitly deny our endorsement and our economic output to each and every ‘bad’ actor we please.

It reminds me of personal carbon footprint neurosis. Sure, cycle to work, and you’ll reduce emissions from your car. But spend the money you save, and the recipient of those savings might well blow them on a gas-guzzling 4WD or an international air flight.

Meanwhile, precisely none of these choices have much relevance next to the structural dependence of the sectors of the economy outside of private life on fossil fuels, about which you do nothing.

So often, the opportunity cost of pursuing the personal-political generally outweighs any real benefit. You know, so you didn’t buy an R. Kelly record or download! Take that, misogyny of R&B culture! Better off enjoying the music, but writing essays decrying the culture and trying to transform it.

68

Tom 07.04.12 at 6:34 am

Which is basically MPAVictoria’s point put more long-windedly.

69

Kevin 07.04.12 at 7:58 am

You can all dress it up and rationalise it away as much as you want, but your instincts, the animal spirits, will always be operating underneath all the overthinking and they will lead you to feel and think of certain things and actions and people in certain ways that you may not consciously want.

70

ajay 07.04.12 at 8:39 am

Yay I got a comment that’s a power of 2!

Indeed, 65 is 2 raised to the 6.022367813rd power.

71

rf 07.04.12 at 8:42 am

“Yay I got a comment that’s a power of 2! Good luck for me!”

Oh Igor Belanov, what have you done?

72

Barry Freed 07.04.12 at 1:23 pm

Oh Igor Belanov, what have you done?

?

73

rf 07.04.12 at 2:13 pm

Barry Freed
It was Igor Belanov’s stuck in moderation post that knocked Belle from lucky 64. It sounded better when I was half asleep. I’ll get my coat

74

Belle Waring 07.05.12 at 3:53 am

Arrgh! It said I got 64 with my comment that is now 65! [pouts]

75

maus 07.05.12 at 7:38 pm

Or Steven Tyler becoming the legal guardian of his underage girlfriend

Sure you’re not thinking of Ted Nugent?

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maus 07.05.12 at 7:46 pm

Holey moley. A lot of people putting an expensive education to profitable use on this thread. Hows about you enjoy the song if you like it and quit worrying – it seem to me like a great tub of shite but then I don’t have the benefit of a classical education…

Some people ponder things because it gives them pleasure, not pain to do so. Crazy, I know.

77

ajay 07.06.12 at 4:27 pm

Steven Tyler never became the legal guardian of Ted Nugent.

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