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Viewpoint: The Best Defense …

5 minute read
Josh Tyrangiel

Most of what you need to know about R. Kelly’s music can be learned from his 1995 hit You Remind Me of Something: “You remind me of my Jeep, I wanna ride it/ Something like my sound, I wanna pump it/ Girl you look just like my cars, I wanna wax it.” Kelly likes cars. Kelly likes sex. Kelly likes writing stupefyingly obvious metaphors in which cars stand in for sex. Even people with no understanding of pop music can grasp Kelly’s commercial appeal.

The standard R. Kelly song creates the impression that he’s just a horny guy with a smooth voice and a full garage, but real life is more complicated. Kelly, 38, is currently under indictment in Illinois for 14 counts of child pornography after he allegedly videotaped himself engaging in wildly inappropriate behavior with his 14-year-old goddaughter. You might think the stigma of such charges would have an effect on Kelly’s 10-year reign as R&B’s most beloved entendrist. You’d be wrong. His new album, TP.3 Reloaded, entered Billboard’s album chart at No. 1 last week, selling a robust 491,000 copies and earning mixed, but not outraged, reviews. Other famous people–Bill Clinton, Kobe Bryant–have remained popular while dealing with sex scandals, but their entanglements were with adults and their professions did not provide a constant reminder of the acts they were accused of committing.

By contrast, Kelly’s career is built on a mattress. Even if his new album, with such songs as Sex Weed and (Sex) Love Is What We Makin’, survives the taint of creepiness–and it’s a credit to his skills as a hitmaker that it almost does–the prosecution’s key piece of evidence is available to anyone with an Internet connection. It’s an explicit 26-minute video (widely believed to be one of the most bootlegged in history) called R. Kelly Exposed. Once you’ve seen the visuals–their authenticity is questioned by Kelly’s lawyer, though the action takes place in a wood-paneled room that strongly resembles one in Kelly’s house–it’s difficult to listen to a Kelly song without feeling as if you ought to register at the local precinct.

So why is Kelly’s career still flourishing? The long-held wisdom is that Americans will forgive any act that’s followed by a sincere public apology, but since his brief 1994 marriage to then 15-year-old protégé Aaliyah (her furious parents eventually obtained an annulment), Kelly’s lawyers have vetoed any show of contrition. Instead, he has pursued a strategy that is one of the most confounding–and contagious–developments in public life: aggressive shamelessness. It begins with silence in the face of outrage, then blooms into anger (usually at the media), followed by the defiant continuation of the very practice that sparked outrage in the first place. (Kelly may not be abusing minors, but at least in his music he has never been more overtly sexual.) That three-step rumba allows a person to assert his victimhood and exceptionalism simultaneously, eliciting sympathy from the faithful and grudging admiration–for hanging in there, for sticking to his guns–from the skeptical. If you think it doesn’t work, ask Tom DeLay (still in Congress amid an ethics scandal), Bill O’Reilly (still on the air after a scandal involving phone sex and a loofah) or Barry Bonds (who will be welcomed back by the San Francisco Giants as soon as his knee is better, despite the steroid scandal).

Michael Jackson and his withering career prospects are the notable exception, and while you could argue that the principal difference between Jackson’s case and Kelly’s is the difference between how our society views the sexuality of 13-year-old boys and of 14-year-old girls, it’s really about audacity. The shroud of Neverland has always made Jackson’s behavior seem deviant, even if it wasn’t illegal. But Kelly goes about his business as if the world were an extension of his satin sheets. He tours, makes videos, writes songs in which he announces, “I want sex in the kitchen, over by the stove/ Put you on the counter, by the buttered rolls,” and on his undeniably good Step in the Name of Love (Remix) even proclaims himself “the Pied Piper of R&B.” It’s possible that Kelly doesn’t know the pedophiliac connotations of the reference (in the fable, the piper leads the town’s children into a secret mountain cave as revenge for getting stiffed on the exterminator bill), but one surmises he wouldn’t stop singing it if he did.

Over the years, music fans have often suspended judgment in return for a few hummable bars, and generally rock stars have had the decency not to push their luck by reminding us of what we’re indulging. (Chuck Berry sang Sweet Little Sixteen well before his problems with an underage girl.) R. Kelly is playing a different, more dangerous game. His shamelessness is something to behold, but indulging it comes at a cost: it’s called shame.

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