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Dawn Turner Trice, reflecting on the R. Kelly scandal, orders up stock column #432--"explicit lyrics are harming our children and contributing to the downfall of Western culture"--and throws down against Roland Barthes.
"My colleague and I were lamenting the legion of fans who know the 40-year-old Kelly is awaiting trial on child pornography charges and believe he's guilty but don't (emphasis on 'don't') care."
I suppose one could argue that buying R. Kelly albums somehow allows him to fund his pedophilia/urination habits, or at least allows better legal protection for them, but if we're going to start throwing out art because the artists are terrible people, we're gonna need a big garbage can.
Jerry Lee Lewis--gone. Gary Glitter, although it's not a big loss. David Bowie and Jimmy Page. Chuck Berry--not a guy you'd want your daughter to date. And of course Elvis, who definitely liked teen girls but may not have actually been a pedophile.
If anything, we seem to be in a fallow time for music scandals. Famous people are still doing dumb shit, but it's really pretty pedestrian. DUIs? Bad parenting? This is the stuff of our idiot neighbors. Perhaps our stars are better at keeping their secrets, or maybe they're more careful now that cell-phone cams and gossip rags make it harder to keep anything secret. The R. Kelly affair is a throwback to a seamier time. "Shrinking just as fast is our capacity to be shocked by the antics of celebrities"? No, we're just rusty.
I think the Elvis comparison is most appropriate--despite Kool Keith's claims to the contrary, R. Kelly is the closest thing our generation has to the King. Like Elvis's, R. Kelly's music runs the entire spectrum of American popular music, from rugged street music to spirituals to total pop cheese to campy, opaquely ironic musicals. No similarly gifted artist since the King has had such an allergy to artistic discretion and taste. R. might have street cred to defend, but that didn't stop him from doing a duet with Celine Dion, whose music goes beyond white into translucent and who definitely would have performed with Elvis if he'd lived long enough. The song after that on R.? A duet with Nas. R. Kelly does not care. R. Kelly sings America.
I get my dander up when fatuous columnists start dismissing artists based on their private lives. First of all, it's easy, reducing something quite complicated into a set of factoids that can be checked off against the legal code. Second, I hate living in fear that some artist whose work I love and whose personal life I could generally care less about will turn out to be a raving pervert. If Stephen Malkmus gets busted for shoplifting porno mags, do I have to toss all my Pavement CDs? If it turns out that John Adams likes to stage bum fights, can I still in good conscience go see Doctor Atomic? What if they redeem themselves, like Al Green or Johnny Cash?
That's what's going to happen with R. Kelly, if I had to guess. You can hear it in the music. I predict his first gospel record comes out a year after he gets paroled, and it'll be a smashing success. Whether or not it'd be honest or not is something I'd feel presumptuous even asking.