the trouble with lady gaga’s r. kelly statement
Following the release of 'Surviving R Kelly', she has finally addressed their 2014 collaboration. But is it too little, too late?
Image courtesy of Instagram
Lady Gaga is not perfect. In fact, if there’s one thing that the singer has attempted to do over the last three years with the release of Joanne and A Star is Born, it’s to deconstruct her popstar aura and remind us that underneath the Philip Treacy hats, disco sticks and bonkers music videos is a vulnerable, flawed and real human being. Lady Gaga wants the world to know that she’s fallible, just like the rest of us.
It’s this mentality that’s perhaps enabled her to finally speak out against the singer R Kelly for the first time since the pair worked together in 2013. In the wake of the recent Lifetime documentary series Surviving R Kelly, which laid out the predatory behaviour and numerous allegations of mistreatment and sexual abuse against women and young girls by Kelly -- including stories of his alleged “sex cult”, as originally reported by Buzzfeed News in 2017 -- Gaga shared a statement on Instagram Stories (an odd choice) and Twitter on 10 January where she apologised for not speaking out earlier.
Admitting her “poor judgement” over choosing to collaborate with Kelly on her song Do What U Want, taken from her album Artpop, Gaga said that the song came about during “a dark time” in her life.
"My intention was to create something extremely defiant and provocative because I was angry and still hadn't processed the trauma that had occurred in my own life," she wrote, explaining that as a victim of sexual assault herself she stood "behind these women 1000%, believe them, know they are suffering and in pain, and feel strongly that their voices should be heard and taken seriously". Gaga then promised to remove Do What U Want from iTunes and all streaming services.
Despite appearing at an opportune moment following the airing of Surviving R Kelly and after the documentary’s series producer Dream Hampton said she wished that she had spoken to Gaga about her decision to work with Kelly, Gaga speaking out against alleged abusers and showing solidarity with survivors can only be a good thing.
Nevertheless, Do What U Want -- both the song and the video -- and Gaga’s work with R Kelly and photographer Terry Richardson still remains murky, leaving a sour taste and two unanswered questions: how did it ever get to this stage and why did it take so long?
As Lady Gaga explained in her statement, 2013 wasn’t her best year. After rising to the top during her Bad Romance imperial phase, she was forced to cut short her Born This Way Ball world tour due to injury. Work on her third album continued, but the result was a mixed bag commercially and failed to reach the peaks of her two previous albums. This was also punctuated by Gaga’s decision to fire her long-time manager Troy Carter just days before the album’s release.
Then there was the backlash. It’s a symptom of “celebrity” that with great success comes even greater scrutiny, and in 2013 Lady Gaga was facing an army of naysayers, Madonna fans still calling her “reductive”, and Gagaian fatigue. “Every career has its moments, and they build you up to tear you down,” she said to The Star at the time. “What type of artist would I be if I let that affect what I’m putting out and what I’m creating?”
Still, despite this resolute attitude, Artpop felt… off. Among a bizarre, hectic and messy promotional campaign there was also an aspect of mania and, as an observer at least, desperation. The album is nowhere as bad as memes and pop music Twitter would have you believe, but it lacked the electricity that buzzed through the singer’s earlier material.
While Gaga explained that Do What U Want was a rebuttal against the media’s speculation about her weight, the song’s lyrics were ambiguous, suggesting that while her body might be dissected and abused, Gaga’s intelligent agency was her own. This theme of submission, specifically sexual submission, was intensified by Kelly’s verse as he sang: “Do what I want, do what I want with your body.”
This was made worse by two high profile performances of the song on Saturday Night Live and the American Music Awards. The latter, which is at the time of writing was still available online, saw Gaga and Kelly roleplaying as a secretary and a president engaged in an affair, including a moment where Kelly straddles Gaga on an office desk. There was even a gag about illicit photos being uploaded to the internet. It’s worth noting that by November 2013, R Kelly had already been accused of an illegal marriage in 1994 to Aaliyah when she was 15 and, by 2003, had been accused of possession of child pornography, sexual conduct with an underage girl and sexual harassment. There was also a sex tape that allegedly showed Kelly engaging in sex with an underage girl and urinating on her. R Kelly denies all allegations made against him.
What’s alarming is that during the recording of Artpop, the allegations against Kelly were public knowledge, available to anyone with access to the internet and a search engine. That the song and its lyrics made it past producers and, more shockingly, her record label is worrying. Yet, it’s become apparent that record labels have been complicit in covering up and supporting Kelly’s alleged behaviour, overlooking allegations of abuse against women -- as the continued support for the likes of XXXTentacion and 6ix9ine has shown, the bottom line is all that matters.
The fever dream of Do What U Want continues with the song’s scrapped video, which was directed by Terry Richardson. (Richardson has been accused of sexual misconduct multiple times since 2001. As of 2018, he is being investigated by the New York Police Department’s Special Victims Squad. Richardson denies all allegations made against him.) At the time, Gaga blamed her fired manager for the delay in the video’s release. ‘It is late because, just like the Applause video... I was given a week to plan and execute it. It is very devastating... All my most successful videos were planned over a period of time when I was rested and my creativity was honoured,” she wrote on her website. “Those who have betrayed me gravely mismanaged my time and health and left me on my own to damage control any problems that ensued.”
However, in 2014 clips from the video leaked online and, clearly, there’s another reason why the video was delayed and then scrapped. As the New York Post reported, the video saw Kelly playing a doctor and Gaga acting as his patient. The leaked clips showed Kelly saying that he was going to put Gaga under anaesthetic and that “when you wake up, you’re going to be pregnant”, leading one source to call the video “an ad for rape”.
In her recent statement, Gaga said that at that time she wanted to create provocative art with Do What U Want. The insinuations that she worked with Kelly on purpose are another baffling aspect of the whole situation, however there’s also her previous defence of Kelly, too. During a press conference in Japan in 2013, Gaga defended her decision to work with Kelly, saying, “R Kelly and I have, sometimes, very untrue things written about us, so in a way this was a bond between us… It was a really natural collaboration.”
Despite her insistence in January 2014 that the video for Do What U Want was still coming, by December 2013 Gaga seemed to have been distancing herself from the R Kelly version of the song. During a performance on The Voice, she teamed up with Christina Aguilera for a belt-a-thon -- and extremely superior -- rendition of the song, with the two divas later recording a version together and releasing it on New Year’s Day 2014 (R Kelly, unfortunately, still has a writing credit on that version of the song).
The Lady Gaga of 2019 knows and acknowledges that she’s flawed. It’s why her apology, while a step out of the darkness of hypocrisy, isn’t perfect. “I share this not to make excuses for myself, but to explain,” she wrote, and to that effect she did, discussing her own trauma about being sexually assaulted and admitting “how twisted my thinking was at the time”. All you have to do is cast your mind back to Artpop and its chaotic campaign to see someone in distress. However, there’s no mention of the racial aspect of Kelly’s alleged crimes, specifically that as women of colour, the survivors’ accusations have been glossed over or ignored. There’s also no responsibility taken for her small part in the music industry’s complicit protection and defence of R Kelly.
What matters, though, is that Gaga has made herself accountable for her actions and has spoken in support of the survivors of Kelly’s alleged abuse. She’s also taking a step to help cut Kelly off financially, too, by removing Do What U Want from her catalogue. These are all progressive steps in acknowledging and dismantling the power structures that maintain and prop up abusers. And with the news that since the broadcast of Surviving R Kelly the singer’s streaming numbers increased 116% in the United States, perhaps the rest of the world could learn something and follow suit. Surely in 2019 we have to #MuteRKelly for good.