Pop Culture Monday--Why Terrible People Sometimes Make Great Artists

About a week ago, Kanye West gave an interview to GQ magazine, where he weighed in on a number of topics.  As is often the case with 'Ye, he said a number of insane and ludicrous things.  I was particularly struck this quote, in which he discusses the content of a 45 minute toast he made to himself at his wedding to Kim Kardashian recently:

And what I talked about in it was the idea of celebrity, and celebrities being treated like blacks were in the '60s, having no rights, and the fact that people can slander your name. I said that in the toast. And I had to say this in a position where I, from the art world, am marrying Kim. And how we're going to fight to raise the respect level for celebrities so that my daughter can live a more normal life. She didn't choose to be a celebrity. But she is. So I'm going to fight to make sure she has a better life.

The notion that "celebrities" are some sort of persecuted minority in society, and that he is planning to be the MLK for this group, is laughable and offensive on at least ten different levels.  Kanye West gives all indications of being an egomaniac to an almost unfathomable degree.  Earlier in the piece, he was asked to respond to an article in Page Six of the New York Post that said there were gold toilets at the wedding, and his first response was "[f]or the person that wrote that, were they involved with anything last year that was as culturally significant as the Yeezus tour or that album?"  I mean, the Beatles were "culturally significant"; you would have to define down "cultural significance" pretty far to conclude that Yeezus was "cultural significant."  And what does that have to do with gold toilets?

But, here's the problem--I really like Kanye's music.  Really like it.  I own a copy of Yeezus, along with four other Kanye albums (plus the Kanye/Jay Z collaberation Watch the Throne).  The fact that Kanye is a ridiculous egomaniac does not reduce my enjoyment of his music.  In fact, it actually enhances it, because Kanye says things that I would never even think to say. For example, take this lyric from the track "I am a God" on Yeezus:

I just talked to Jesus
He said "what up Yeezus?"
I said "Shit I'm chillin',
Tryna stack these millions."
I know He the Most High
But I am a close high. . . .

I love the last two lines.  "Sure, I'm not as great as Jesus. . . I'm just the closest thing to Jesus you are going to find."  That's humility in the world of Kanye.  Living vicariously through Kanye's narcissism is part of the fun of listening to Kanye, at least for me.  If he had a reasonable understanding of his own place in the world, he would be 100 times less interesting.

While at times I have gotten some push-back for being a Kanye fan, I have no problem standing up for my love of Kanye.  But there is another artist that I also really, really like that I am very queasy about defending.

I really like late 60s/70s R&B music--Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, etc.  R. Kelly seems to me to be the clear successor to those guys.  Obviously, he writes songs about sex and love, but he also writes these beautiful (if over the top) uplifting songs.  Don't try to pretend you didn't like "I Believe I Can Fly."  He also writes Gospel songs that are really good.  Check this out:

And then there is Trapped in the Closet.  If you really sit down and watch it, it is actually brilliant, and probably the most innovative musical thing that has been done in the 21st Century so far.

All of that, however, is the icing on the cake for me.  Listening to R Kelly's music is even more of a vicarious thrill for me than Kanye's music, because R Kelly says things to the ladies that I wish I could bring myself to say.  Of course, some of it is completely over-the-top, but R Kelly doesn't care.  He is going to try to woo these women by hook or by crook, heedless of the consequences.  I am the opposite--I am often far too hesitant to give it a chance.  I'm afraid to look ridiculous or foolish with regard to women.  R Kelly apparently has none of those concerns.  Unlike with Kanye, who I find entertaining and amusing, there is a real part of me that wishes I were more like R Kelly.  R Kelly is truly the music of wish fulfillment for me.

And that, right there, is the problem, because R Kelly's actual track record with women is deeply problematic.  In particular, R Kelly seems to like women who are really, really young.  There appear to be credible allegations he married R&R singer Aaliyah when she was 15.  And then there was the famous trial involving charges he made a pornographic video with a 14 year old.  And these were, apparently, not the only incidents.

There are enough of these stories to be pretty confident that some of them are true even if this or that particular one is exaggerated or fabricated.  Which means that when I am engaging in wish fulfillment with regard to adult women, there is a real chance R Kelly is talking about 14-year-olds.  That thought is profoundly unsettling to me.

You can make the case that a piece of art is a thing that has an independent existence, and so you can relate to it in a way that is independent from the creator's intent, or anything about the creator, really.  That's an art theory issue that I am not competent to weigh into.  All I can say is that, on a gut level, that feels like a cop-out.  Or at least, it feels like a cop-out at a certain point.  I am fully on board with ignoring Kanye's narcissism, but I have a hard time when it comes to R Kelly.  I think part of it, as discussed in the interview with the Chicago Sun-Times reporter that did the heavy lifting on the R Kelly charges, is that the alleged crimes he committed relate directly to the things he is singing about.  If you are diving deep into the things he is singing about, then it feels like you are diving deep into his crimes as well.  It feels like you are complicit.

I don't have answers to any of this.  I like R Kelly's music and I feel somewhere between a little and very guilty about that, depending on the day.  The wish fulfillment R Kelly provides makes me feel more than a little dirty.  Maybe I need to stop with the wish fulfillment.


Clayton Bigsby said…

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