Robert Kelly is really not worth it.
A series of recent R. Kelly articles and commentaries, reminding us that the R&B star has a sordid and heavily documented past, have littered my Facebook feed for the past several days, and I have to say stop.
Let me begin by saying that I respect a principled personal stance on this, or any, issue. Some people very close to me and a great many others for whom I have a great deal of respect refuse to buy Kelly’s music or even listen to it on the radio. I respect that choice, and it’s a good sight better than the apologists who want to rationalize all of the claims against Kelly (same as some did with Bill Cosby, who was on my jerk radar a couple of decades before his career imploded this year).
The issue arises when people, without properly considering the implications, tell those of us who don’t share their indignation that we are ourselves apologists, that we are an active part of the social problems evidenced by his relatively unscathed position in the music world, that we are crazy for even liking Kelly’s music in the first place.
To those people, I would offer the following laundry list of reasons I regard you askance:
- R. Kelly has sold over 90% of the records he is ever going to sell. He’s had roughly 100% of the #1 hits he’s ever going to have. He’s closing in on 50 years old. If you wanted to put a dent in his career and hit him in his pocket book, that ship has sailed.
- Kelly was never a moral compass or any sort of serious role model. This is the distinction I make between him and Bill Cosby, who has always maintained at least an implicit soapbox and moral high ground in his work. If you were buying Kelly’s music back before you were convinced that he was evil incarnate, it was very likely not because you admired his moral grounding. That’s on you.
- There is a special place in hell for sex offenders, or so our Western morals would have us believe. What this really means is that there is a double standard for sex crimes, and Americans are nothing if not rabid about proving how much more outraged they are than the next guy about sexual abuse. This to me is a direct result of our collective puritanical guilt about sex in general. This is the reason Law & Order: SVU has been on the air for centuries. We hate our sexual natures, and we take it out on the easiest targets: those who transgress sexually. This is for sure a separate post, so I will stop this part of my argument here. Takeaway: double standard for the dirt Robert has (I have to say allegedly) done. He literally could have shot one of the minors and there would have been less outrage in some quarters.
- Don’t get me wrong. I am disturbed by the infamous video (which I’ve never seen in full, but have had described in sufficient detail) and the damning anecdotal evidence that has been presented. It isn’t pretty, and it clearly paints Kelly as a predator. However, if we’re picking apart the lives of entertainers who have scarred and ruined the lives of children, how do Kelly’s actions compare to the unrepentant hard-drug dealers who have gone on to make music where they look back longingly on those hard-scrabble days of selling controlled substances to whomever would buy them, addicting kids, mothers, and fathers, ruining families and destroying livelihoods?
- But wait, it goes even further. We imbue our record-buying with a degree of social activism that we would never dream of devoting to any other consumer decision. Do you know how many sex offenders get a kickback every time you buy a box of Betty Crocker cake mix? Literally every objectionable person who has a 401k plan, IRA, or invests in ETFs or mutual funds gets money from you every single day.
- The average American spends 5% of his income on entertainment, so even if you skip every R. Kelly concert, refuse to watch any Fox channels, and boycott Woody Allen movies, that still leaves 95% of your spending unregulated, with profits flowing to all sorts of faceless people who are responsible for God-knows-what atrocities.
- But, you may say, at least I can clearly identify the R. Kelly brand and act accordingly, keeping money out of his pocket and no one else’s. Um, not really. I don’t know the details of any of his concert or record deals, but what if it turned out that of the $9.99 you spent on the download of his album, $8.50 went into the pockets of decent, hardworking support staff, studio musicians, and the like, whereas $2.50 of the three bucks you spent on that cake mix lined the pocket of unscrupulous corporate executives and their affiliated equity groups and lobbyists? Sounds to me like you have some groceries to investigate.
- The most irksome argument (if not the most serious) is attempting to diminish the quality of Kelly’s work in the process. This is problematic because it’s blatantly hypocritical. The only reason anyone even cares about what he did this many years later is because Kelly is a musical icon. The general thesis I’ve gathered around this witch hunt is that we shouldn’t be talking about Kelly the Gifted Musician because it’s more important that he’s a horrible person. But some folks, clearly not satisfied with making sure everyone knows how morally reprehensible he is, also want to double-down and talk about the poor quality of his music. If the quality of his musical legacy is not the issue, stop talking about it.
The annals of history are littered with noteworthy figures who were poor human beings. This isn’t good or bad. It simply is. We will probably have just as much luck erasing R. Kelly from entertainment history as we have had erasing Jerry Lee Lewis, Woody Allen, or even Bill Cosby. Our only hope at this point is to stop R. Kelly from selling those last few concert seats and downloads. If you feel like this is a worthy goal, while millions of children who have never met R. Kelly are endangered right now, then go for it.
I say it’s really not worth it.
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