The Kelly Conversations: Gen Y music critics Simon Vozick-Levinson and David Greenwald

‘Young people aren’t aware of the depth of the story’

July 16, 2013

Does R. Kelly’s music mean something different to younger music critics and self-proclaimed “pop omnivores?” How do they balance discussion of his art and his actions? And why do they think their peers in the Pitchfork audience have embraced this musician?

Simon Vozick-Levinson is an associate editor at Rolling Stone whose work also has appeared in Entertainment Weekly and The Boston Phoenix. In March, he participated in a panel discussion at South by Southwest on the state of pop fandom entitled “Guiltless Pleasures: Imagining a Post-Snob World.”

David Greenwald led that panel. He is a contributing editor for Billboard.com who also has been published in The Atlantic, GQ, and The Los Angeles Times, and he is the founder of the new music magazine UNCOOL.

Here are some of the highlights of the interview with Greenwald and Vozick-Levinson:

(Both reference the Pitchfork Music Festival’s earlier booking of Odd Future during the interview; here is a link to the long interview I did with Pitchfork’s top executives about that in 2011.)

Greenwald: [On Kelly playing Pitchfork] I think there’s a lot going on where someone like R. Kelly, who’s been in the business long enough, can look and see this is the trend, this is where the new audiences are, and go after that.

Vozick-Levinson: I think most young people are definitely aware of the controversy on some level. There’s the [Dave] Chappelle skit… But I think you’re right that for a lot of people it’s just sort of a joke or a punch line and a lot of young people aren’t aware of the depth of the story.

Vozick-Levinson: The things that R. Kelly has been accused of are pretty horrific. There’s this added layer of complexity where the allegations themselves are incredibly disturbing and something that should really give any fan pause. At the same time, he did stand trial and was acquitted. That doesn’t excuse it or mean that those things didn’t happen necessarily, but it makes it a more complicated question. But sure, it should definitely matter. It’s obviously important to separate the work from the artist who creates it, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be considering both things. They’re both important things.

Greenwald: You can’t be super-informed on every single thing you support. But certainly whenever you open your wallet and spend money on something you are making a political choice on some level. And if you’re choosing to support the music of R. Kelly, you should be aware that this is [his] history, these are the actions he’s accused of, and that is true for any artist.

Greenwald: One thing we saw at Pitchfork last year [in 2011] with the protest against Odd Future being booked—and Odd Future is a group who had not actually gone out and done any of these things, they were just rapping about them—but I think having those protestors there sparks a conversation and Pitchfork had to respond to it, and then it just became something that people were aware of. One thing that can be done is creating the conversation and having it humming through Twitter and Tumblr and all of these outlets and having people be aware that these are the stakes of having this happen.

Vozick-Levinson: I think this is an example where knowledge of the artist’s actual life can give us a sort of deeper and more nuanced understanding of the work. It’s easy to listen to something like “Sex in the Kitchen” and think it’s a cartoon, but it’s not, there’s actually a darker subtext to it, and I think it’s worth exploring that. And I think it actually makes the work more interesting, not less.

Ahead of R. Kelly headlining Pitchfork Music Festival, WBEZ’s Jim DeRogatis conducts a series of conversations with smart, passionate cultural critics. Videos have been edited for length and clarity.