How do rock critics balance the discussion of R. Kelly’s music with that of his actions? What is the perspective of critics who’ve followed him from his earliest days as a solo artist, through his rise to the most important voice in R&B of his generation, and from his trial on charges of making child pornography, through his embrace by a largely white audience of independent rock fans?
Lorraine Ali is the pop music editor of The Los Angeles Times. She also has worked as a critic and journalist at Newsweek, and has freelanced for Mademoiselle, GQ, The New York Times, and other publications. She has covered Kelly throughout his career.
Bill Wyman wrote about Kelly early in his tenure as the rock critic for The Chicago Reader. He is the former arts editor of Salon.com and National Public Radio, and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and New York magazine. His essay on Michael Jackson and “the ick factor” appeared in The New Yorker last December, and he blogs at hitsville.net.
Here are some of the highlights of the interview with Ali and Wyman:
Ali: What’s interesting is that idea of when people are discussing him, especially when other critics are writing about him, of not just forgetting this, but just not even mentioning it. Any time Chris Brown comes up, the first line is, “The guy who beat Rhianna.” Somehow, R. Kelly has gotten this pass. And not only has he gotten this pass, he’s actually become more famous for it.
Ali: There’s something fundamentally wrong with that kind of hipster idea that we’re gonna give this guy a pass, and not only are we gonna give him a pass, there’s gonna be some kind of fun inside joke about it. I find that incredibly offensive also as a woman. Because what we’re talking about with R. Kelly was largely perpetrated against women, and somehow, that seems to be less offensive to the hipster crowd and to others than other things. I don’t understand why this isn’t taken more seriously, what he’s done in his past.
Wyman: It has nothing to do with him, though, frankly. It has to do with Pitchfork. It’s outrageous for Pitchfork to have someone like that who’s created such crimes in Chicago against young Chicago people. What if he’d been raping underage hipster guys with wispy beards? Would they be upset about that?
Wyman: I have a theory I call “the ick factor.” Some people are so gross, and they do things that are so gross, that you just can’t repeat [them]. I’m reluctant even now to say what was on that video. You don’t want to bum everyone out.
Ali: If you were to walk up to any of the people on the field at Coachella or Pitchfork and say, ‘I want you to name three R. Kelly songs,’ could they actually do it? Are they really there for the music, or are they there for the spectacle that is R. Kelly? If it’s the spectacle that is R. Kelly, that’s repulsive, because he is a spectacle for this very disgusting reason. If it’s the music, it’s sort of another thing. As a music writer, do I have a moral obligation to bring this up when I write about him? No. But as a good journalist, as a reporter, as somebody who needs to tell the whole story and that’s what your job is, I think it’s a given that that needs to be in whatever you’re writing about him, because it’s part of the story, it’s part of what’s made him who he is today, it’s part of his public persona, and it’s in his music.
Wyman: If the audience don’t know who he is, if he was introduced as a guy who’s done this, and he’s done this, and there was another 13-year-old girl who said this and this—you recite his actual greatest hits, if you introduced him that way—I don’t think people would enjoy the show.
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.